The Hobby Lobby Settlement: A Gathering Storm for Classicists?

At the outset, I will apologize for the length of this post. It is actually an amalgamation of a couple of posts, with revisions and additions (of course), that I’ve made over the past few years but never actually published because others had covered the main topics more thoroughly than I ever could. But the recent Hobby Lobby settlement, wherein the folks behind the soon-to-open Museum of the Bible and the erstwhile-named Green Scholars program were given a financial slap on the wrist for sketchy importation of a pile of cuneiform tablets. Here’s a smattering of the press coverage if you somehow managed to miss it:

In the wake of that decision, there have been many OpEds from assorted people both defending and shaking their heads at Hobby Lobby (and the Museum of the Bible), but what I want primarily to focus on are the implications of the recent news of a scholar at Brigham Young University who is the subject of an anonymous accusation of professional impropriety because of his association with the Green Scholars Initiative. Here’s the incipit of a piece in the Salt Lake Tribune to bring you up to speed:

An anonymous group of “scholars of archaeology” is calling on Brigham Young University to investigate ties between an assistant professor of ancient scripture and Hobby Lobby, which recently become ensnared in allegations of antiquities smuggling.

In a letter sent to The Salt Lake Tribune and to BYU’s administration and Office of the General Counsel, faculty member Lincoln Blumell is accused of violating professional standards by preparing to publish documents obtained through Hobby Lobby President Steve Green’s Museum of the Bible.

Green and Hobby Lobby recently agreed to pay a $3 million fine over the acquisition of clay tablets and other artifacts potentially looted from Iraq.

“It is unclear whether or how much Dr. Blumell knows about the potential legal and ethical issues raised by his association,” the letter states. “Adding value to these artifacts and legitimizing their seizure by publishing them, even in reputable presses by trained scholars, contravenes professional standards of ethics.”

The coordinator of the letter declined to speak on the record, due to fear of retribution for himself and eight co-authors who have current or previous associations with BYU.

The writers are urging the Provo school to conduct an “impartial inquiry” into Blumell’s work with Hobby Lobby and the Green family.

“These activities not only violate the professional standards of virtually all relevant organizations,” the letter states, “they also jeopardize the reputation of Brigham Young University, its students, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” which owns and operates the school.

Reached by email, Blumell said he was unaware what publication the letter writers were referencing. He acknowledged conducting research on items in the Green family’s collection, but added that they were separate from the Iraqi tablets and artifacts identified by federal prosecutors.

“I have identified some Greek Byzantine texts in the Green collection associated with Hobby Lobby,” Blumell wrote, “but they are of a completely different find and provenance than the cuneiform tablets” at issue in the Iraqi case. […]

A quick look at Blumell’s page suggests that most of the time when he is dealing with documents, they are already in BYU’s collection or they’re from some other well-known collection of papyri (e.g. the POxy series). He admits to looking at some Green Collection-associated documents, but near as I can tell, he (nor anyone else) has published on such. At this point, it certainly looks like Dr Blumell is the target of an attack by unnamed folks with personal axes they figure they can grind.

But when reading about the travails of Dr Blumell, I couldn’t help but reflect on what we know about the amassing of the Green Collection from a Classics point of view. I also could not help adding to that reflection that 2017 has become the year when social media really came of age, what with a President’s tweets being actually newsworthy, and the whole news cycle becoming essentially a tool of ‘fake news’ or alternatively, confirmation bias. And so, in what follows, I hope to demonstrate how several years of  antiquities acquisition by Scott Carroll merge with the spectacular announcements of a new Sappho papyrus a few years ago by Dirk Obbink, and suggest that the series of events presages potentially very difficult times for plenty of people in the Classics profession, including graduate students who were given amazing research opportunities through their  (or their supervisors’) ties to the Green Scholars program.

This was an incredibly difficult piece to actually organize and so I settled on my oft-used timeline format and I’m still not sure it flows. In any event, the timeline is made up largely of excerpts from Scott Carroll’s now dormant (?) Facebook page (*SC* with subsequent [FB}) and his shortlived Twitter feed (*SC* with subsequent [T]; I have screenshots on file if they are taken down). I did not ‘friend’ Scott Carroll to get any of  this information, so there might be more shown to ‘friends’ (which I mention because there are significant lacunae from time to time). The Facebook and Twitter posts will be interrupted from time to time with other items from the news and commentary where it seems needed; my comments often come in [square brackets].

  • *SC* January 27, 2009 [FB]The manuscript I’m working on for the week of 1-26-09. Part of a student-directed research project which the student presented at a conference at Purdue University. Presently, the manuscript (abbreviated ms) is being re-edited and prepared for publication. [in the comments: “There is a story of a guy’s life on this text that we actually have an account of his trial and execution elsewhere by his brother-in-law (Talk about a dysfunctional family!)

I haven’t been able to track down this conference at Purdue might have been. Not sure about the source of this papyrus or anything of the sort.

