Tunisian scholars, in an attempt to build up their nation’s pre-Islamic past, have decided to deny Carthage’s reputation for sacrificing large numbers of children in ceremonial fires. From Carthage Is Trying To Live Down Image As Site of Infanticide:
Lawrence Stager, a Harvard University archaeology professor and expert on the subject, calls the revisionism a whitewash. He’s now editing a book that will include the results of long forensic analysis of charred bones he helped dig up in Carthage in the 1970s. This, says Mr. Stager, will prove beyond reasonable doubt that Mr. Fantar and his followers are wrong. Still, he isn’t expecting to win them over. ‘No one really relishes having ancestors who committed such heinous acts,’ he says.
Human sacrifice was common in many ancient cultures. But Carthage was particularly notorious, branded as a serial killer of children for at least 600 years in a site now known as the Tophet, a Hebrew word meaning ‘roaster’ or ‘place of burning.’ Most Western scholars believe the practice was organized around the worship of two deities. Mr. Stager says it may also have been a primitive mechanism of population control. Others suggest a more sporadic activity connected to spring fertility rights.
The first to accuse Carthage of incinerating its young were the Romans, who destroyed the city in 146 B.C., ending the world’s first great superpower clash. Passed down over the centuries, tales of infant sacrifices inspired the 19th-century novelist Flaubert to visit Carthage in 1858 in search of material for ‘Salammbo,’ which detailed horrible sacrificial rituals. Foreign archaeologists then fleshed out fiction with hard evidence.
‘This is a dreadful period of human degeneracy that we are now unearthing,’ wrote Count Byron Khun de Prorok, a Frenchman who took part in the first excavations of Carthage’s Tophet in the 1920s. After his own digging decades later, Mr. Stager wrote with a colleague in the Biblical Archaeology Review: ‘It is repulsive…Perhaps the Carthaginians would have gotten a better press in the West had they concealed their practices more subtly.’
But what many scholars consider an open-and-shut case, Mr. Fantar and his followers view as a frame-up.