Study of the remains in the Tophet doesn't support the idea that the children were sacrificed. Image by Giraud Patrick: CC BY-SA 2,5
Study of the remains in the Tophet doesn’t support the idea that the children were sacrificed. These children may have died of natural causes. Image by Giraud Patrick: CC BY-SA 2.5

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.

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.

Click to Read Page Two: Careful Burials at the Tophet