  • *SC* February 6, 2009 [FB][photo of a piece of a 1600 years bp gospel palimpsest]
  • *SC* March 12, 2009 [FB][photo of a Greek manuscript … no comment added]
  • *SC* August 19, 2009 [FB] [photo a fragment of Matthew being prepared for publication]
  • *SC* August 25, 2009 [FB][photos assorted papyri being prepared for publication that are designated as difficult to read]
  • *SC* August 30, 2009 [FB][photo of a Matthew manuscript he just finished for publication]

The available Scott Carroll Facebook feed falls silent for a few months. At some point in in 2010, the Museum of the Bible was officially established as a non-profit institution; I’m not certain whether all of the artifact-acquisition trips that began in November of 2009 were connected with that.

  • *SC* November 30, 2009 [FB] Trip to Istanbul and Jerusalem to acquire artifacts for the museum. Inside are a very small, more like minuscule, sample of artifacts grouped by type or dealer [this post has photos of papyri: “Magic Carpet Tour 3”; the title is applied a total of 12 files, all with pics; 1 and 2 mostly pots and figurines]
  • *SC* December 6, 2009 [FB][… several posts of photos of artifacts presumably acquired on the above-mentioned trip]
  • *SC* December 10, 2009 [FB][post with pics of mummy masks and other papyri]
  • *SC* January 18, 2010 [FB][…] I’m heading off to Zurich to acquire some more Dead Sea Scroll!! (but not before going past the British Museum and the British Library to see some old friends. haha! cheers ….
  • *SC* January 18, 2010 [FB]Purchased the 4th-earliest Bible in the world, dating to the 5thc. Reviewing other ancient texts for sale today. Then off to Oxford to meet collegues, [sic] visit sites associated with Tyndale and CS Lewis and to acquire a vast collection of hugely significant papyri. In the eve, Les Miserables, in London!
  • *SC* January 20, 2010 [FB] Inspected for purchase the largest known piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls outside of Israel — a huge section of Genesis. Also evaluated stacks of medieval manuscripts for acquisition in Zurich. Just arrived in Israel; staying in Tel Aviv on the beach. I can hear the roar of the ocean from my window!
  • *SC* January 22, 2010 [FB] A full day in Jerusalem. Acquired over 200 scrolls, thousands of cuneiform tablets and met again with the family that owns all of the Dead Sea Scrolls to build the relationship and start negotiating for the largest collection of scrolls outside of Israel. All of the texts are significant and unknown! Guess the asking price …?!? [in the comments, in response to guesses, SC mentions $51 million might be a low starting bid]
  • *SC* February 3, 2010 [FB] Unravelling ancient Greek papyrus scrolls!! Hmmm …. one says “Do not open!”
  • *SC* February 4, 2010 [FB] Scrolls unvalled [sic] and pieced together– and will be put between glass, tomorrow. They contain Coptic and Greek texts of scripture. Now separating multiple papyrus sheets used as cartonage [sic] in mummy masks I’ve dissolved! Will I be cursed by the mummies? Pics to follow …
  • *SC* February 7, 2010 [FB] Boiling mummy cartonnage on the stove –what a lovely stench!!!! — and separating layers and layers of Greek texts on sheets of papyri! Whoooha!
  • *SC* [posts about papyri and the like break off; February 25th mentions a trip to London to work on unknown biblical papyri with a colleague]
  • *SC* March 17, 2010 [FB] Off to London and then Oxford U. I’ll be in Maastricht, Holland and Brussels over the weekend.
  • *SC* March 20, 2010 [FB] The tulips are beginning to bloom here in Maastricht. We are meeting with several manuscript dealers today who have wonderful items and we have a full slate of other work to do. I hope to end the day kicking back and watching the UK upset France in a BIG rugby match.
  • *SC* March 20, 2010 [FB] Fascinating day of discoveries. What was for dinner? Something traditional. When in Holland do as the Dutch! Ox-tail soup, pigeon and quail, veggies and potatoes and spiced ice cream and fried pineapple rings for dessert. No, I didn’t eat at MacDonald’s!
  • *SC* March 22, 2010 …[last post for the year; nothing to do with antiquities].

At this point, the publically-available feed breaks off for over a year. There were no posts (or at least no available posts) for the remainder of 2010 and most of 2011.  Even so, it seems pretty clear that Scott Carroll is very active purchasing plenty of antiquities from various buyers in Europe. We’ve also had our first mention of boiling mummy papyri (more on that below). Again, whether all this activity was on behalf of the Green Collection or for Carroll’s own purposes isn’t clear at this point. That said, there was a sudden flurry of press coverage in various Baylor-related outlets, likely with the hope of attracting the attention of the mainstream press. First was an article in the Summer 2011 edition of Baylor Magazine (Recovering Ancient Texts), which, inter alia mentions soaking mummy masks and the discovery of a fragment of Demosthenes:

More than 20 professors and students at Baylor University recently performed an unconventional research project, working with third-century BCE Egyptian mummy coverings and papyri that was used for domestic purposes dating back to the fifth century.

