Unravelling the John Rylands papyrus collection

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 15.10.01This week the John Rylands Library hosts an international conference on the Rylands papyri: From Egypt to Manchester: unravelling the John Rylands papyrus collection. I am happy to have a number of colleagues and friends coming to a (so far!) sunny Manchester. You can download the program from here: Conference.

I will be tweeting from my account, so follow @papyrologyatman for live updating from Thursday afternoon through Saturday.

Green papyri: accounts don’t balance, again…

I have already written that maths does not seem to be a precise science in the Green household. Now there is a new account that does not balance. I was informed via email by the curator of the Green papyri, Josephine Dru, that the collection counts about 1,000 papyrus fragments, mostly of documentary nature. But I read in the Brill webpage announcing the forthcoming edition series that

“The Green Collection contains over 50,000 items, and now holds nearly 15,000 papyri acquired from private collections in Europe, and continues to grow. The collection is approximately 70% Greek, 15% Coptic and 15% late Egyptian.”

This was written in August 2012, when Indiana Scott Carroll was still on board, and we know that Scott tended to exaggerate.  At the moment there is an unbalance of 14,000: can we have the numbers straight?

That European private collections sold 15,000 papyri from 2009 to 2012 (i.e. from the year when the Green family started collecting to the publication of the Brill webpage) is also striking, but not for Brill, it appears. I have already asked for transparency on acquisition circumstances, but without much success so far.

Update, 8 July 2014: Josephine Dru, curator of the Green papyri, has kindly confirmed me via e-mail that 1,000 is the correct number of pieces in the collection. It remains striking to me that 1,000 pieces were sold on the antiquities market in just three years.

“From Egypt to Manchester: Unravelling the John Rylands Papyrus Collection”, Manchester 4-6 September 2014

P.Ryl. 457 aka P52: Brent Nongbri will talk about it on Friday 5 September.

P.Ryl. 457 aka P52: Brent Nongbri will talk about it on Friday 5 September.

The program of the international conference on the John Rylands papyrus collection is now available online through this link.

The conference will take place at The John Rylands Library on Deansgate. Attendance is free, but registration is essential because of space limits.

I hope you’ll join us!

Book binding cartonnage: a Rylands intermezzo

Caroline Checkley-Scott, Tim Higson and Jennifer Cromwell

Caroline Checkley-Scott, Tim Higson and Jennifer Cromwell

This week Jennifer Cromwell has joined the John Rylands Research Institute and will stay with us as visiting research fellow for working on the Coptic papyri. Jenny has studied already this material a few years ago, with Malcolm Choat, another dear friend and regular visitor of the John Rylands Library.

We opened some of the boxes of the so-called ‘Coptic Limbo’, a meaningful label under which the Library has conveniently put fragments that never went through conservation, proper cataloguing and obviously publication. With the help of Jennifer and others, we are now working on improving the situation.

Yesterday we had a session with our conservators, Tim Higson and Caroline Checkley-Scott, in order to study some pieces more closely. Box 4 has made the joy of Caroline, an expert in book binding. Here is some of the material we found and discussed.

Book binding

Maybe this seems to you just a messy agglomerate of leather, parchment, mud, and textile, but it is not! These are the remains of a book covering that escaped from the destructive hands of dealers and past papyrologists that too often dismantled objects, i.e. archaeological evidence, like this, for recovering the only bits they were interested in: texts, either to be sold or read.

This conglomerate in fact reminded me a frame that collects parchments probably coming from a very similar context, which went destroyed for text-oriented researches:

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 and 462 © The John Rylands Library

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 an 462
© The John Rylands Library

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 and 462 © The John Rylands Library

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 and 462
© The John Rylands Library

It is important to be aware that dealers habits and past conservation decisions dictated by purely text-oriented research have compromised important archaeological evidence that would have greatly improved our knowledge, for instance, of the history of the book. How did the ancients fabricate books? Did their technology change over time? Which materials did they employ? These are all key-research questions we can answer, at least in part, through the study of this messy-muddy remains (and this is only a sample among many we luckily have here…).

Nobody would operate nowadays as it was done in the past, except dealers and possibly people madly desperate to find the ‘ultimate’ version of the Bible or some other key-text for their own purposes. Unfortunately we know there are still people belonging to the two above-mentioned categories around. It is important to give them a stop!

