An international team of archaeologists excavating the Circus of Carthage in modern-day Tunis have discovered a rare amphora burial in the cavea, the seating section of the circus. Amphora burials were a common practice in ancient North Africa, but they are usually reserved for babies whose remains can easily fit into a clay jar. This amphora is large enough that it could well have contained the skeletal remains of an adult. Dating to the sixth century A.D., it is the only burial discovered at the circus site from after its construction.
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’s circus was built in the 3rd century and was in use for chariot racing and gladiatorial combat into the 6th century. Racing and fighting appear to have stopped after the 530s A.D., but the site was still used for gaming, just of a less organized nature. The excavation unearthed one bone die in the cavea close to the amphora burial.
“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,” [excavation head Dr. Ralf] Bockmann concludes.
Geophysical studies of the Circus of Carthage in the 1970s determined that the arena was about 500 meters (1640 feet) long, 80 meters (262 feet) shorter than the largest of all racing arenas, the Circus Maximus in Rome after which Carthage’s arena was explicitly modeled. Excavations in the next decade found it was even closer to the Circus Maximus in width: 77 meters (253 feet), just two meters slimmer than Rome’s circus. In dimensions alone, Carthage’s arena was the second largest in the Roman Empire, however it had nowhere near the Circus Maximus’ capacity, seating about 45,000 people to Rome’s 150,000.
The German Archaeological Institute (DAI) has been exploring Tunisia’s enormously varied archaeological sites since the 1960s — its work in Carthage was instrumental to the ancient city’s inclusion on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List in 1979 — but the current circus excavation is the result of a 2015 cooperation agreement with the Tunisian Institute National du Patrimoine (INP). A full study and excavation of the Circus of Carthage was the express purpose of the agreement, and archaeologists from DAI and INP have been working together on the first topographical study to examine all the phases of the circus’ history. Because the circus was inside the ancient Punic walls, was in use for centuries and has never been overbuilt, researchers hoped the project would illuminate much about Carthage’s development from the Punic era through the Roman and Vandal periods into the dawn of the Islamic era. Their hopes have been borne out in spades.
A mosaic in Tunis’ Bardo Museum of a chariot race at the circus is the only known representation of the both the interior of the arena and the exterior of the structure. The exterior facade has two tiers of arches. The bleachers are protected from the deadly North African sun by an awning stretched over poles, a design more seen in upscale amphitheaters like the Colosseum rather than in circuses. The heat of Carthage made this unusual arrangement necessary.
Last year’s excavation unearthed another practical accommodation to make a day at the races possible. In the spina (the strip down the middle of the circus the charioteers drove around), the DAI and INP team found hydraulic mortar, the lime mortar Romans used for structures involving water. The mortar was used in water basins that dotted the spina. The water would be scooped up in amphorae by sparsores, men who took on the dangerous job of sprinkling water onto the horses and the chariot wheels as they rounded the turns at the ends of the spina. Possibility of accidental mangling: very high.
This season’s dig has been even more fruitful. The team has found remains much older than the late-ancient amphora burial, going back to the thriving Punic capital before Scipio Aemilianus took Cato the Elder’s advice and went full delenda est on Carthage.
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.