They dissolved exterior coverings to find discarded ancient papyri writings that were used by Egyptian mortuary priests. The priests recycled discarded texts, re-hydrating strips to cover the embalmed body before plastering it, drying it and painting it.

“To the students’ amazement, the mummy covering and domestic papyri were submerged separately into a bath with gentle dissolving agents — and out of the murky waters emerged bright, clear and sometimes complete papyrus texts as if they had been raised from the dead,” says Dr. Scott Carroll, who is overseeing undergraduate students in the work. A research professor of manuscript studies and the biblical tradition in Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, Carroll is also director of the Green Collection, which supplied the items for study.

More than 150 papyri texts were recovered, including Egyptian funerary texts, letters in Greek and Coptic, and a fourth-century Coptic Gospel text. Fragments of a copy of Greek statesman Demosthenes’ “On the Crown” were discovered dating to the mid-fifth century BCE — only a few generations after the speech was delivered. […]

Shortly thereafter, the Fall 2011 edition of the newsletter of the Baylor Classics Department recounts the events of a similar session on September 9. Here’s a screenshot of the article:

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 7.00.27 PM.png


Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 7.21.45 PM

A number of things are worthy of note here, not least of which is the brand of detergent (Dawn), and the Classicists involved. Clearly, Classicists are taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the acquisitions of the Green Collection. Perhaps more noteworthy are the projects mentioned: an early edition of Homer and an “extremely rare fragment of Theognis”, among others.

About the same time (September 13 or thereabouts), there was a Baylor press release, which is no longer online but which is fortunately the first thing I had ever heard about this sort of thing and so was presented here. That piece mentions, inter alia, a soaking from back in April and again the Demosthenes on the Crown find. It mentions similar activities on September 8, which are possibly the ones mentioned in the Classics newsletter above.

Finally, from Baylor at least, the Lariat of September 21 got into the act; inter alia:

[…] Dr. David Lyle Jeffrey, distinguished professor of literature and the humanities in the Honors College, said this type of research for undergraduate students is almost unheard of.

“The Green Scholars Initiative allows students to do undergraduate research that results in publication, [which] is a distinct advantage for many types of graduate programs,” Jeffrey said. “Beyond that, the advantage to the students is [that] they get to work with manuscripts in a way that no other undergraduates in the country get to.”

This semester the Green Scholars Initiative will include about 18 to 20 students — mostly sophomores, juniors and seniors — who will begin working on manuscript projects.

Jeffrey explained the manuscript projects typically take a year to finish, with some possibly taking as many as three.

Alexandria, La., senior Stephen Margheim is involved in one of the first projects implemented through this program. Margheim was assigned papyri fragments to research and identify.

“It took me a week to identify [the papyri] as Homer from the Iliad,” Margheim explained.

Dr. Jeffrey Fish, associate professor of classics, is serving as Margheim’s mentor for this project. Margheim explained that the two would now work together to write an article to publish in an academic journal.

“I’ve been thrilled with his work from the very start,” Fish said. “He was able to tell what the papyrus was without a database and he was so enthusiastic about reading it that I had to give him bits of it at a time. He has done superb work.”

Margheim explained that this semester he would also work as a mentor to students who will be completing other projects through the program. He said the program puts a real focus on undergraduate research through hands-on experience.

“I think it is, in fact, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that’s not just cliché,” Margheim said. “It’s given myself — and in the future, many others — the ability to learn about papyri and the study of contextual tradition in a way we could have never done in a class setting. It’s been amazingly helpful and cool.” […]

For what it’s worth, when I first heard of this program, I’m on the record as labelling the participants as “lucky kids” (see above for the link).

We should probably note in passing at this point that the Facebook feed for 2012 just lists places he had visited since 2011 (generated by Facebook); there was one non-interest post from 2012; Carroll updated his profile pic in June of 2013; nothing from 2014. As such, we’re now turning to the Twitter feed.

  • *SC* October 16, 2011 [T] I poured over 1100+ scrolls spanning 700 yrs stashed in a dank subterranean crypt outside the walls of the City of David.
  • *SC* October 16, 2011 [T] Spent the day with a private collection of papyrus. Identified early texts of scripture, a lost historical work and a non-canonical gospel!
  • *SC* October 16, 2011 [T] Departing Tel Aviv for the UK to retrieve 2 very important Hebrew biblical manuscripts and early biblical papyri ….
  • *SC* October 17, 2011 [T] Landed in the UK and retrieved a private collection of papyri including unpublished biblical and classical texts.
  • *SC* [skipping a couple of tweets relating to exhibit meetings in Kenya and the Vatican Library]
  • *SC* October 18, 2011 [T] [announcement of a facebook fanpage; hype for Bible exhibit at St Peter’s … I was unable to locate this page]
  • *SC* October 18, 2011 [T] Recently ‘discovered’ lead tablets vaunted in media as new Dead Sea Scrolls. Oxford prof will publish an article showing they were forged.

