Finding the site of the Battle of Baecula

Tip o’ the pileus to @PunicOctopus on twitter who alerted us (and the world) to this rather important study in Spain … from El Pais:

Año 208 aC. Los ejércitos romano y cartaginés, a las órdenes de Escipión el Africano y Asdrúbal Barca (hermano de Aníbal), están a punto de entablar batalla. Asdrúbal domina un cerro estratégico en el que se ha instalado ante la llegada de su enemigo. Las tropas de Escipión, que han acampado a unos cuatro kilómetros, atacan a los cartagineses: primero con la infantería ligera y luego con el grueso de su ejército, desplegando una maniobra de tenaza para rodear al ejército enemigo. Asdrúbal pierde el combate y huye, llevándose, eso sí, el tesoro y los elefantes. “Es la batalla de Baécula, una de las importantes de la Segunda Guerra Púnica, que enfrenta a las dos potencias del momento por el dominio del Mediterráneo, casi una guerra mundial”, apunta el arqueólogo Arturo Ruiz.

La historia, los detalles de esta batalla, la cuentan los historiadores romanos Polibio y Tito Livio. Pero, ¿dónde se libró exactamente? ¿Qué cerro era ese en el que se defendió Asdrúbal y atacó Escipión? ¿Por dónde avanzó uno y huyó el otro? Un equipo de arqueólogos de la Universidad de Jaén afirma haber descubierto el lugar del combate y encontrado el rastro de las tropas en sus movimientos sobre el terreno. Los investigadores están leyendo los vestigios directos para entender qué pasó. Lanzas, puntas de flecha y de jabalina, tachuelas de las sandalias, proyectiles de los honderos baleares que lucharon en las filas cartaginesas, broches de los ropajes, espuelas… incluso piquetas de las tiendas de acampada o los agujeros donde clavaron los de Asdrúbal la empalizada de protección, han salido a la luz en los últimos años. En total, estos arqueólogos han recuperado ya más de 6.000 objetos, dos tercios de ellos asociados al acontecimiento del 208 a C. Los ejércitos de las dos potencias, afirman, se enfrentaron en el cerro de Las Albahacas cerca de la actual localidad de Santo Tomé (Jaén), un lugar estratégico de acceso a la cuenca del Guadalquivir desde Cartago Nova (Cartagena) que Escipión había conquistado el año anterior. Asdrúbal estaba a tiro de las minas de cobre y plata de Cástulo. Una región importante para unos y para otros.

Es arqueología de una batalla, de un acontecimiento efímero, algo insólito en la tradición de unas investigaciones que suelen ocuparse de ciudades, templos, tumbas o infraestructuras que perduran durante siglos. “Hasta ahora solo se había excavado así una batalla de la antigüedad, la de Teotoburgo, en Alemania, de romanos contra los germanos, y es muy posterior, del año 9 aC.”, recalca Juan Pedro Bellón, del Instituto Universitario de Investigación en Arqueología Ibérica (Universidad de Jaén). “Hay alguna batalla excavada con una metodología similar, pero del siglo XIX, en concreto la de tropas estadounidenses contra indios en Little Big Horn, y algunos campamentos militares, pero nada más”, añade su colega Manuel Molinos. Por ejemplo, las batallas de Aníbal en Italia se sabe que fueron en Tesino, Trebia, Trasimeno y Cannas, pero no en qué sitio exactamente, dice Bellón, ni hay restos arqueológicos de ellas.

Con las detalladas descripciones de los historiadores romanos, los investigadores del Instituto de Jaén se plantearon, hace una década, encontrar los vestigios de la batalla de Baécula. “El general cartaginés recorría entonces los parajes de Cástulo, alrededor de la ciudad de Bécula, no lejos de las minas de plata. Informado de la proximidad de los romanos cambió de lugar su campamento y se procuró seguridad por un río que fluía a sus espaldas”, escribió Polibio. Y Tito Livio: “El ejército de Asdrúbal estaba cerca de la ciudad de Bécula y por la noche Asdrúbal replegó sus tropas a una altura. Por detrás había un río. La altura, que tenía una explanada en la parte más alta, por delante y por los lados ceñía todo su contorno una especie de ribazo abrupto”.

