Buried at the Racetracks: 1,500-year-old Grave Discovered at Carthage Circus

The ancient Carthaginians were so obsessed with gambling that some may have chosen the races as their final resting place, archaeologists suspect.

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The hole roughly in the center of the picture is the mouth of the amphora in which the mysterious ancient Carthaginian was buried, in situ.
The hole roughly in the center of the picture is the mouth of the amphora in which the mysterious ancient Carthaginian was buried, in situ.Credit: DAI ROM, R. Bockmann

How crazy do you have to be about gambling to have your nearest and dearest inter you at the racetrack? Archaeologists excavating the ancient Roman racing course in the North African city of Carthage have found a burial in the heart of the spectator section in the bleachers around 1,500 years ago.

Whether or not the deceased was a dice-crazed adult remains to be seen, but the choice of venue was certainly striking.

Amphora burials were common in antique North Africa, but for infants, not full-grown dice addicts. The jars were usually too small to contain adult human bodies.

The jar found in Carthage may have been big enough for the remains of an adult: the few bone fragments inside are still being analyzed. At this point, grave robbers had left behind so little that any conclusions beyond the discovery of a large pottery amphora with bones and shells inside, would be speculation.

Also, whether or not they interred the remains in the dead of night, between races, or the track was already defunct, we do not know. It is also possible that the Carthaginian circus stopped functioning as a racetrack in the mid-6th century C.E., and was "repurposed" as a cemetery.

Carthage goes back thousands of years. From an outpost of the Phoenicians who themselves hailed from the Near East, it would become the capital of an empire that vied with Rome itself for power. Ultimately the Romans would vengefully destroy it in the Third Punic War, in 146 B.C.E., then rebuild the city as Roman Carthage, its capital in Africa.

Based on the discovery of dice at the site dating to 1,500 years ago, around the time of the death, even if racing in Roman Carthage had become passe, at least we can say that game was still being played on the site.

Hexing the race

Only a small part of the circus has been excavated so far; the archaeologists suspect they may find more burials as they explore further. But the discovery of the amphora burial (the only one found so far) nestled in the cavea, the spectator section, in a large jar, could well indicate that the family decided the dear departed should rest where he really liked to be.

The discovery was made by the German archaeological team who discovered, in 2016, the unexpectedly advanced hydraulic water system that cooled down horses during chariot races.

As for the putative identity of the remains they did find: “Dice playing and betting were very popular at the races. In fact, it was officially allowed in the circus. People could place bets with bookmakers who had their stalls in the circus itself or nearby," says Dr. Ralf Bockmann, head of the excavation. "Curse tablets made of lead with which people tried to influence the races (to provoke accidents, for example) further illustrate the point."

Such tablets, aspiring to hex the race, were found in the 1980s near the starting gates of the Carthage circus, Bockmann adds.

There is no evidence of racing in Carthage after the 530s C.E., say the archaeologists. But the site evidently remained in some use until then, based on discoveries of pottery and a single die, made of bone, found on the cavea floor.

“The arena was much more than just a racetrack. It was a place to enjoy yourself, meet friends and later, probably after the races had stopped, people probably still living in the area used it to bury their loved ones, maybe out of an affiliation to the building and its role for the community," Bockmann concludes.

Snake eyes makes way

Carthage hadn't reinvented the roulette wheel: Gambling is as old as history itself. According to ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades cast lots over control of the parts of the universe. Zeus won the Heaves, Poseidon the sea and Hades, who got the short straw, won the Underworld.

In the ancient times, dice was not thought of as a game of chance: it was believed to be controlled by the gods. Dice were cast to choose rulers, make predictions and bet on circumstances.

None other than the High Priest of Israel is said to have used two objects called "urim and thummim" embedded in his breastplate to divine God's will. (We have long lost the knowledge of what the urim and thummim actually were. They probably weren't dice, however.)

Dice games in antiquity were of two main forms: just tossing the things, or board games involving pieces moved according to the dice throws.

The ancient board games typically featured 36 squares marked with symbols such as squares, leaves, letters, and crosses.

The dice themselves have not changed all these millennia: they had and still have six sides. In both dice and board games, usually three dice were thrown. The luckiest throw was three sixes. Fines were levied or pieces moved backward if the results were ones - snake eyes.

A sign in the ruins of a tavern near the praetorian camp said, “Good food and gambling within.” Tables have also been found with wording inscribed on them: “Make room for better players.”

Sports betting was a flourishing institution as well. Horse races and gladiator bouts provided the perfect occasions for that predilection.

But even in the days of yore, gambling went hand in hand with cheating. In Pompeii, for example, archeologists found convincing proof of the existence of loaded dice. Graffiti on a Pompeii wall boasts, “I am skilled enough to win without cheating.” (As Pompeii graffiti went, that was pretty innocuous).

Elsewhere in Pompeii, somebody painted a cartoon lampooning gamblers on the floor of a tavern. The first image shows two men sitting on chairs, with a game board on their knees. The first man, who had thrown the dice, says “Exsi” (I am out). The second man is pointing and saying, “Non tria dv as est” (not three points, but two). In the second picture, the men are standing up, apparently disputing the score, but the tavern keeper steps in: “Itis foris rixsatis” (Leave my place if you want to fight).

Traces of the original Carthaginians

Aside from the excavation of the spectators rank itself, the archaeologists dug two other trenches within the monumental circus. One was to investigate the forerunners of the circus: the buildings that had been torn down to build it in the first place. One seems to have been a necropolis with impressive mausoleums dating from the relatively earlier Roman period.

Others were older, Punic in origin – built by the original Carthagians, who trace their origins to the Phoenicians from the Near East mixing with the local Berber tribes.

The area that was later to become the circus arena had undergone multiple reincarnations beforehand, having served in artisanal and economic activities.

There, the excavators discovered a posthole building, with a cut used to hold a surface timber or stone. This year the archaeologists managed to date this edifice to the Punic period, says Dr Iván Fumadó Ortega, the project head for the Punic era, adding that it was the first structure of its kind found at Carthage.

"We think that the structure, using cavities in the natural rock covered by wooden roofs, probably served a craft that used liquids in large quantities, maybe dyeing or tanning," Ortega added. Perhaps we will know more about this home, and about the interment of gambling fiends in the bleachers, after further excavations next year.



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