These are the Jordan Lead Codices which we’ve dealt with ad nauseam in this blog. You can use the search box to locate previous posts on that if you so desire. Thankfully, Carroll does not seem to be involved with them in any way.

  • *SC* October 19, 2011 [T] An unpublished Greek text of Leviticus discovered in the Green Collection dates earlier than many Dead Sea Scrolls.
  • *SC* [more on Vatican exhibit]
  • *SC* October 20, 2011 [T] Forming a research group to study the Codex Climaci Rescriptus at Cambridge University.
  • *SC* October 20, 2011 [T] Retrieved a mummy mask, covered w/gold made on the inside with papyri paper-mache. Long-lost works will be extracted from it.
  • *SC* October 20, 2011 [T] Returning to US with an early-3c papyrus of Hebrews. A prof and undergrads will be publishing it with the Green Scholars Initiative.
  • *SC* October 21, 2011 [T] 6 papyri of Hebrews are known; 4 of 6 are in the Green collection and being studied by profs and students in the Green Scholars Initiative.
  • *SC* [a couple of tweets on Bible history]
  • *SC* October 22, 2011 [T] Classical papyri identified in the recently acquired collection including one of the earliest-known works of Plato and many more to follow.
  • *SC* [skipping a number of tweets about 13th century manuscripts, the Vatican exhibit, lectures, etc.]
  • *SC* November 20, 2011 [T] Presented and described biblical papyri to the President of Nigeria, cabinet members and advisers who showed great interest in the items.
  • *SC* [skipping a number of tweets about the Passages exhibit]
  • *SC* November 26, 2011 [T] Finished exhibit and lectures in West Africa with over 21,000 registered. Now in Istanbul look at a collection of unpublished papyri.
  • *SC* November 27, 2011 [T] My eyes feasted on classical texts, royal decrees, and Biblical and Gnostic texts; nearly 1,000 papyri hidden in this private treasure-trove.
  • November 28, 2011 Christie’s Auction of some Robinson Papyri [note: this is not in the twitter feed]
  • *SC* November 29, 2011 [T] Met with scholars at Oxford regarding the Green Scholars Initiative and research opportunities for professors and students — it’s a go!
  • *SC* [also on November 29th, tweets mention acquisition of an Aitken illegally-printed Bible at auction, and later plenty of Passages hype tweets]

It’s worth pausing here to note the timing. On November 27 Scott Carroll is apparently in Istanbul. The Robinson auction was the day after that. On November 29th we know Carroll was in London both for an auction (presumably this one, where the Aitken Bible was) and to meet folks at Oxford regarding the Green Scholars Initiative. Was Carroll in London in time for the Christie’s auction? The Aitken Bible acquisition mentioned above is the only event in Carroll’s timeline(s) that I can connect to an actual auction.

  • *SC* January 18, 2012 [T] retweet of Kyra Phillips tweet about Steve Green joining her to talk about Romans fragment
  • *SC* [skipping a pile of tweets about Passages, Vatican Exhibit, and assorted hype for the Green Collection]
  • *SC* March 12, 2012 [T]

The item from the Toledo Blade is interesting because it does show how long Scott Carroll was working on behalf of the Greens; it also shows he did go to auctions. Inter alia:

About six years ago, Mr. Carroll said, he met Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby and a devout Christian. The crafts stores close on Sundays, and the corporation’s mission statement says its purpose is, “Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles.”

“I was introduced to the Greens around 2005 or 2006 by a friend of mine and I knew they had an interest in the Bible and religion, and that they had great success in business,” Mr. Carroll said. “Once a year for five years I went to them and just talked with them about the need for a nonsectarian museum of the Bible that really focuses on the research and importance of that book. For five years, they listened, but showed me the door.”

In 2009, when a handful of important biblical artifacts were to be sold at auction at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London, Mr. Carroll again approached the Greens. This time they consulted as a family, asked Mr. Carroll to set a price, and gave him permission to bid.

“We were able to acquire five of seven items,” Mr. Carroll said.

Afterward, the Greens met him in Oklahoma City to discuss plans to obtain more biblical texts and artifacts.

“I speak 13 ancient languages but one language I didn’t know was Oklahoman,” Mr. Carroll said. “Their classic quote to me was, ‘What we’re going to do is we’re going to start slow.’ But starting slow means something totally different to me than it did to them.”

Acquiring artifacts

Since those first purchases 26 months ago, Mr. Carroll has traveled half-a-million air miles a year to personally inspect, buy, and bring home important items for the collection. With help from his staff, he has acquired nearly 50,000 artifacts with no plans of slowing down.

“We are rapidly acquiring at the same pace we have been over the last several years and have the green light as well to nurture new, additional benefactors,” Mr. Carroll said. “I fully anticipate developing a few more benefactors over the course of the next year or so that will perhaps acquire at the pace of the Greens, and this collection will continue to expand at this rate.”

He said the timing for building the collection has been good, with “objects coming to us virtually out of nowhere in these times of financial need.”

