Douglas Boin has penned a useful OpEd in the New York Times … some excerpts:
Last year, Dirk Obbink, an Oxford University papyrologist, received a call from a private collector who possessed a piece of papyrus, extracted from an Egyptian mummy casing, which had writing on it. Examining the markings, Mr. Obbink determined they were lines from two previously unknown poems by Sappho, the ancient Greek poem. The find, announced in January in The Guardian, caused a sensation. It made the rounds in newspapers and blogs; classics buffs published translations on Facebook.
But soon the tide started to turn. Archaeologists and papyrologists, on heightened alert given widespread looting in Arab Spring countries, expressed concern that no information had been provided about the papyrus’s provenance. In eagerness to add lines of Sappho to the canon, they noted, the community had sidestepped potentially uncomfortable questions about their acquisition. Even if the Sappho papyrus has a perfectly legal history, indifference to the provenance of a cultural treasure has sent tacit and dangerous encouragement to traffickers of looted artifacts.
Close study of references, dialect and meter have led many classicists to conclude that the lines are authentic. In a February essay in The Times Literary Supplement, Mr. Obbink outlined a verification process that included multi-spectral photography and carbon dating. The papyrus was dated to between the second and fourth centuries A.D.; spectral analysis confirmed the ink was ancient. Regarding provenance, however, Mr. Obbink was oblique; he said only that he had “documented legal provenance” for the original mummy casing, but that the collector wished to remain anonymous. Mr. Obbink’s official article is slated for publication in a German papyrology journal later this year, but thus far no further details have been forthcoming (Mr. Obbink also ignored requests for comment ahead of publication of this piece).
The secrecy is disturbingly tone deaf to the legal and ethical issues pertaining to ancient finds. The mummy casing is assuredly from Egypt, where that burial practice was famous in antiquity, and where the climate has preserved hundreds, if not thousands, of papyri. The bulk of these were exported in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when papyrologists pulled fragments of texts, including the Gospels of Thomas and Matthew, from an ancient trash heap near Oxyrhynchus. Soon after they left, fragments started appearing on the antiquities market.
In 1970, responding to rising concern surrounding the resale of undocumented antiquities, Unesco drafted its “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.” The U.S. adopted the agreement in 1983; the U.K. in 2002. As the 1970 Unesco guidelines do not explicitly cover papyri, their implementation has been uneven. This began to change in 2007, when the International Association of Papyrologists recommended that members follow Unesco protocols. They counseled “papyrologists who identify material for sale or held in private collections” as stolen from Egypt to “urge the owner to return it” to Egyptian authorities, and “not assist in the marketing of such material.” Now more than ever, these guidelines must be strictly enforced, given the likelihood that many spectacular — and potentially looted — papyri will hit the market in coming years.
According to Roberta Mazza, a papyrologist at the University of Manchester, many mummy casings that reached Europe before the mid-1900s remain on the legal antiquity market. The Sappho papyrus could be among this cohort. But if so, why not publicize this? Silence only gives a green light to those who traffic in antiquities, sending the dangerous message that if a discovery is sensational enough, a looted find could bring a big payday.
- via: Papyrus, Provenance and Looting (New York Times)
It does continue to be disturbing that Dr Obbink has yet to clarify the provenance issue; I honestly can’t imagine the editors of ZPE allowing publication without such information, even if the provenance proves to be questionable.
Our previous coverage on the issue:
- A New Sapphic Poem ~ Wading into the Morass
- New Sappho Followup ~ Some Questions Answered in TLS
- New Sappho Followup II ~ Implications for the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife
… this link should bring up much of the blogosphere coverage …