BMCR 2019.01.53

Bambini nel “limbo”: dati e proposte interpretive sui tofet fenici e punici. Collection de l’École française de Rome, 552

, Bambini nel "limbo": dati e proposte interpretive sui tofet fenici e punici. Collection de l'École française de Rome, 552. Rome: École Française de Rome, 2018. xiv, 170; 31 p. of plates. ISBN 9782728313365 €27,00 (pb).

In December of 1921, two French colonial administrators made a shocking archaeological discovery in Carthage: thousands of urns containing the burned remains of infants and/or ovicaprines, many marked by carved stone monuments bearing votive inscriptions in Punic. The find immediately sparked lively debate: were these deposits evidence of the kinds of Carthaginian child sacrifice described in exaggerated terms by Greek and Latin authors, akin to those mentioned in various parts of the Hebrew Bible? Or were they rather funerary deposits in a necropolis reserved for those who had succumbed to the numerous causes of high infant mortality in the ancient world?

Nearly a century later, as similar deposits continue to be excavated at sites across the central Mediterranean, this same debate continues across Classical, Near Eastern, and Biblical Studies. Scholars from different disciplines wrestle with textual, epigraphic, and archaeological sources for “tophet” sanctuaries (the term modern convention has used to label these spaces) and molk rites (an ancient Phoenicio-Punic term occasionally used to describe one of the rites performed in these sanctuaries). D’Andrea’s slim volume—itself a kind of companion to his 2014 dissertation monograph that assiduously catalogued the archaeological evidence from North Africa1—is the latest contribution to examine the diverse body of evidence that stretches from Mesopotamia to Morocco and that was generated over more than a millennium. D’Andrea succinctly synthesizes a century of finds and scholarship, deftly navigating material remains and philology. Readers expecting a characteristically well-researched, nuanced introduction to the problems, evidence, and scholarship surrounding tophets will welcome this work; those expecting resolution to the debate, or a novel interpretation, will be disappointed.

Instead of a new argument, D’Andrea consciously chooses to offer descriptions of data, how those data have been interpreted by others, and the problems with such interpretations. The first chapter summarizes archaeological and epigraphic data from tophet sites with useful tables; the second introduces literary sources and commentary (connected to an appendix helpfully collecting texts and translations of pertinent Biblical and Classical texts), as well as comparable phenomena (child necropoleis, the Athenian Agora’s bone well2… surprisingly, discussion of exposure and infanticide is more limited); the third is essentially a well-annotated, chronological bibliography of tophet studies and interpretations. All three will provide useful summaries and resources for researchers. The fourth chapter raises a host of problems with the data sets and offers balanced analysis of many of the claims made from this material. The final chapter synthesizes and problematizes each of what D’Andrea sees as the three main “models” for interpreting tophets: 1) Paolo Xella’s sacrificial model;
2) Sabatino Moscati and Sergio Ribichini’s arguments that tophets were cemeteries for dead children that also served as places for seeking divine help in conceiving future children; and
3) Hélène Bénichou-Safar’s notion of the tophet as a necropolis where the naturally deceased infants were instrumentalized as special vehicles for communicating with the divine.

Indeed, D’Andrea’s central claim is simply that none of these explanations works to explain fully the diverse evidence at hand, and that there may never be a single, monolithic interpretation of these sanctuaries and the rites that took place within them. D’Andrea clearly demonstrates that casting the problem as a simple binary—either sacrificial or funerary—is untenable. Still, he maintains these two categories as conceptual poles on a continuum, with the known sanctuaries and rites falling somewhere in between, a hybrid rite that is both funerary and sacrificial.

Yet the fundamental question that shapes tophet studies, and the present volume—were these sanctuaries places where ancient people made live child sacrifices or not?—is one that, after a hundred years, seems somewhat stale. Interpretations and answers are only as good as the questions that prompt them; this question has generally remained unchanged since it was first posed in the 1920s, its framework bound up in colonial politics and orientalist imaginations. D’Andrea’s approach is marked by a positivist faith that inductive analysis of evidence will offer final answers: new data are all we need. But recent, high-quality excavations and analyses at a number of sites in Sicily, Sardinia, and across Africa—sites that include both Phoenician colonies and “neo-Punic” tophets—have only created more questions and demonstrated the diversity of sanctuaries and practices that modernity has yoked together in the category of “tophet.”