Los arqueólogos emprendieron una labor casi detectivesca para dar con el lugar de los hechos, con la ayuda de los textos clásicos y técnicas topográficas avanzadas, además de la observación directa sobre el terreno. “Schulten, en 1925, situó la batalla de Baécula al sur de Bailén, pero lo descartamos, porque la geografía no se ajustaba a las descripciones de Polibio y Tito Livio”, cuenta Arturo Ruiz, arqueólogo de la Universidad de Jaén que puso en marcha el proyecto de Baécula. También se habían propuesto otras localizaciones. Poco a poco, el equipo fue identificando posibles cerros y haciendo catas arqueológicas con detectores de metales, hasta que en el cerro de Las Albahacas empezaron a aparecer restos acordes con un enfrentamiento entre dos ejércitos. Desde 2006, realizan excavaciones en el lugar y participan en los estudios una veintena de expertos: topógrafos, numismáticos, conocedores de armamento antiguo, especialistas en paleoclima y en análisis químicos.

La investigación, financiada por el Plan Nacional de Investigación Científica, es una labor ardua y extensa. El teatro de operaciones se extiende por 400 hectáreas, aunque las prospecciones más intensas se centran en 20 hectáreas. Los arqueólogos han hecho decenas de transectos (líneas de prospección con los detectores de metales) y centenares de cuadrículas.

En el 209 a C los romanos han tomado Cartagena y, un año después entran en la zona del alto Guadalquivir, dominado por los cartagineses. Aníbal ha estado en ese territorio de importancia estratégica antes de dirigirse a Italia, recuerda Bellón. Y en la península Ibérica permanecen tres ejércitos cartagineses: dos de ellos al mando de los hermanos de Aníbal, Asdrúbal Barca y Magón Barca, y otro al mando de Asdrúbal Giscón. “La batalla de Baécula abre el control de la Bética a Roma y, en adelante, Andalucía será su almacén de aceite, trigo y minas de plata y plomo”, explica Ruiz. “Según una teoría, Escipión entra en Andalucía por Despeñaperros, pero nosotros sostenemos que lo hace por el valle del río Guadiana Menor”, apunta Bellón. Quiere evitar que Asdrúbal llegue a Italia para apoyar a su hermano Aníbal y, a la vez, evitar que se unan los otros dos ejércitos cartagineses.

La historia solo contaba con las fuentes de una de las partes en conflicto, explica Ruiz. “Y los romanos ensalzan a Escipión como gran estratega que planifica el movimiento envolvente de su ejército, que afronta la dificultad y dureza de la batalla de Baécula y que, al final, derrota a Asdrúbal”, comenta Bellón. Pero ahora los arqueólogos intentan leer directamente las pruebas para averiguar qué paso. Apenas aparecen en el cerro armas cortas, lo que indica que el enfrentamiento cuerpo a cuerpo fue limitado. Sin embargo, añade Bellón, hay muchas armas arrojadizas, como lanzas, flechas, proyectiles de los honderos baleáricos y dardos.

“Asdrúbal elige el cerro sabiendo que es un punto defensivo estratégico para defenderse y para preparar la huida”, continúa Bellón. “Los romanos establecen su campamento a unos cuatro kilómetros e, inmediatamente, fuerzan la batalla atacando a los cartagineses. Tienen desventaja teórica sobre el terreno ya que atacan cuesta arriba, pero tienen ventaja numérica”. No está claro cuántos hombres participaron en la batalla. Tito Livio habla de 70.000 (40.000 romanos y 30.000 cartagineses). Puede ser exagerado. Los arqueólogos de Jaén lo dejan en unos 15.000en total.

“Ni Polibio ni Tito Livio son contemporáneos de los hechos, y escriben basándose en la abundante documentación romana, aunque el primero, que nació en 200 a C, se considera una fuente más fidedigna porque escucharía datos de primera mano. De los cartagineses no hay testimonios porque la ciudad de Cartago fue arrasada al final de la Tercera Guerra Púnica, cuando los romanos finalmente se hicieron con el poder absoluto del Mediterráneo”, apunta Molinos.