Mr. Carroll is amazed by the commitment of the Green family and their goal of sharing the collection with the public.

“It really is a remarkable collection and I appreciate the Greens’ trust and, of course, their generosity in support of the vision to do something like this with the hope of displaying the items in a museum. They are looking seriously at properties in Washington, D.C., by the Mall.”

Mr. Carroll acknowledged that some of the rarest artifacts cost multiple millions of dollars, but declined to discuss an overall budget or financial details of the collection.


And closing off the twitter stream:

  • *SC* [remaining three tweets are about the Verbum Domini exhibit; last tweet is April 24, 2012]

Scott Carroll was no longer associated with the Green Collection sometime early in 2013; he appears to have formed his own Manuscript Research Group (which may have existed before this time; I really should check). At the time he had a website which included documents pertaining to his business authenticating manuscripts. One of the documents from that site (no longer online, but I do have a copy) is a document entitled “Manuscript Research Group Summary of Discoveries 2011-Present. In Various Stages of the Publication Process.” Depending on how Adobe parses dates, that item is from either February 12, 2013 or December 2, 2013, most likely the former for reasons which will be made clear below. The first part of that document lists the “Classical Papyri Discoveries”. The first 15 are various things to do with Homer. Then we read “Sappho’s Poems”, “Theognis Elegies”, “Pindar Odes”, “Euripides’ Phoenician Women”, “Aristophanes Delegation of Women”, “Plato’s Phaedo”, “Plato’s Menexenus”, “Demosthenes on the Crown”, “Menander’s The Girl Who Cut Her Hair Short”, and assorted other texts (including one on Dionysiac Mysteries and two on Mysteries of Demeter). In all “Nearly 65 discoveries of significant classical papyri presently being prepared for publication”. Most readers of this blog will recognize that there is some pretty important stuff mentioned here and I continue to wonder what, if anything of it has been published (my latest unproductive query, as folks who follow me on Twitter know, was the publication status of a recent find of a piece of Menander).

This list is sort of available at Youtube, interestingly enough. A video dated September 6, 2013 is a talk by Scott Carroll at UofN (with simultaneous Spanish translation, which can be distracting). It’s rather long, so following the link below I’ll highlight some things:

For our purposes, the interesting bit starts at minute 23, where Carroll begins describing how they extract texts from mummy papyri. At 24:36 we see the mummy mask dissolved at Baylor (see below) and he goes through slides of the process. At 27:47 he begins the list of texts found. He begins with New Testament things, then at 28:13 mentions “lost works of Sappho” and “tons of Homer”. After a digression on assorted spectral imaging technologies, at 32:27 he begins talking about things found in the “last year and a half”. Every now and then you get a glimpse of the screen and it is clear he is projecting the “Summary of Discoveries” document we mentioned above. He mentions “Fourteen texts of Homer” and then says “I don’t know if you know who Sappho is …”. He breaks off, then mentions the Times Literary Supplement (!) and says “Thirty of these items would be front page news when they’re published.” At 33:40 we hear again of Sappho, Euripides “who’s quoted by Jesus in the New Testament”. He then passes around a fragment of Euripides (!). He talks about the fragment for a bit, then at 34:23 says, “The other text being passed around, Menander, was quoted by Paul!”. Then he quickly mentions “Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes. About 65 Classical texts in the last year and a half.”

At the 38 minute mark is an incredibly important quote. Carroll is interrupted by his wife and says to the crowd, “No pictures of the papyrus please. They’re not published. We have — just understand the value of these things is enormous. There are professors from North America who would send students here. They would pay their tickets and send them here to do two things. To take pictures of the text for them to publish. And to discredit you and us because they are in your hands.” Clearly, Scott Carroll is protective of what he has.

We’re going to flash forward a bit here to include a video that was posted in May of 2014 showing the ‘dissolving’ of the mummy mask which Carroll references in slides above:

On November 2, 2013 there was an interview with Scott Carroll in the Daily Trust (Nigeria). The interview is no longer online (indeed, the site for the newspaper seems to have expired or been hijacked or something) but I did keep a copy of the page at the time (and still have on file, obviously). Here’s an excerpt:

What are some of the texts you’ve worked on?

We’ve worked with some of the earliest texts of the most important documents written in the ancient world and the early medieval world. The most popular and widely disseminated author was Homer. In the last year we have identified probably 30 new texts of Homer, including some of the earliest known most significant passages. One of the most beloved female poets of the ancient world was Sappho. Her texts are highly elusive. Very few survived. We have a number of texts from Sappho, and other famous authors, philosophers, playwrights, and of course religious writings: Jewish works, Christian works, biblical texts in Hebrew and Greek and even Arabic texts, very early texts of the Qur’an. We are happy to find anything. You name important literature, we are finding the earliest or more significant texts of these things in private collections. So a wide variety.

You’ve actually found new texts from Homer and Sappho?

