Dennis Jarvis, Flickr
The Carthage burial grounds called Tophet holds urns with the cremated remains of thousands of babies. While some say Tophet is a site of child sacrifice, others contend it was used to bury babies and fetuses.
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updated 9/19/2012 12:46:04 PM ET 2012-09-19T16:46:04

A Carthaginian burial site was not for child sacrifice but was instead a graveyard for babies and fetuses, researchers now say.

A new study of the ancient North African site offers the latest volley in a debate over the primary purpose of the graveyard, long thought to be a place of sacred sacrifice.

"It's all very great, cinematic stuff, but whether that was a constant daily activity ― I think our analysis contradicts that," said study co-author Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh.

The city-state of Carthage was founded in the ninth century B.C., when Queen Dido fled Phoenicia (along the eastern Mediterranean shore) for what is now Tunis, Tunisia. The empire became a powerhouse of the ancient world and fought several wars against the Romans.

University of Pittsburgh
Jeffrey H. Schwartz is a researcher at University of Pittsburgh.

When archaeologists began excavating the ancient civilization last century, they found urns with the cremated remains of thousands of babies, young goats and lambs at a graveyard called the Tophet, which had been used from 700 to 300 B.C. At its peak, the Tophet may have been bigger than a football field and had nine levels of burials.

Based on historical accounts, scientists believed Carthaginians sacrificed children at the Tophet before burying them there. For instance, the Bible describes child sacrifice to the deity Baal, worshipped by a civilization in Carthage. A Greek and a Roman historian both recount gory tales from this time period in which priests slit the throats of babies and tossed them into fiery pits, Schwartz said. [ 8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries ]

However, those accounts came from Carthage's enemies. "Some of this might have been anti-Carthaginian propaganda," Schwartz told LiveScience.

In 2010 Schwartz and his colleagues used dental remains from 540 individuals to argue that the site was not primarily for ritual child slaughter, and they reiterate that stance in this month's issue of the journal Antiquity. In the new article, the researchers cite several older studies to validate their methods for estimating infant ages from tooth fragments.

The team argues that many tooth fragments found at the Tophet were actually developing tooth buds from the jaws of fetuses and stillborn babies who could not have been live sacrifices. As evidence, they showed that half of the teeth lacked a sign of birth called the neonatal line. The stress of birth temporarily halts tooth development in newborns, creating a tiny, dark line in their tooth buds; however, the line doesn't form until a week or two after birth.

Jeffrey H. Schwartz
This is a Carthaginian urn containing burned bone fragments and soil that seeped in since burial.

Other researchers still believe the Tophet was a place for sacred killing.

"This is not a regular cemetery; the age distribution suggests they were sacrificing infants at the age of 1 month," said Patricia Smith, an anthropologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Smith's team published a 2011 paper questioning Schwartz's dental analysis. The incredible heat and pressure generated during cremation usually erase the neonatal line, she said, so its absence isn't a reliable measure of age. Schwartz's team miscalculated how much teeth shrink in cremation, leading to an underestimate of infant ages, Smith argued.

Smith also doubts Carthage would have routinely cremated stillbirths or infants. Because of sky-high infant mortality rates, babies were probably not considered people until they were at least 1 or 2 years old. The Carthaginians chopped down most of their trees to plant crops and wouldn't have used the precious wood to burn babies, she said.

"The Carthaginians were seafarers; they needed wood for ships, they needed wood for cloth, they needed wood for their tools," she said.

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© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: 7 ghoulish archaeological discoveries

  • University of Bradford

    Remember the haunted house in grade school where your hand was guided into a bowlful of "brains"? Those skinned grapes have nothing on what happened to Rachel Cubitt of the York Archaeological Trust in England. As she was cleaning a 2,000-year-old skull unearthed during a campus expansion project into a prehistoric farm, she "felt something move inside the cranium. Peering through the base of the skull, she spotted an unusual yellow substance," read a press release announcing the discovery of the oldest surviving human brain in Britain. The skull was found alone in a muddy pit. Researchers believe it may have been a ritual offering. In this image, Cubitt is using an endoscope to examine the remains. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about six more ghoulish archaeological discoveries.

  • Bricks thwarted vampires

    Matteo Borrini  /  AP

    A wooden stake in the heart is one well-known way to thwart a vampire, but the method was insufficient in the 16th century. Back then, a sure-fire vampire slaying entailed putting a stone or brick in the suspected vampire's mouth so that it would starve to death. The remains of the 60-year-old woman found in a mass grave near Venice, shown here, was one of those purported vampires, according to Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist and anthropologist at Florence University. At the time, plague ravaged the region. People were buried in mass graves that were often reopened to add new bodies. When they did, bloated bodies with blood spilling from their mouths and holes in their head shrouds were often revealed. These corpses were thought to be vampires.

  • Ball and chain tied to gruesome tale

    Museum of London

    A 17th century iron ball and chain pulled from thick, black mud on the banks of the River Thames in London may have a gruesome tale to tell, according to scientists. The 18-pound shackles were found with the lock fastened and no key, suggesting the prisoner either slipped out of custody or drowned while attempting to escape. Kate Sumnall, an archaeologist with the Museum of London, shown here, told reporters the iron is of high quality and was unlikely discarded on purpose.

  • Unearthed Greek vessels contain human remains

    AP

    Human remains found in one of two large, silver vessels in the heart of Aigai, the ancient capital of Macedonia, have thickened a murder-mystery plot. The unidentified remains, thought to date to the end of the 4th century B.C., were unearthed a few steps away from what some archaeologists speculate are the bones of Alexander the Great's murdered teenage son. What's odd is both burials are outside nearby cemeteries, suggesting either a form of punishment or an illegal act, archaeologists told the Associated Press. "Either way, it was an exceptional event," archaeologist Stella Drougou of Aristotle University, told the news service. "And we know the history of the Macedonian kings is full of acts of revenge and violent succession."

  • Urine-filled 'witch bottle'

    For those afraid a witch may have cast a spell upon them, follow this recipe: pee in a bottle, toss in some fingernail clippings, strands of hair, iron nails, brass pins and a heart-shaped piece of leather pierced with a bent nail and then bury it upside down. If all goes well, the trick will cast the spell back on the witch, perhaps killing her — or so goes a 17th century witchcraft belief. Such a bottle was discovered in Greenwich, England, and dates to a time when witchcraft beliefs were more common, according to British Archaeology magazine.

  • Bog body preserves tale of violent death

    Trustees of the British Museum

    Someone in the first century had it out for Lindow Man, a 25-year-old found face down in a northwest England moss bog. Examination of the well-preserved body shows that the otherwise healthy gentleman suffered two blows to the head and a swift knee to the back. A cord tied around his neck was likely used to strangle him and break his neck. Then, just to make sure he was dead, his throat was slit. The sequence of events, some scientists suggest, is consistent with a ritualistic killing, perhaps a human sacrifice carried out by Druids.

  • Gory sacrifice found at Teotihuacan

    Henry Romero / Reuters

    In 2004, a grisly scene was unearthed outside of modern-day Mexico City. Decapitated bodies were found tossed to the side of a burial tomb, their hands tied behind their backs. The discovery suggests the little-known culture that built the giant Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan held bloody, sacrificial rituals. Two other bodies decorated with beads and greenstones, as well as animals and other offerings, were also found in the tomb. "Whether the victims and animals were killed at the site or a nearby place, the foundation ritual must have been one of the most terrifying acts recorded archaeologically in Mesoamerica," archaeologist Saburo Sugiyama of Aichi Prefectural University in Japan said in a statement announcing the discovery.

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