Full of curious grave stelae carved with the emblems of Baal and Tanit, and the cremated remains of young children, the Tophet of Carthage has long been viewed as a place of child sacrifice, based on the debatable evidence of ancient accounts.
Some scholars believe these sources offer distorted, biased views, or are simple misunderstandings of Carthaginian practices.
A recent reanalysis of dental evidence and bone fragments by physical anthropologist Professor Jeffrey Schwartz, of Pittsburgh University, backs the alternative view that the Tophet was nothing more sinister than a children’s graveyard. Can archaeological evidence really solve the mystery of the Tophet?
Tophet Burial Phases
Carthaginians used the hectare of land known as the Tophet for 600 years. Later burials were laid over those of their predecessors due to diminishing space. Excavations have established three burial phases, all named after the Goddess Tanit:
Tanit I: 730-600 BC. The graves from this first phase are relatively few, and lie scattered over a wide area. Early bone analysis suggests these remains are those of very young children – babies a few days to a few months old. The burials were in small vaults and contain Egyptian style beads and amulets, such as the eye of Horus. The cremated bones of kids or lambs are included in the urns as well. A throne-like cippus marks the grave.
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Tanit IIa: 600-400 BC. These burials lie above a thin layer of debris that was laid over the Tanit I graves. Amulets are less common and the cippus thrones are of sandstone.
Tanit IIb: 399BC-299 BC. In this phase, the burials have grave markers of sandstone covered with white stucco, painted yellow, red or blue. Later burials have narrow grave stelae with a triangular pediment. Inscriptions and pictorial representations of Baal and Tanit appear in this era for the first time.
Tanit III: This period covers the last 150 years up until the destruction of Carthage by the Romans. The grave markers are now fine, slender limestone needles or stelae, with a triangular pediment, and still featuring the sign of Tanit. This phase has the lowest occurrences of animal remains in the urns.
Careful Burials at the Tophet
The excavation of the Tophet has revealed no material evidence to substantiate the descriptions of sacrifice in the ancient sources, such as the bronze statue of Baal used to hold the sacrificial victims.
This does not rule out sacrifice, but the graves appear too careful, individual and meticulously tended to belong to sacrificial victims. A stelae from Tanit III, relating to the last era of the site, shows a woman kneeling on the ground next to a grave mound with a libation vessel in her right hand. In the same layer, there were holes next to the grave markers leading into the graves. This indicates relatives might have made offerings to the dead children.
Punic graveyards in general lacked child burials, suggesting that children of a certain age were buried separately to the rest of the community. This was a custom common in the ancient world where children below a certain age were not viewed as full individuals. Based on the evidence of graves, the idea of a children’s graveyard is compelling.
Grave Goods and Offerings
Various items, such as beads, amulets, and lamb and kid bones lie amongst the cremated remains. Professor Schwartz has been involved in both the recent analysis of the cremated remains, and in excavations and analysis of the Tophet since the 1970s. In an interview with him for Decoded Past, I suggested that these items could be grave goods. “Exactly,” was his reply
Professor Schwarz also believes that the presence of these grave goods proves that children from every level of society were buried at the Tophet, a fact that contradicts the ancient sources, which stipulate that only the upper classes were involved in sacrifice.
“My general impression is that one thing that’s common to everything is there’s an urn,” said Professor Schwartz, “in the first three centuries, the urns were individualistic. In the latter centuries, they were rather uniform. Then some urns would have an amulet in them, most often an eye of Horus. Then there’s a subset with more amulets and beads, then another with gold. Everyone gets an urn but depending on status what you put in. Not every urn had a stelae”Decoded Past