We’ve found fragments of unverified texts of Homer. These are texts that we’ve never had verification for, just later verification, that happens frequently because it’s such a big work. Sappho, yes, filling in the gaps of her texts. Menander, a famous comedian, we have a text of his to fill in the gaps of things we just don’t know. Many of these texts date to the time of the great African library of Alexandria.

You said you’ve found these texts in private collections? Where?

These collections geographically range throughout Europe, and they were amassed during the early 20th century, when items were purchased freely and openly on the art market. There are families that have substantial collections of interest and have not studied and invested in research. They need the assistance of research groups such as our own, to help them understand the value of what they have. Otherwise collectors will just go in and buy things from them blindly. So we see ourselves as really assisting people who lack resources, so if they should choose to sell them or donate them somewhere, they know exactly what they have.

Could you tell me about the texts you’ve found in mummy masks?

In Egypt in their burial process, they mummified the body and they covered it with ritual coverings. They are plaster with paintings and sometimes gold, but the infrastructure of how they did the inside of that varied. One way that they made the inside of the mummy covering, known as cartinage, is actually with discarded ancient papyrus paper. They would send someone out to the garbage dump to pick up fragments of discarded paper. It was very valuable material in the ancient world, so it was discarded with writings. They picked it up and they molded it wet and it dried and they applied the plaster over it. Other scholars have been doing this for many decades, but we have developed techniques to extract the inside writings while preserving the external art, and in doing that we’ve found encased texts that can date back to the library of Alexandria. These come from private collections of this mummy cartinage. It was very collectable, so there are large collections of it throughout Europe. We work with those.

What sort of texts did you find in these mummy masks?

On any given occasion, somewhere around 5% of the texts are what we would call literary and the other 90-95% are documentary. They are letters, they are accounts, they are receipts, they are notes of one sort or another. All are important to tell us about the culture and societal background, but the literary texts are of greater value, so you find an assortment of those. We try to be very systematic as scholars, so it is not like a treasure hunt. Sometimes you find nothing inside the cartinage. At the end of the day we end up finding whatever we find, and we find all sorts. When I talk about the range of materials we covered, it’s all sorts of things, from biblical texts to classical texts.

How old were these masks?

Of course, it’s not just the mask, it’s a whole body covering—they go back thousands of years BC, but we target ones that date somewhere around 250 BC. Earlier and even during this time, they would sometimes use linen and also sometimes make them kind of solid on the inside, so they had other processes as well. But 250 gives us the date for the use of Greek and the emersion of the Greek language. The process died out in the first and second century AD. We know that when we are working with cartinage that dates to that time, we have strong likelihood of finding Greek texts. Greek texts yield the kind of literary texts we are looking for. But you may have Homer and the Bible and a love letter and an account, someone complaining about their taxes, all together in one mummy covering. They could range over several hundred years. It’s like a mini-excavation.

So again we’re hearing of finds of Homer and Sappho, but at this point we set Scott Carroll aside and come a little closer to Classics home with the now (in)famous Sappho publication by Dirk Obbink. We dealt with this in a previous post to a large extent, so I’ll just post salient excerpts here.  On January 28, 2014  the Daily Beast announced the Sappho find (James Romm):

The two poems came to light when the owner of an ancient papyrus, dating to the 3rd century A.D., consulted an Oxford classicist, Dirk Obbink, about the Greek writing on the tattered scrap. Dr. Obbink, a MacArthur fellow and world-renowned papyrologist, quickly realized the importance of what the papyrus contained and asked its owner for permission to publish it. His article, which includes a transcription of the fragmentary poems, will appear in a scholarly journal this spring, but an on-line version has already been released.

The next day, January 29, 2014 in the Guardian (Charlotte Higgins):

The poems came to light when an anonymous private collector in London showed a piece of papyrus fragment to Dr Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist at Oxford University.

On February 2, 2014 Bettany Hughes in the Times gave us the first hint we were dealing with cartonnage:

It is the bolt from the blue that every historian dreams of. Professor Dirk Obbink was minding his own business recently in Oxford when he took an anonymous phone call. The elderly gentleman on the end of the line had material from an ancient Egyptian burial in his possession. He’d noticed that scraps of the cartonnage (the Egyptian equivalent of papier-mâché, made of recycled papyrus) bore the ghostly imprint of writing. Might these words, the stranger wondered, be of any interest?

Professor Obbink, one of the world’s leading papyrologists, thought they might. Prising the layers of shredded papyrus apart, he had to hold his breath. Because here — pretty much instantly recognisable — were delicate, fragmentary lines of the elusive ancient Greek poet Sappho. […]

On February 4, 2014  my aforementioned blog post was up, by which time Obbink’s preliminary paper mentioned by Romm had already been taken down. What’s important to note is that the preliminary paper (I am one of many people who downloaded a copy before it was taken down)  notes traces of gesso:

 The handwriting (as well as format and line-spacing) is identical with P. GC.
inv. 105. A kollesis is visible running along the right edge of the papyrus, so that it
cannot have formed part of the same sheet as P. GC. inv. 105 frr. 2-3 (containing Sa.
16-17, perhaps 18 and an unknown poem, and Sa. 5), but is likely to have come from
a sheet that stood directly either before or after this sheet. Occasionally, in places, ink traces are obscured by spots of adherent material that appears to be light-brown gesso or silt, specs of which are also to be seen on the back. The top portion of the column was detached horizontally (perhaps by ancient damage?), but has been reattached in modern times.


