Just as ancient Greek and Roman propagandists insisted, the Carthaginians did kill their own infant children, burying them with sacrificed animals and ritual inscriptions in special cemeteries to give thanks for favours from the gods, according to a new study.Share
"This is something dismissed as black propaganda because in modern times people just didn't want to believe it," said Josephine Quinn, a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford, who is behind the study, with international colleagues, of one of the most bitterly debated questions in classical archaeology.
"But when you pull together all the evidence – archaeological, epigraphic and literary – it is overwhelming and, we believe, conclusive: they did kill their children, and on the evidence of the inscriptions, not just as an offering for future favours but fulfilling a promise that had already been made.
"This was not a common event, and it must have been among an elite because cremation was very expensive, and so was the ritual of burial. It may even have been seen as a philanthropic act for the good of the whole community."
Argument has raged on the subject since cemeteries known as tophets – after the biblical account of a place of sacrifice – were excavated in the early 20th century on the outskirts of Carthage in modern Tunisia, and then at other Carthaginian sites in Sicily and Sardinia.
The graves held tiny cremated bones carefully packed into urns, buried under tombstones giving thanks to the gods. One has a carving which has been interpreted as a priest carrying the body of a small child. Some archaeologists and historians saw the finds as proving ancient accounts of child sacrifice; others insisted they showed tender respect for cherished children who died before or soon after birth.
Quinn and her colleagues, a group of Punic archaeologists and historians from Italy and the Netherlands, who publish their findings in the journal Antiquity – where the argument has been rumbling on for several years – completely reject the latter theory.
"The inscriptions are unequivocal: time and again we find the explanation that the gods 'heard my voice and blessed me'. It cannot be that so many children conveniently happened to die at just the right time to become an offering – and in any case a poorly or dead child would make a pretty feeble offering if you're already worried about the gods rejecting it."
"Then there is the fact that the animals from the sites, which were beyond question sacrificial offerings, are buried in exactly the same way, sometimes in the same urns with the bones of the children." (Read more.)