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’)