Child Sacrifice in Carthage and Beyond

In a recent Roundup, I posted a link to an article in Biblical Archaeology called “Did the Carthaginians Really Practice Infant Sacrifice?” about the ongoing (and seemingly eternal) debate about whether or not the people of Carthage sacrificed their children to the Punic gods Baal Hammon and Tanit. I feel that, when it comes right down to it, that this debate has never been about interpreting the archaeological evidence – at least not exclusively -and has instead centred on whether or not we judge the Carthaginians on Judaeo-Christian moral grounds and whether we continue the ancient propaganda campaign of vilifying a formidable enemy begun by the Romans.

Umberto Eco, in his essay “Inventing the Enemy” (trans. 2012), detailed the ways in which we create the enemy we need, as a society and as a culture, beginning with this enemy’s appearance and carrying on to address how different ‘we’ are from ‘them’. This social othering, a concept very familiar in anthropological circles, (see Harrison’s Greeks and Barbarians, Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World, 2002), is a socio-cultural action that defines an enemy and, by extension, helps to qualify and quantify one’s own culture, one’s own self. So why, therefore, is the question of child sacrifice in Punic Carthage such a contentious one?

To provide some context to this debate, let us review the place and the culture we are considering. Carthage was established in the 9th century BCE as a Phoenician colony, its people most likely originating from Tyre in the Levant. The Phoenicians – a semitic people – were active colonizers, who established settlements throughout the Mediterranean, most notably in Sicily, Sardinia, Malta, the Balearic Islands, and North Africa. By the 7th century BCE, Carthage was becoming an extremely successful maritime power, settling its own colonies and trading with peoples as far away as the Atlantic coast of West Africa. They were a thriving port city well into the 3rd century when, as Rome was expanding throughout Italy, a series of conflicts between the two city-states (and, at this point I argue that both Rome and Carthage were such) led ultimately to the destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE. Punic Carthage then, describes the city during its ascent as a maritime power, as well as suggesting both the gradual relinquishing of association with other Phoenician settlements and, I believe, their recognition by Rome as an ‘other’ to be aware of.

Archaeological work at Carthage began in the late 19th and early 20th century, conducted mostly by amateurs, explorers and seekers of the ancient world, as well as wealthy men and their proteges, none of whom were well versed in the archaeological techniques being developed to protect a site during excavation. To put it more simply, these guys were very happy to use dynamite to get to where they figured the most interesting stuff was.

From the first, these amateur archaeologists, as they unearthed the ancient city of Carthage, recognized that what they were excavating around the hill of Juno, the hill of the Byrsa, and along the western edge of the ancient harbour, were sites of funerary ritual (Lancel, p. 233ff). They aptly – and tellingly – dubbed the area near the ancient harbour the ‘tophet’ of Carthage. The original Tophet was an area in Jerusalem where children were burnt alive as sacrifices to Canaanite gods, according to the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 7:31-34, 19:6, 19: 11-14, Isaiah 30:33). Immediately this site and the activities that went on here in the ancient world were associated with human sacrifice and Judeo-Christian concepts of blasphemy. Since then, right up into the 1970s, the issue of child sacrifice was established in the canon – Carthage did such things, Rome defeated Carthage, might is right, etc.

One of the most renowned archaeologists of Carthage, Serge Lancel, completed a detailed survey of the remains of the ancient city, published first in French in 1992. In it, he addresses the issue of child sacrifice:

“The controversy revealed how difficult it was to appreciate the reality of a practice which the Old Testament bore witness to while condemning it, just as later it provoked the horrified condemnation of the classical world. We shall see that this very human reaction still underlies the interpretation sometimes given even today to a reality that no one tries any longer to deny. Furthermore, Pallary’s analyses (1922), although at the time based on an insufficient number of pieces of evidence, already revealed that, compared with animal remains, there was a higher proportion of infant remains in ‘level C’ than in ‘level A’. The most recent excavations fully confirm the finding, which at first sight appears paradoxical, that from the earliest times onward the number of substitutions declined, and thus that the harshness of the sacrificial rite was greater in the fourth and third centuries BC.” (Lancel, p.233).