Después de Baécula, Escipión permanece poco tiempo en el campamento del cerro que ha tomado al enemigo. Asdrúbal huye y llega a Italia, en el 207 a C. Una vez allí, envía dos emisarios a Aníbal, pero los romanos los interceptan y atacan: Asdrúbal muere en la batalla de Metauro.
El rastro de las tachuelas de sandalia

Las sandalias de los romanos, que no de los cartagineses, llevaban unos remaches de hierro en la suela de cuero, para proteger el material frente al deterioro del uso y para mejorar el agarre. Las tachuelas se desprendían. O el calzado quedaba abandonado por alguna causa. Entonces esas piezas, denominadas clavi caligarii, de un centímetro de diámetro aproximadamente y dos o tres milímetros de alto, con una punta curvada para sujetarlas al cuero, quedan sembradas por el campo. Para los expoliadores carecen de valor, así que permanecen en el lugar durante siglos, hasta convertirse en un tesoro para los arqueólogos.

“Hemos encontrado cientos de tachuelas en Baécula y, gracias a ellas hemos podido localizar no solo el campamento romano, su punto de partida, sino también el camino de unos cuatro kilómetros que recorrió el ejército de Escipión para atacar al enemigo en el cerro, así como la zona donde se desplegó y la batalla”, explica el arqueólogo Juan Pedro Bellón. Es una forma de arqueología dinámica importante, e incluso se han hecho estudios para estimar cuántas tachuelas perdería un soldado romano caminando, añade Bellón.

Las tachuelas salen ahora a la luz con los detectores de metales (apoyados con GPS para una localización exacta de cada pieza), y los arqueólogos de Baécula han analizado los resultados del barrido del territorio con ellos identificando las zonas de mayor densidad de tachuelas (campamentos y batalla) y piezas más dispersas en el camino. Cuando los investigadores han comparado la ruta que marca el rastro de las tachuelas con el mejor camino trazado sobre la topografía de la zona han visto que los romanos acertaron.

¿Y de los movimientos de los cartagineses? Puede haber un rastro de sus monedas, sus armas… El plan de investigación ahora es seguir a las tropas de Asdrúbal en la retirada y profundizar el conocimeinto del campo de batalla.

Folks whose Spanish is reasonable will want to visit the project webpage (Tras los pasos de Asdrúbal Barca: de Baecula al Metauro), which includes links to a number of papers spawned by the research. This sort of thing (and the techniques for locating the battefields and camps) is clearly something that can be used elsewhere …

UPDATE (a few minutes later): I note that Adrian Murdoch mentioned this article a few weeks ago (and we Blogosphered it) … still worth repeating though as AM links to a report in English. Why doesn’t this sort of thing get greater coverage in the English press?

Child Sacrifice at Carthage?

Okay … so over the course of the day I’m idly checking my Twitter feed and I notice a pile of folks tweeting an article in Science Daily with the headline screaming Study Debunks Millennia-Old Claims of Systematic Infant Sacrifice in Ancient Carthage. Later, when I get home, I see an item from Eurekalert with the same headline. Before reading the articles, and while pondering whether ‘systematic’ is a word that is normally used in this context, I start to wonder if someone has managed to prove a negative somehow. Of course not.

Both articles are verbatim accounts of a press release from the University of Pittsburgh. Here’s what it says:

A study led by University of Pittsburgh researchers could finally lay to rest the millennia-old conjecture that the ancient empire of Carthage regularly sacrificed its youngest citizens. An examination of the remains of Carthaginian children revealed that most infants perished prenatally or very shortly after birth and were unlikely to have lived long enough to be sacrificed, according to a Feb. 17 report in “Proceedings of the Library of Science (PLoS) ONE.”

The findings-based on the first published analysis of the skeletal remains found in Carthaginian burial urns-refute claims from as early as the 3rd century BCE of systematic infant sacrifice at Carthage that remain a subject of debate among biblical scholars and archaeologists, said lead researcher Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a professor of anthropology and history and philosophy of science in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences and president of the World Academy of Art and Science. Schwartz and his colleagues present the more benign interpretation that very young Punic children were cremated and interred in burial urns regardless of how they died.

