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Matt McCarty: Substitution, Stelae, and Semiotics: Materializing Sacrifice in Roman Africa

February 16, 2021 @ 12:15 pm - 1:30 pm

The Department of Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies
Spring 2021 Lecture Series
New Approaches to the Ancient Mediterranean World

Zoom link
Meeting ID: 972 5870 9302
Passcode: 412338

Dr. Matt McCarty

February 16: Matt McCarty (University of British Columbia)
“Substitution, Stelae, and Semiotics: Materializing Sacrifice in Roman Africa”

Abstract: Since their discovery, a group of 3rd century CE votive stelae from N’Gaous (Algeria) has played an outsize role in interpreting rites related to child sacrifice in Punic and Roman Africa. The five stelae (plus a sixth discovered more recently) all record, in Latin, details about a sacrifice to Saturn referred to as a morchomor (with variant spellings), describing how a lamb was offered in a sacrifice as a substitution. Morchomor was quickly recognized as being a transliterated Punic loan-word, mlk ’mr, and the expanded texts taken as glosses of the term that have been central to three academic fields: in biblical studies, recognizing Hebrew mlk as a rite (rather than the god Moloch); in Punic studies, deciphering a system of child sacrifice and lamb-substitution; and in Classical studies, identifying a paradigmatic substitution rite that took place in nearly a hundred sanctuaries in Roman Africa.

This paper challenges the French colonial semiotic model underlying these prevalent interpretations by re-situating the N’Gaous stelae not as documentary texts written to gloss ancient terms, but as ritual objects with religious agency. Drawing on anthropological work by Stanley Tambiah and Robert Yelle, I interpret the stelae not as documentary, but as performative: the materialized texts and their interplay with the images above work not to explain a logic of substitution, but rather as technologies to enact that substitution. Ultimately, re-focusing attention on semiotic cultures and the frameworks of meaning-making helps to dismantle longstanding views of Punic religious “continuity” or a monolithic Saturn-cult in North Africa.

March 2: Dan-el Padilla Peralta (Princeton)
Pharmapolitics and the early Roman Expansion: Gender, Slavery, and Ecology in 331 BCE

March 16: Melissa Mueller (University of Massachusetts)
Aphrodite’s Shame: Homer, Sappho, and Eve Sedgwick

March 30: Francesca Martelli (UCLA)
“Cicero, Atticus, and the spectral life of friends (Cicero, ad Atticum 1)”

April 13: Caryn Tamber Rosenau (University of Houston)
“Woman in Drag: Queer Approaches to the Book of Judith”

April 27: Katharine Earnshaw (University of Exeter)
“The Ethics and Temporalities of Rust”


February 16, 2021
12:15 pm - 1:30 pm
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