Looting: A Call for Action

In these days we have been given important reports on the illegal market of antiquities from Egypt. If you haven’t yet, read the article by Bel Trew on the Daily Beast and watch this impressive video featuring among others Monica Hanna, a brave Egyptologist who has done a fantastic job in these years to stop looting:

It is remarkable that the mechanics through which the illegal, ongoing antiquity market is flourishing are still those of the colonial era. Dealers exploit the poverty of local populations for obtaining their collaboration, and then at the end of the supply chain they earn a thousand time more than what local looters received. As the authors of the above mentioned reports underline, it is the high demand for antiquities from collectors mostly based in North America, Europe, China and the Gulf that is nurturing these activities. We are still living in the age of empires under many respects.

It is a shame that we, scholars, have the power to help contrasting. We can do two simple things. First, as Erin Thompson has recently reminded us from the pages of the New York Times, we can help changing the mentality of collectors. For instance, if a wealthy collector invites you to collaborate to the formation of a new Museum of the Bible, instead of accepting suggest him to divert his money on helping existent libraries, museums, and cultural institutions to maintain, study and publish their already existent collections. Second, we can ask editorial boards, professional associations, museums and other institutions to enforce stricter rules on the publication and exhibition of Egyptian antiquities of recent acquisition.

If we really think we want the world to change, let’s be the first to change!

Scott Carroll and mummy masks: update

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 08.38.58I’ve just discovered that Scott Carroll, aka Hey Doc, has posted and made publicly available two powerpoint presentations, one on “Dismantling a mummy mask”, the other on scanning mummy masks for retrieving papyri at this address: http://www.slideshare.net/heydoc1/presentations

The “dismantled” mask as well as the texts recovered are certainly Ptolemaic. An event of this kind and lead by Scott Carroll took place at Baylor University and involved professors and students of the Department of Classics on September 9, 2011, as reported in the Bulletin of the Department (pp. 1-2).

According to the American law, owners of antiquities are free to dispose of their items as they wish. This can be legal, but for me it is a highly questionable practice from an ethical and cultural point of view. Moreover, and once again, where do all these masks come from?

Mummy Cartonnage: An Introduction

Mummy mask of the Ptolemaic period, probably from Hawara

Mummy mask of the Ptolemaic period, probably from Hawara, Manchester Museum 2781.a

As all of you should know by now, I am remarkably pedantic. Therefore when I don’t know much about a topic, I go back to books and sometimes the Internet. Being mostly interested in Byzantine papyri, I had to refresh my knowledge of papyri from mummy cartonnage and related matters, since they have become such a hot topic after the publication of the new Sappho fragments (P. Sapph. Obbink and P.GC.105), and the YouTube adventures of the two Palmolive Indiana Jones retrieving New Testament papyri through mummy masks washing-up. So I thought to share what I have learnt so far.

In lesson one of any course in papyrology or related subject, you would be taught that there are two main sources from where you can legally or illegally retrieve papyri: excavating the remains of ancient cities, cemeteries, deposits or rubbish heaps, and dismounting mummies or book bindings, coverings and similar agglomerations of papyrus and other materials. Papyri can be found in mummy contexts, so to speak, in two main forms. They could have been used for fabricating mummy masks and panels, mixed together with other materials such as linen, and then covered with stucco and painting (the so-called papier mache), or they could have been used for wrapping or filling the mummies themselves. This second case is what B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt found, for instance, in the sacred crocodile cemetery of Tebtunis, and later in other villages in the Fayum when papyrology was in its early days at the beginning of the 20th century. Possibly the first to have done experiments for retrieving papyri from mummy cartonnage was the French archaeologist Jean Antoine Letronne around 1825; he was disappointed by their bad status of preservation and the administrative contents. Sometimes the papyri retrieved from panels covering the feet or the breast of the mummies preserve the shape of the elements they come from. You can see an example of feet-shaped papyri in the Berkeley Tebtunis collection clicking here; you can have an idea of the appearance of mummies covered by such masks and panels from an image of a Ptolemaic one nowadays in the Louvre, clicking here (I know, it is a free-from-copyright image, but mummies scare me to death and I don’t like having a whole one in this post…).