“Our study emphasizes that historical scientists must consider all evidence when deciphering ancient societal behavior,” Schwartz said. “The idea of regular infant sacrifice in Carthage is not based on a study of the cremated remains, but on instances of human sacrifice reported by a few ancient chroniclers, inferred from ambiguous Carthaginian inscriptions, and referenced in the Old Testament. Our results show that some children were sacrificed, but they contradict the conclusion that Carthaginians were a brutal bunch who regularly sacrificed their own children.”

Schwartz worked with Frank Houghton of the Veterans Research Foundation of Pittsburgh, Roberto Macchiarelli of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and Luca Bondioli of the National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography in Rome to inspect the remains of children found in Tophets, burial sites peripheral to conventional Carthaginian cemeteries for older children and adults. Tophets housed urns containing the cremated remains of young children and animals, which led to the theory that they were reserved for victims of sacrifice.

Schwartz and his coauthors tested the all-sacrifice claim by examining the skeletal remains from 348 urns for developmental markers that would determine the children’s age at death. Schwartz and Houghton recorded skull, hip, long bone, and tooth measurements that indicated most of the children died in their first year with a sizeable number aged only two to five months, and that at least 20 percent of the sample was prenatal.

Schwartz and Houghton then selected teeth from 50 individuals they concluded had died before or shortly after birth and sent them to Macchiarelli and Bondioli, who examined the samples for a neonatal line. This opaque band forms in human teeth between the interruption of enamel production at birth and its resumption within two weeks of life. Identification of this line is commonly used to determine an infant’s age at death. Macchiarelli and Bondioli found a neonatal line in the teeth of 24 individuals, meaning that the remaining 26 individuals died prenatally or within two weeks of birth, the researchers reported.

The contents of the urns also dispel the possibility of mass infant sacrifice, Schwartz and Houghton noted. No urn contained enough skeletal material to suggest the presence of more than two complete individuals. Although many urns contained some superfluous fragments belonging to additional children, the researchers concluded that these bones remained from previous cremations and may have inadvertently been mixed with the ashes of subsequent cremations.

The team’s report also disputes the contention that Carthaginians specifically sacrificed first-born males. Schwartz and Houghton determined sex by measuring the sciatic notch-a crevice at the rear of the pelvis that’s wider in females-of 70 hipbones. They discovered that 38 pelvises came from females and 26 from males. Two others were likely female, one likely male, and three undetermined.

Schwartz and his colleagues conclude that the high incidence of prenate and infant mortality are consistent with modern data on stillbirths, miscarriages, and infant death. They write that if conditions in other ancient cities held in Carthage, young and unborn children could have easily succumbed to the diseases and sanitary shortcomings found in such cities as Rome and Pompeii.

So to summarize the press release:

  • there’s a millennia-old “conjecture” that Carthaginians “regularly” or “systematically” sacrificed their children
  • evidence for same is not based on examination of cremated remains, but on literary sources from various periods
  • the existence of ‘Tophet’ has led to a theory that they were the places reserved for the young victims of such sacrifices
  • examination of the remains in a fairly large number of Tophet burials suggests that there were some sacrifices, but that a much larger number of the burials were of children who died natural deaths (but that number seems to be small compared to a claimed one-instance sacrifice mentioned by Diodorus Siculus, below)

Okay, so let’s first see what Diodorus Siculus says (20.14 via Lacus Curtius) when Agathocles was beseiging Carthage:

Therefore the Carthaginians, believing that the misfortune had come to them from the gods, betook themselves to every manner of supplication of the divine powers; and, because they believed that Heracles, who was worshipped in their mother city, was exceedingly angry with them, they sent a large sum of money and many of the most expensive offerings to Tyre. Since they had come as colonists from that city, it had been their custom in the earlier period to send to the god a tenth of all that was paid into the public revenue; but later, when they had acquired great wealth and were receiving more considerable revenues, they sent very little indeed, holding the divinity of little account. But turning to repentance because of this misfortune, they bethought them of all the gods of Tyre. They even sent from their temples in supplication the golden shrines with their images, believing that they would better appease the wrath of the god if the offerings were sent for the sake of winning forgiveness. They also alleged that Cronus had turned against them inasmuch as in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons, but more recently, secretly buying and nurturing children, they had sent these to the sacrifice; and when an investigation was made, some of those who had been sacrificed were discovered to have been supposititious. When they had given thought to these things and saw their enemy encamped before their walls, they were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honours of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.

