Child Sacrifice and the ‘Tophet’ at Carthage Redux

Tip o’ the pileus to Sally Winchester on the Classics list for alerting us to this one at LiveScience (which my spiders didn’t catch because it’s categorized as ‘strange news’ for some reason) … not a lot new in this one really, so here’s a bit from the end:

[…] In 2010 Schwartz and his colleagues used dental remains from 540 individuals to argue that the site was not primarily for ritual child slaughter, and they reiterate that stance in this month’s issue of the journal Antiquity. In the new article, the researchers cite several older studies to validate their methods for estimating infant ages from tooth fragments.

The team argues that many tooth fragments found at the Tophet were actually developing tooth buds from the jaws of fetuses and stillborn babies who could not have been live sacrifices. As evidence, they showed that half of the teeth lacked a sign of birth called the neonatal line. The stress of birth temporarily halts tooth development in newborns, creating a tiny, dark line in their tooth buds; however, the line doesn’t form until a week or two after birth.

Other researchers still believe the Tophet was a place for sacred killing.

“This is not a regular cemetery; the age distribution suggests they were sacrificing infants at the age of 1 month,” said Patricia Smith, an anthropologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Smith’s team published a 2011 paper questioning Schwartz’s dental analysis. The incredible heat and pressure generated during cremation usually erase the neonatal line, she said, so its absence isn’t a reliable measure of age. Schwartz’s team miscalculated how much teeth shrink in cremation, leading to an underestimate of infant ages, Smith argued.

Smith also doubts Carthage would have routinely cremated stillbirths or infants. Because of sky-high infant mortality rates, babies were probably not considered people until they were at least 1 or 2 years old. The Carthaginians chopped down most of their trees to plant crops and wouldn’t have used the precious wood to burn babies, she said.

“The Carthaginians were seafarers; they needed wood for ships, they needed wood for cloth, they needed wood for their tools,” she said.

We say there isn’t a lot new in this one because we did blog about it back in 2010 when it was first mentioned and my questions raised therein remain, I think. It also generated a lot of very useful discussion which folks will want to read: Child Sacrifice at Carthage?

One thought on “Child Sacrifice and the ‘Tophet’ at Carthage Redux

  1. The LiveScience piece doesn’t really have anything new, but Schwartz and colleagues have a new article out in Antiquity, responding to P. Smith’s article in Antiquity from 2011, which suggested Schwartz et al.’s 2010 study was wrong and that the babies were indeed sacrificed.

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