From a rough calculation, I would say that the vast majority of our legal and illegal findings have derived from discoveries in situ; fewer papyri have come from mummy cartonnage or other similar kinds of papyrus recycling. (You will not get percentages from me: I refuse numbers as a form of resistance to a present where everybody knows the price and measure of everything, but the value and meaning of nothing).

Mummy fillings, wrappings and mummy cartonnage are renown for being an excellent source of papyri of the Ptolemaic period, which are fewer in absolute numbers than those of the following Roman and Byzantine periods, and therefore particularly important to scholars of the Hellenistic period. According to standard papyrology manuals, the practice of fabricating cartonnage for mummy masks and panels went on throughout the entire Ptolemaic period, and ended towards the end of the Augustan era, so at the beginning of the first century AD.

The retrieval of papyri from mummy panels and masks presents a number of problems and issues due not only to the technical aspects of the process, but also to the damages it procures to the objects. As you may imagine, there are different views about what comes first, either the mummy masks and panels, or the texts inside them. Therefore papyrologists and conservators have been working hard for finding methods for obtaining papyri from mummy cartonnage that take all these issues into consideration. Nowadays imaging technologies can help not only through the recording of the entire process, but also and foremost through the developing of non-destructive ways for retrieving and reading papyri. However at the moment, as J. Frösén reminds us in a dedicated chapter of the Oxford Handbook of Papyrology (“Conservation of ancient papyrus materials”, p. 88), “the recovery of papyrus from cartonnage is still the subject of controversy. Admittely it interferes with the integrity of the cartonnage as an artifact”.

Among the conservators who have worked in the field of papyri from mummy cartonnage there is Michael Fackelmann, a conservator active in Vienna in the seventies-eighties of last century. Fackelmann is an elusive figure, I have discovered, although he wrote important contributions on papyrus restoration that you find in the standard papyrology bibliography. Interestingly, he became also a collector and dealer of papyri, which were sometimes sold to university collections worldwide besides to private collectors. In those years there was much less awareness of the importance of papyrus archaeological provenance and acquisition circumstances than nowadays; I have been constantly reminded recently of the long history of the issues of ‘provenance’, and how much they are embedded in our disciplines and even in the birth of papyrology. I think historical awareness does not excuse present practices, and above all invites future change for better ones.

In any case, what I have realized is that some of the papyri connected with Fackelmann’s activities are particularly important in the history of dismounting mummy cartonnage, because they challenge the above-mentioned standard chronology of papyri from this kind of source. In other words, there have been cases of papyri that are said to come from mummy cartonnage and to date after the Augustan period, other than the recent Sappho fragments, dated to the 3rd century AD by their editors on the basis of C14 analysis and palaeographical considerations, and the New Testament texts that the Palmolive Indian Jones declare they found dissolving mummy masks. On these and other papyri challenging the traditional chronology we’ll talk in future posts.

New Testament papyri from mummy cartonnage: accounts don’t balance

After all the information we have been recently given on New Testament papyri retrieved from mummy cartonnage, I have decided to do some serious research on the topic. I made a check on the usual catalogues of manuscripts of the New Testament and on the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (very convenient, since it includes information on cartonnage when available as explained in the Help page), and also read some bibliography on papyri of the New Testament, but I was unable to find a single case of New Testament papyrus coming from mummy cartonnage.

So I did what you must never do in serious research, but everybody always does: I googled the term, and guess what? The Green Scholars Initiative came up on top of the results list. In one of the many webpages dedicated to papyrology in the Green house, I have found a nice image portraying the director of the GSI, Jerry Pattengale, and Jeffrey Fish, papyrologist at Baylor University and member of the GSI, working on fragments (usual, boring question: from where?) surrounded by students. The caption below the picture explains:

“Drs. Pattengale and Fish describe a papyri project under research at Christ Church, Oxford, where scholars are dismantling mummy cartonnage dating to the third century B.C. (BCE). Approximately 25 percent of all early New Testament papyri comes from similar cartonnage research conducted over the past two centuries”

I am very worried about the education of these students, first of all about their math, secondly their papyrology and thirdly their New Testament philology, which is supposed to be the core business of the Green Scholars Initiative and its patron Mr Green. As I said, to my knowledge, there is not a single case of New Testament papyrus coming from mummy cartonnage attested so far (correct me if I am wrong…). Unless the writer meant ‘cartonnage research conducted over the past two years’ and we count the discoveries mentioned by Scott Carroll and Josh McDowell (but then the years should be three since all started in 2011). And what have third century BC mummy masks to do with the New Testament by the way, since Jesus was not even born? Two centuries of papyrology? I thought papyrology just turned the century, as Pete Van Minnen explained us in a very interesting paper 21 years ago (“The Century of Papyrology: 1892-1992,” BASP 30 (1993), 5-18).