I don’t have a Greek text handy, but this literary account seems enough to take away my doubts about use of the words ‘regular’ and ‘systemic’. However, what I do not understand is why these burials from Carthage are identified as ‘Tophet’ burials (Tophet is a Biblical term, relating to this sort of sacrifice among the Canaanites … see the Wikipedia article if you’d like to track down references.). If they are ‘Tophet’ in the Biblical sense, the lack of large-scale sacrificial remains would suggest they aren’t ‘Tophet’, no? There’s some straw man/circularity lurking in here.  Or perhaps there is a technical definition being applied to something more general. Whatever the case,  near as I can tell, what has been proven is not the ‘non-existence’ of regular child sacrifice, but rather that these particular burials outside Carthage aren’t ‘Tophet’ in the Biblical sense.

Interestingly, the University of Pittsburgh press release links to the PLoS One article, which includes this abstract:

Two types of cemeteries occur at Punic Carthage and other Carthaginian settlements: one centrally situated housing the remains of older children through adults, and another at the periphery of the settlement (the “Tophet”) yielding small urns containing the cremated skeletal remains of very young animals and humans, sometimes comingled. Although the absence of the youngest humans at the primary cemeteries is unusual and worthy of discussion, debate has focused on the significance of Tophets, especially at Carthage, as burial grounds for the young. One interpretation, based on two supposed eye-witness reports of large-scale Carthaginian infant sacrifice [Kleitarchos (3rd c. BCE) and Diodorus Siculus (1st c. BCE)], a particular translation of inscriptions on some burial monuments, and the argument that if the animals had been sacrificed so too were the humans, is that Tophets represent burial grounds reserved for sacrificial victims. An alternative hypothesis acknowledges that while the Carthaginians may have occasionally sacrificed humans, as did their contemporaries, the extreme youth of Tophet individuals suggests these cemeteries were not only for the sacrificed, but also for the very young, however they died. Here we present the first rigorous analysis of the largest sample of cremated human skeletal remains (348 burial urns, N = 540 individuals) from the Carthaginian Tophet based on tooth formation, enamel histology, cranial and postcranial metrics, and the potential effects of heat-induced bone shrinkage. Most of the sample fell within the period prenatal to 5-to-6 postnatal months, with a significant presence of prenates. Rather than indicating sacrifice as the agent of death, this age distribution is consistent with modern-day data on perinatal mortality, which at Carthage would also have been exacerbated by numerous diseases common in other major cities, such as Rome and Pompeii. Our diverse approaches to analyzing the cremated human remains from Carthage strongly support the conclusion that Tophets were cemeteries for those who died shortly before or after birth, regardless of the cause.

Sounds like an interesting study, but it’s EXTREMELY interesting that the focus does not appear to be conclusions about the scale  of child sacrifice at Carthage, but rather, who were buried in the ‘Tophet’.  One might also wonder whether children who died ‘natural’ births might have been seen by the Carthaginians as ‘sacrificed’/taken by the god(s) even if they didn’t roll out of the hands of Moloch. In any event, in the coverage hitting the newspapers, it seems like someone along the line here is engaging in a bit of revisionary sensationalism …

Addenda: if you’re wondering about the dates of the ‘Tophet’ at Carthage, see: The Tophet of Carthage | Suite101 Archaeology

Addenda II: a conversation on the Classics list reminded me that we’ve dealt with this ‘child sacrifice’ downplaying before: Child Sacrifice in Carthage (2005) (see especially the link to the ‘online debate’)