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Analysis sheds light on ancient Phoenician child sacrifice mystery

Study helps clarify ongoing debate about whether Phoenicians sacrificed their kids

New and detailed assessments of centuries-old burial sites suggest Phoenicians and their Carthaginian successors performed rituals of child sacrifice — adding new evidence to a mystery archaeologists have long debated.

The new analysis, co-authored by Professor of Archaeology Peter Van Dommelen, is published in the current edition of the journal Antiquity.

Phoenician child sacrifice has been a contentious issue in archaeology for the past century, though contemporary Greco-Roman accounts and evidence from the burial sites themselves suggest the practice took place, Van Dommelen said.

The burial sites, known as tophets, are located along the coasts of North Africa, Sicily and Sardinia and are filled with the cremated remains of small children and occasionally animals. Archaeologists have recently rekindled the debate, with some contending that these sites are simply separate child cemeteries. This assertion is based on bone analysis that points to a significant number of prenatal remains, as well as analysis of contemporary infant mortality rates, Van Dommelen said.

But Van Dommelen said he disagrees with this conclusion. “You need to historicize your scientific result before you come to a conclusion,” he said.

In the recent analysis, he and his European colleagues used evidence collected from previous on-site digs to develop their conclusion. They noted that the inscriptions left on markers at the sites are of a sacrificial and not funerary nature, and that the number of remains compared to the tophets’ centuries of use suggests only a couple depositions per year, much less than one would expect at a conventional cemetery, he said.

The paper also cites the “unanimous” support of contemporary Greco-Roman sources, Van Dommelen said, some of which explicitly state that Phoenicians practiced this custom.

“It is not about depositing children that died accidentally — it is actually an offering being made to a god,” Van Dommelen said. “At least a significant percentage (of deceased children) we can reasonably assume must have been sacrificed.”

“Science is making archaeology very much an interdisciplinary field,” Van Dommelen said, adding that traditional historical approaches must also be factored into conclusions.

Tophets are largely found to the north of larger Carthaginian cities, which started as Phoenician colonial settlements. They were often among the first structures built, and acted as open-air sanctuaries or ritual sites, Van Dommelen said. As the cities expanded, the tophets remained unmoved, which indicates their importance.

Despite what scientists and archaeologists have already discovered, there are still mysteries surrounding the tophets. Though Van Dommelen referred to the sacrifices as a “contract” with the gods to be offered in times of distress in exchange for good fortune, the exact nature of the rituals remains a mystery.

“We don’t have any written literature from the Phoenician-Punic world,” Van Dommelen said.

Researchers have not discovered tophet sites in the center of the Phoenician homeland in modern-day Lebanon, where the Carthaginian civilization originated. The presence of known tophets in places where the Phoenicians expanded for trade raises questions about why the practice coincided with the civilization’s expansion.

Matthew McCarty, a lecturer in classics at Princeton who was not involved in the study, said he agreed with Van Dommelen’s recent paper. “I think it’s a model for the kind of clear reasoning and attention to the actual evidence that we have from the ancient world to make a compelling argument,” McCarty said. “I think it’s a slam dunk.”

McCarty added that Phoenician child sacrifice “will continue to be an issue because it’s a politically and culturally fraught one, but academically, scientifically, it probably should no longer be an issue, it should be settled.”

Susan Alcock, director of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, echoed McCarty’s sentiment. “This topic is a real flashpoint in archaeology in the Mediterranean. It is very hard to talk about it without people overreacting or getting upset, but it is a phenomenon that we have to study carefully and understand in its own cultural context,” she said.

Van Dommelen brings a unique expertise to Brown, Alcock said, calling him an outlier in a field dominated by study of the Greeks and Romans. “There aren’t many places in North America that teach this kind of thing, so it adds a whole new dimension to archaeology at Brown.”



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