My brain confusion is increasing so I am looking forward to reading about the project at Christ Church, Oxford, in Brill’s forthcoming publications. In the meanwhile I’d suggest to join the talk of Jerry Pattengale and Dirk Obbink for the Green collection exhibit Passages, in Springfield Missouri next 16 December 2014: “Unveiling Cartonnage: The Practice and Value of Dissolving Reused Papyri Manuscripts for Biblical Studies.”

Update on the new Sappho fragments and the Green Collection

So-called Sappho from Pompeii (Naples, MANN 9084) From Wikicommons

So-called Sappho from Pompeii (Naples, MANN 9084)
From Wikicommons

The director of the Museum of the Bible/Green Collection, David Trobisch, has kindly informed me via email that the collection is going towards full digitisation and open access. As it happens in many other collections, “in some cases items are put on reserve and not accessible until the research has been done.” He writes that information on the acquisition circumstances of the Green Sappho fragments and their relation with the London Sappho will be provided in a forthcoming publication by Dirk Obbink.

As for the acquisition circumstances of Galatians 2 (GC 462), the Green collection has purchased it “through a trusted dealer that we have done business with over many years”.

I thank David Trobisch for the answers he is constantly providing; it is clear that his arrival is a dramatic step forward for the Green Collection. My only comment is that this dealer must not be so trustworthy since the papyrus was on sale from e-Bay Turkish seller MixAntik in 2012.



Papyri: It is a wild, wild life…

What an exciting period for papyri. In just a couple of weeks we have seen one papyrus on sale on eBay by Turkish seller MixAntik in 2012 resurfacing among the items of the Green Collection on exhibit in Vatican city. We then have found the former director of that collection, Scott Carroll, now head of Scott Carroll Manuscripts & Rare Books Inc., explaining in a video freely available on line how to dismount mummy masks for obtaining papyri and showing the papyri themselves with the assistance of his wife at an event in Mexico. In the video he shows slides with some of the images certainly taken at Baylor University, where he had a position in the past and collaborated with scholars on the Green Scholars Initiative.

Then we have been informed by Brice C. Jones on the great interest of the evangelical Christian apologist Josh McDowell in papyri: not those on display or that can be consulted in most public and private collections, but the new ones that these experts in the US seem able to retrieve very easily from collectors who are happy to submit their antiquities to them.

Biblical scholars, finally provided with good quality images of the papyri showed in the slides that Scott and Josh have used in their events, have discovered to their dismay that in fact these papyri were those Green collection fragments that some of them accepted to publish many months ago under the supervision of the Green Scholars Initiative specialists as they are reporting and discussing in the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog.

From this blog and other sources, we have been also informed that the Green Collection/Green Scholars Initiative asks editors of their papyri to sign a non-disclosure agreement. I am now dying to read a copy of this previously unknown type of contract. This is unheard before: please give me parallel cases if you can. Scholars who work in papyri collections know that images, copyrights and editions are serious matters, but I’ve never heard of a collection asking editors to sign such documents. Why is that document necessary for the Green Collection? I really don’t know, since what I have seen from the above mentioned images and in the exhibition do seem very normal papyri (a part the one that comes from eBay, of course). I am surprised that academics usually so much and rightly concerned about independence of research are signing such agreements in order to publish: what a strange world!

We also read the director of the Green Scholars Initiative, Jerry Pattengale, criticising on the Wall Street Journal the scholars who have worked with Karen King on the so-called Wife of Jesus Gospel papyrus for their signing of a non-disclosure agreement (must be a new American trend at this point), among other issues. Has the Green Scholars Initiative the exclusive right to use such agreements? Very confusing…

But to oddities there’s no end: in fact today we have been provided with a new video where a man in his seventies talks to an audience about the truth of the Bible and dismounting mummy masks, wearing a pink shirt, tight blue jeans, red All Stars, and a belt with the symbol of Superman.

Indeed a wild, wild life…

Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 07.58.11