The various models and approaches to tophets that D’Andrea catalogues and critiques may reveal more about the political, social, and cultural milieux of their interpreters than they do about these sanctuaries as an ancient phenomenon. As Brien Garnand has shown, changing claims about tophets are the result not of changing data, but rather a host of wider changes in the intellectual environment in which such claims are made.3 Similarly, the “raw” data produced from excavations are not facts, but discursive claims created by the narrow questions posed (at the expense of others) and the methods employed. To take just one egregious example, the supposed decline of infants in urns and their replacement with greater numbers of ovicaprines from the second century BCE onwards—which D’Andrea accepts—is based primarily on Jean Richard’s 1961 dissertation that examined urns from Carthage and Hadrumetum.4 The dissertation was written under the guidance of Pierre Cintas, who had earlier claimed that Hadrumetum showed a decline in child sacrifice over time; Richard’s conclusion, with synthetic tables counting the number of urns containing infants or animals by period, simply confirms Cintas’ claim. The evidence in Richard’s catalogue of urn contents, however, complicates this picture. The urns with bone fragments that Richard could not identify as either human or animal were used to bolster the count of “non-infant” urns, creating a false (or at least misleading) sense of the declining burial of children in tophets. The data and numbers that we have inherited as fact were (unconsciously) engineered to demonstrate a predetermined conclusion shaped by social and intellectual pressures. Moving studies of tophets and molk rites forward demands grappling not with data, but with historiography. It demands new forms of questions, rather than simply restating old ones.

Of course, one might also quibble with some of the claims that D’Andrea lays out as settled fact. The chronology of many of the “Late Punic” tophets D’Andrea discusses remains a problem, but there is evidence that most were established far later than D’Andrea suggests, in the wake of Carthage’s defeat and Rome’s first substantial efforts to “provincialize” Africa.5 Dating, of course, has ramifications for how the material is parceled and categorized; rather than seeing such Hellenistic sanctuaries as part of the Phoenician-colonial “tophet” phenomenon, these sites (which provide a significant portion of D’Andrea’s data) become part of a rapidly changing Roman province, re-imaginations of earlier practices rather than reproductions of them. Similarly, while D’Andrea sees the lack of buried urns with burned offerings as part of a clear distinction between (Punic) tophets and (Roman) sanctuaries of Saturn, this distinction may well be the product of how our data-sets were created; few “sanctuaries of Saturn” have been excavated (especially beyond or below their monumental architecture), and most are attested primarily by surface finds or reused stelae.

D’Andrea does not provide a silver bullet that will put an end to the debate over the nature of tophets; evidence, however carefully parsed and examined, is no match for the conceptual frameworks and narratives that history has ingrained in tophet studies. But what D’Andrea sets out to do in this volume, he does well; like his earlier monograph, this will become a standard, encyclopedic reference for tophet studies. His individual observations on the material and the limits of evidence are nuanced and thoughtful, and will demand responses from proponents of each camp of tophet-scholars.


1. B. D’Andrea, I tofet del Nord Africa dall’età arcaica all’età romana (VIII sec. a.C. – II sec. d.C.). Studi archeologici, Collezione di Studi Fenici 45 (Pisa and Rome 2014).

2. M. A. Liston et al, The Agora Bone Well. Hesperia Suppl. 50 (Princeton, 2018).

3. B. Garnand, “From Infant Sacrifice to the ABC’s: Ancient Phoenicians and Modern Identities,” Stanford Journal of Archaeology 1 (2002). Stanford Journal of Archaeology.

4. J. Richard, Étude médico-légale des urnes sacrificelles puniques et de leur contenu. Unpublished dissertation, doctorate in medecine, University of Lille (Lille 1961).

5. M. McCarty, ” Africa Punica? Child Sacrifice and Other Invented Traditions in Early Roman Africa,” Religion in the Roman Empire 3(3): 393-428.