In addition, we have three other groups of archaeologists and academics who have most recently been in the news discussing this topic: 1)  Jeffrey Schwartz et al, stating first that child sacrifice did not occur in Carthage, and then, following a reexamination, deciding that the evidence was inconclusive; 2) P. Smith et al, who determined that there is strong evidence to suggest child sacrifice; and, 3) Josephine Quinn et al, who feel that there is ample evidence for child sacrifice in ancient Carthage.

Of them, Lancel, Quinn et al, and Smith et al agree that there is substantial evidence for child sacrifice, with some caveats. Schwartz et al were initially convinced that the evidence was scant at best and that no child sacrifice occurred there (2010 article), and then reconsidered and summarized that “the verdict on the Phoenician practice of child sacrifice is, at best, not proven” (2012 article). There are undoubtedly many more archaeologists and scholars who fall into one or the other camp. I am focusing on the four that were originally discussed in the Biblical Archaeology article from last week.

The archaeological evidence, albeit evidence that can be considered inconclusive, suggests that infant sacrifice did indeed go on in Carthage. Lancel attends to the salacious nature of the act but does not discount it purely because it may be distasteful to modern scholars. As Dr. Josephine Quinn of Oxford University comments: “Dismissing the idea of child sacrifice stops us seeing the bigger picture.”

And herein lies the rub. The bigger picture – that of the ongoing interpretation of archaeological evidence for the last hundred years of a site that is nearly 3,000 years old – goes to show how, with time, techniques, and new information, material culture can be seen in a myriad of different ways. This is great! I love debates like this, where people work with conclusions published decades ago and with the considerations of the present day. Interpreting the ancient world will always be, on one level or another, subjective (no matter how much we might try to keep our biases in check), and so ancient history will always be part of modern culture and society.

However, when it is that modern society that first rejects, then confirms, then suggests that a part of history so not in keeping with modern sensibilities simply couldn’t happen, or only happened in a culture considered the ‘other’, this I find frustrating. Yes, human culture – past and present (and some would also argue future) – affects us all, but ignoring the fact that history was brutal, cruel, and incongruous to some is a travesty. What we’re talking about here is our connection with the past, our very ability to do so, and to disregard historical evidence for modern reasons is not only unprofessional, it lacks empathy.

I feel the prescience of a comment of Lancel’s, meant to consider the logistics of excavation, that also speak to the interpretations that have coloured this debate for a century:

“…in Carthage the most frequent archaeological situation, far from presenting the elevations of structures and walls, is to show negatives, not only of those walls but even of their foundations, picked away stone by stone throughout the ages, right up to the present…” (Lancel, p.40).

Reverse images, negatives, our ability to guess at what’s missing as well as interpret what’s there, is the joy of archaeology and of historical research. Our ability to empathize is what adds joy to this work, and to the discoveries and debates within it. Ignoring or dismissing something that is not part of our culture means we lose a vital piece of it; our willingness to imagine.


“Did the Carthaginians Really Practice Infant Sacrifice?” by Robin Ngo, Biblical Archaeology Online. 02/05/2014,

– accessed July 15th, 2015 at 12:22pm EST

“Skeletal Remains of Punic Carthage Do Not Support Systematic Sacrifice of Infants” by Jeffrey H. Schwartz, Frank Houghton, Roberto Macchiarelli, and Luca Bondioli. Feb 17th, 2010. PLOS ONE.

– accessed July 15th, 2015 at 12:37pm EST

“Ancient Carthaginians Really Did Sacrifice Their Children”, Oxford University Press Online. 23 Jan 2014.

– accessed July 15th, 2015 at 12:28pm EST

“Carthaginians Sacrificed Own Children, Archaeologists Say” by Maev Kennedy. The Guardian Online. 21 Jan 2014.

– accessed July 15th, 2015 at 21:06pm EST

“Bones, Teeth, and Estimating Age of Perinates: Carthaginian Infant Sacrifice Revisited” by J.H. Schwartz, F.D. Houghton, L. Bondioli, and R. Macchiarelli. Cambridge Journals Online. Vol. 86, Issue 333. January 2012.

– accessed July 15th, 2015 at 21:07pm EST

“Aging Cremated Infants: The Problem of Sacrifice at the Tophet of Carthage” by P. Smith, G. Avishai, J.A. Greene, and L.E. Stager. Cambridge Journals Online. Vol 85, Issue 329. January 2011.

– accessed July 18th, 2015 at 13:30pm EST

Lancel, Serge (trans. Antonia Neville). Carthage. 1995, p.40, 227 ff