On February 5, 2014 Dirk Obbink told things in his own words in the TLS:

The authorship of Sappho was clinched, however, when the papyrus’s text was found to overlap, in two narrow vertical bands of letters, with fragments of two previously published papyri containing fragments of Sappho. The antiquity of the physical fabric of the papyrus is beyond reproach: indeed, it was damaged in ancient times, torn up the centre of the one complete surviving column, and still bears the ancient papyrus repair strips on its back applied in antiquity. It is written in black carbon ink in an identifiable professional bookhand, but with idiosyncratic stylistic traits that would be difficult for a modern calligrapher consistently to emulate. It also passes tests of spectral analysis for density of ancient carbon-base ink. The authenticity of the ancient mummy cartonnage panel, from which the papyrus was extracted, having been recycled in antiquity to accompany a burial, has been established through its documented legal provenance. The owner of the papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, but has submitted the papyrus to autopsy and multi-spectral photography, as well as Carbon 14 testing of an uninscribed portion of the papyrus sheet itself by an American laboratory, that returned a date of around 201 AD, with a plus-minus range of a hundred years.

By this point, readers might recall, Obbink was under extreme pressure to reveal the provenance of this fragment, especially since there was mention of mummy cartonnage– I’m not certain whether we had been regaled yet with all the stories of Scott Carroll dissolving mummy masks for the Green Scholars Initiative (and Obbink was/is associated with that group). And so it was with great anticipation that a paper was read on behalf of Obbink at the Society of Classical Studies meeting in January of 2015.  The paper (pg. 1) revealed some ‘nuancing’ of the story we had been told so far:


As reported and documented by the London owner of the ‘Brothers’ and ‘Kypris Poems’ fragment, all of the fragments were recovered from a fragment of papyrus cartonnage formerly in the collection of David M. Robinson and subsequently bequeathed to the Library of the University of Mississippi. The Library later de-accessioned it in order to purchase Faulkenr materials. It was on of two pieces flat inside a sub-folder (folder ‘E3’) inside a main folder (labelled ‘Papyri Fragments; Gk.’), on of 59 packets of papyri fragments sold at auction at Christie’s in London in November 2011. […]

The layers of the cartonnage fragment, a thin flat compressed mass of papyrus fragments, were separated by the owner and his staff by dissolving in a warm-water solution. The owner originally believed that he had dissolved a piece of ‘mummy’ cartonnage, as I reported in TLS. But this turned out upon closer inspection of the original papyri not to be the case: none of the fragments showed any trace of gesso or paint prior to dissolving or after. […] The piece of cartonnage into which the main fragment containing the ‘Brothers’ and ‘Kypris’ Poems’ was enfolded (bottom to top, along still visible horizontal fold-lines, with the written side facing outwards) was probably domestic or industrial cartonnage: it might have been employed e.g. for a book-cover or book-binding. A group of twenty-some smaller fragments extracted from this piece, being not easily identified or re-joined, were deemed insignificant and so traded independently on the London market by the owner, and made their way from the same source into the Green Collection in Oklahoma City. […]

So the new story is that we’re dealing with ‘industrial cartonnage’ and not mummy cartonnage, based on the lack of any trace of gesso or paint “prior to dissolving or after”. If this is the case, Obbink did not correct things in the published version (Two New Poems by Sappho,  p 33 in ZPE 189 (2014)):

Occasionally, in places, ink-traces are obscured by spots of adherent material that appears to be light-brown gesso or silt, specs of which are also to be seen on the back. The top portion of the column was detached horizontally (perhaps by ancient damage?), but has been reattached in modern times.

Of course, it is possible that the article was in press already and couldn’t be changed.

Cf description of the other 20 fragments (Burris, S. ,Fish, J., Obbink, D., New Fragments of Book 1 of Sappho, p.1 also in ZPE 189 (2014)):

Four fragments, assembled from some twenty separate pieces recovered from cartonnage, written along the fibers and comprising parts of at least five columns of a papyrus roll, of which at least four are continuous. The back is blank.

Looking at the big picture is where everything just becomes murkier for me:

  • the auction is on November 28, 2011
  • early in 2013 (after Scott Carroll is no longer associated with the GSI), we begin hearing about Sappho
  • the first announcement of the find in the press (Romm) has a private collector approaching Obbink with a fragment and the latter immediately recognized its importance
  • the Times piece (Hughes) has Obbink personally prising apart the cartonnage and immediately recognizing Sappho
  • the preliminary version of the ZPE paper mentions gesso on the fragment
  • Obbink in the TLS is calling it mummy cartonnage and does indicate it underwent a pile of testing
  • in his SCS paper, Obbink tells us it came from the auction but also that it was separated by the owner and his (?) staff in a warm water solution and that there was no trace of gesso before or after
  • when the ZPE paper comes out, there is mention of gesso
  • another ZPE paper in the same issue deals with twenty fragments from the same auction, which were apparently sold to the Green Collection separately

So here’s the issue: who did the separating of the cartonnage and was Obbink present for it? The use of a warm water solution is characteristic of Scott Carroll’s methods and he had been talking about finding Sappho for quite a while. Was he the unnamed owner of the papyrus?  Or was this all referring to the 20 fragments now in the Green Collection? Either way, Carroll must have known about the other piece that Obbink now lends his name to. Is Obbink’s Sappho Papyrus part of the Green Collection (it doesn’t seem to be)? Was it something that actually was found in a mummy mask of some sort and then bundled with the others in some way? Why does the story seem to keep changing? It’s all so very sketchy when seen ‘from the outside’ of the profession.

At this point we’ll break off the narrative and note that there was much skepticism on the scholarly side for a few months after the announcement.  I won’t go into it in any detail, but will simply point to Roberta Mazza’s excellent posts (in reverse order on this page). My own post on the matter might also be of use.

Sadly, the more one pokes around the web, the sketchier things become. Consider the following video from the National Apologetics Conference (October 16-17, 2015). In this clip, Josh McDowell is interviewing Scott Carroll about the oldest Gospel of Mark fragment which many of us have been hearing about for ages and which, like many other things, we’ve been waiting for publication:

If you go to the 3:34 mark, McDowell asks Carroll who is the lead person in charge of the publishing.  The response: “The most important person of note is Dirk Obbink, who is [inaudible]. Dirk Obbink is an outstanding scholar. He’s one of the world’s leading specialists in papyri. He directs the collection. For students in here you may remember hearing the word Oxyrhynchus papyri. He is the director of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.” After noting that Obbink doesn’t have a religious axe to grind, he continues, “He specializes in the dating of handwriting and as he was looking at the — and both times I saw the papyrus [sc. the Mark fragment] it was in his possession. At Oxford in Christchurch and actually on his pool table in his office along with a number of mummy heads …”.  The optics are definitely not good here.

And, of course, that’s just one aspect of how bad it looks for the Classicists working with Green Collection materials as seen above. Beyond P. Sapph. Obbink, there appear to be many significant Classical fragments found, most of them identified four or more years ago. When and where are they being published? Why haven’t we heard about a Menander fragment that sounds like it is at least as important as the Sappho one? There’s apparently a ‘ton of Homer’ … Theognis … Demosthenes … Plato … and on and on. From a Classical standpoint, we know that Brill has a new Papyrus series for the Green Collection and that Obbink is somehow involved. But have we heard of any specifics of any potentially forthcoming publications? Does Brill or someone else have exclusive publication rights (if so, how did the twenty fragments of Sappho get published in ZPE?)? Does Scott Carroll retain publication rights for items his cartonnage-separating efforts revealed? Carroll is always ‘preparing things for publication’. What does ‘publication’ mean to him? Who owns what? When will we (and the rest of the world) see all this amazing stuff that apparently has been found?

What further complicates things is, of course, that these all seem to be finds associated somehow with now-publically-discredited Hobby Lobby and/or Scott Carroll and acquired in various ways and from various places. Is it significant that rarely in his Twitter or Facebook does Carroll mention purchasing items at an auction? We read of private collections and the like, and it sounds like there is an awful lot of things of interest currently in private hands. Collection history is clearly going to be an issue, no matter when (if?) these items are published; the Sappho papyrus is probably just a hint of what issues will be arising.

Meanwhile, there are Classicists — undergraduates, graduates, and supervisors — dealing with these texts that clearly should have been published by now. But given the current climate created by the Hobby Lobby legal decision, it seems it is going to become even more difficult to publish anything associated with them, especially if there is no rock solid collection history for whatever is being published. And even if the collection history does appear solid (as with the Sappho papyrus … it’s about as solid as anything else coming out of Christie’s), the stories attached to the finds will inevitably be questioned (“private collector approaches noted scholar” sounds barely one step up from ‘Anonymous Swiss Collector’ no?). And how many of them might find themselves in the same position as Lincoln Blumell, being put on the defensive for being a scholar. As the meme says, “Brace Yourselves” …

Classical Newswire ~ July 20, 2017

Classical Reception can be serious business:

A very strange attack on antiquities:

Lincoln Blumell is on the receiving end of some of the early fallout from the Hobby Lobby settlement; I suspect we’ll be reading more of this sort of thing:

A roundtable discussion arising from the Hobby Lobby case:

A temple of Apollo excavated at Messina (Italian):

A bit out of our purview, period-wise, but an interesting find of Roman coins in a Chinese burial:

Peter Jones’ latest in the Spectator:

Some coin auction results, including a Julius Caesar ‘Perpetual Dictator’ issue:

Some press coverage of the Ancient Graffiti Project: