Papyri, private collectors and academics: why the wife of Jesus and Sappho matter

Gospel of Jesus papyrus, recto. From Wikipedia

Gospel of Jesus’s Wife papyrus, recto. From Wikipedia

What do Sappho and the wife of Jesus have in common? Both figures are attested, directly or indirectly, in papyri in the hands of anonymous private owners who are reported to have asked two prominent scholars, Dirk Obbink (Oxford) and Karen King (Harvard), to study and publish them. Now, although issues of provenance may certainly arise for pieces in public collection, they become especially delicate in case of pieces from private collections. As I have noticed writing on the London Sappho in a post a couple of months ago, there are not shared, clear guidelines for deciding what to do in such cases, but there are national and international laws to be respected and there are also professional associations’ recommendations to be followed if you are a member. In practice, as I will try to explain, problems start as soon as you ask yourself what legal ownership of antiquities, papyri in this case, means and implies.

How could papyrologists verify that a papyrus has been exported legally from Egypt and then legally purchased by a dealer or collector? This question has kept me busy since a while. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 14 November 1970 is the main guide and threshold to be taken into consideration. It is clear what the convention establishes in principle, but the single nations’ ways and timing of reception varied. Article 21 of the Convention explains that it “shall enter into force three months after the date of the deposit of the third instrument of ratification, acceptance or accession, but only with respect to those States which have deposited their respective instruments on or before that date. It shall enter into force with respect to any other State three months after the deposit of its instrument of ratification, acceptance or accession.” While some nations proceeded to ratification, acceptance or accession immediately, others did not. The United Kingdom, for instance, accepted the convention only on 1 August 2002. The United States of America accepted it on 2 September 1983, with important postils underlining rights of interventions (e.g. “the United States understands the provisions of the Convention to be neither self-executing nor retroactive”). In sum, although the Convention certainly is an ideal threshold since its promulgation, there have been different ways in which its principles have been applied in practice.

And what about Egypt’s legislation? This regulated the ownership of antiquities well before the UNESCO convention and its enforcement: a law on the protection of antiquities was issued on 31 October 1951 (law no. 215, emended by laws no. 529 of 1953, no. 24 of 1965, and now superseded by law no. 117 of 1983, emended in 2003). This law set very clear rules forbidding private ownership of movable and immovable antiquities. It also established that whoever accidentally finds movable and immovable antiquities must declare them to the competent authorities (art. 9-11). To my mind this means, for instance, that according to the Egyptian law the finding, and following selling and export of the codex Tchachos (aka Mr Judas gospel), were illegal, since they started in the seventies of last century, i.e. twenty years after the promulgation and enforcement of law no. 215.

I wonder then, should the past and present Egyptian legislation on the protection of antiquities have legal and ethical relevance when deciding about publishing papyri, or not? My personal answer is ‘yes’. Other views on this?

A careful check on the original documents in the hands of the collector is clearly essential; I would not be able to recognize if a modern document is faithful and formally legal, therefore I will need the help of law experts. A colleague I have consulted suggests I may ask the owner to provide an official declaration (an affidavit) on provenance, but would you trust someone you meet for the first time and probably via email or the phone? Then a new problem will have to be solved in case of publication: does my word, the word of an academic, or that of a publisher or a journal’s editorial board suffice for the public to be assured that the provenance of a papyrus is legal? I remember a similar question was posed and never answered in the Oxford forum on the new Sappho poems. I trust my colleagues, but should our professional practices rely only on academic trust and our good behaviours? In other words, what kind of data should we provide in publications on the acquisition of such papyri?

In the case of the London Sappho, Dirk Obbink does not provide any detail on acquisition circumstances and documents in the final publication of what is now called in papyrological language ‘P. Sapp. Obbink’, just out (Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 189, 2014, 32-49); the merging P. GC. inv. 105, from the Green Collection, is also published without details about its provenance and acquisition circumstances by Obbink, with Simon Burris and Jeffrey Fish (Baylor University), in the same issue of Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (pp. 1-28). In sum, we are left with the short statement that the provenance is legal given in the Times Literary Supplement, and with the unforgettable details, freely available on line, on how the Green collection has been formed in these years (see my post Papyri, the Bible and the formation of the Green Collection, and Brice C. Jones’ old post on odd behaviors in the Green house). Maybe something more will be said in the forthcoming study on the restoration of the papyrus announced by Obbink (p. 32 footnote 2).

In the case of the Jesus wife’s gospel fragment, Karen King provides the following information (Harvard Theological Review, 107/2, pp. 153-154 that I copy with footnotes):

The current owner of the papyrus states that he acquired the papyrus in 1999. Upon request for information about provenance, the owner provided me with a photocopy of a contract for the sale of “6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel” from Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, dated November 12, 1999, and signed by both parties. [footnote 105: The amount of the price paid was whited out on the copy I was sent.] A handwritten comment on the contract states: “Seller surrenders photocopies of correspondence in German. Papyri were acquired in 1963 by the seller in Potsdam (East Germany).” The current owner said that he received the six papyri in an envelope and himself conserved them between plates of plexiglass/lucite.

The owner also sent me scanned copies of two photocopies. One is of an unsigned and undated handwritten note in German, stating the following:

Professor Fecht believes that the small fragment, approximately 8 cm in size, is the sole example of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech with reference to having a wife. Fecht is of the opinion that this could be evidence for a possible marriage. [Footnote 106: “Professor Fecht glaubt, daß der kleine ca. 8 cm große Papyrus das einzige Beispiel für einen Text ist, in dem Jesus die direkte Rede in Bezug auf eine Ehefrau benutzt. Fecht meint, daß dies ein Beweis für eine mögliche Ehe sein könnte.” The named Professor Fecht might be Gerhard Fecht (1922–2006), professor of Egyptology at the Free University, Berlin.]

If these two documents pertain to the GJW fragment currently on loan to Harvard University, they would indicate that it was in Germany in the early 1960s. [Footnote 107: The second document is a photocopy of a typed and signed letter addressed to H. U. Laukamp dated July 15, 1982, from Prof. Dr. Peter Munro (Freie Universität, Ägyptologisches Seminar, Berlin), stating that a colleague, Professor Fecht, has identified one of Mr. Laukamp’s papyri as having nine lines of writing, measuring approximately 110 by 80 mm, and containing text from the Gospel of John. Fecht is said to have suggested a probable date from the 2nd to 5th cents. c.e. Munro declines to give Laukamp an appraisal of its value but advises that this fragment be preserved between glass plates in order to protect it from further damage. The letter makes no mention of the GJW fragment. The collection of the GJW’s owner does contain a fragment of the Gospel of John fitting this description, which was subsequently received on loan by Harvard University for examination and publication (November 13, 2012).]

In this case, there is a clear effort to give us as more information as possible. Nonetheless are we all satisfied with this level and kind of information? Are they enough to clear issues of provenance and acquisition?

So far on legal provenance and publication of data related to the modern history of the papyri: are there any other, further questions to be considered? Indeed there are, and very important ones.

You are going to inspect a papyrus and will have to decide if to study and publish it, or not: your decision will have consequences on the value of it. For the sake of clarity, let’s consider the specific case of the wife of Jesus fragment in the light of this panorama. We have seen that the price paid for this and the related batch of papyri in 1999 was prudentially whited out in the purchase documentation sent to professor King. Another interesting piece of information on the world of antiquity collectors and dealers is given in an article published in 2012, which I re-read for the occasion. Karen King recounted to the Smithsonian magazine the story of the first approaches from the collector. She was contacted first in 2010, but left the inquiry unanswered until when in 2011 a second email followed (A. Sabar, ‘The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text on Jesus’, The Smithsonian.com, 18 September 2012 available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-inside-story-of-a-controversial-new-text-about-jesus-41078791):

In late June 2011, nearly a year after his first e-mail, the collector gave her a nudge. “My problem right now is this,” he wrote in an e-mail King shared with me, after stripping out any identifying details. (The collector has requested, and King granted him, anonymity.) “A European manuscript dealer has offered a considerable amount for this fragment. It’s almost too good to be true.” The collector didn’t want the fragment to disappear in a private archive or collection “if it really is what we think it is,” he wrote. “Before letting this happen, I would like to either donate it to a reputable manuscript collection or wait at least until it is published, before I sell it.”

This collector loves his fragments, maybe he believes they increase his proximity to ancient culture (Lucian’s The Ignorant Book Collector is keeping coming back to my mind, it must be that I used it for teaching recently), but he is also well aware of their price – as you read above – and the money he may potentially make and spend in different ways, such as sending the kids to Harvard or Oxford, taking many holidays to the Maldives, buying a house in Tuscany, or maybe purchasing more papyri, in view of his great passion or in case he is a dealer himself. The value of this piece, and I believe also of the rest of the small collection deposited for study in Harvard, has certainly increased from 18 September 2012 (the day the Jesus’s wife fragment was presented in Rome at the International Congress of Coptic Studies) onwards. In short, this was a lucky strike for the owner, whatever his intentions were and are now. At present, it seems that he will leave the papyrus in Harvard for scholars’ consultation, but ownership, and possible future gains, will stay with him, unless he will establish to donate the papyrus to an institution, as he said was an option, or – why not? – to the country the fragment comes from. This reminds me that unless I have missed something, we are still waiting for the Tchachos codex to be moved to Egypt since almost a decade by now. But this is another story, one where a lot of money were involved: read Neil Brodie, ‘The lost, found, lost again and found again Gospel of Judas’, Culture Without Context (19) 2006, 17-27 if you wish to refresh your memory.

It should be mentioned that not only the anonymous owner, but also other people had some benefits from the publication process, directly or indirectly, and in different measures and ways. I imagine the current issue of the Harvard Theological Review will sell more than usual; the production of documentaries (like that of the Smithsonian that you can watch in the French version on YouTube) and other media releases should have involved some money too; academics and other experts who took part to the research process had a return in terms of publicity, career, impact, and consequent visibility, for instance, for potential University donors or, in case of technical laboratories, for similar commissions. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with all this, but I wish to stress that although to publish a papyrus or any other ancient artefact legally owned by a private collector is certainly legal, it is not a neutral act: it has consequences on the price of an ancient object in private hands, and involves a number of professional and ethical questions that cannot be ignored, as I tried to show.

Among these questions there is also that of the advancement of knowledge. It is clear that especially when presented with texts of such interest and importance, academics feel the peril to lose the occasion to bring relevant ancient sources to light causing detriment to research. There is some truth in this argument. Imagine Karen King or Dirk Obbink were not fully satisfied with the legal status of the papyri in question, or with the possibility to publish details on them: we would know nothing about these new texts (whatever the results on authenticity issues of the wife of Jesus papyrus will be, the source remains in any case important to the scholarly debate: think about the Secret Gospel of Mark). However, I cannot see how knowledge could overcome the laws in case of papyri of dubious provenance, or prevent us asking ourselves relevant ethical questions connected with the exercise of our profession. I would be really glad to read and discuss cogent counter arguments on these last points.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The girl with the Christian tattoo: Religious-magical practices in late antique Egypt

Images of the tattoo. The British Museum Trustees via The Telegraph

Images of the tattoo. © The British Museum Trustees via The Telegraph

The British Museum will host soon an exhibition of Egyptian mummies, Ancient lives, new discoveries, that is destined to become a blockbuster. Press releases have revealed some details: the exhibition will be a new look at mummies covering a long time span, from the pharaonic to the late antique period, and will show to the public what scan imaging and other technologies can reveal about the mummified person’s terrestrial life. I am usually not so attracted by mummies, the study of diseases and human physical features because it is so depressing to see how boring we are in these matters: we loose teeth, get cancer, eat badly and inexorably die, and have been doing so for millennia now. Besides this, ancient human facial reconstructions remind me of Madame Tussauds’ wax horrors of the kind that I hope nobody will dare to try on my remains: good reason to go for a more elegant incineration. But in this case I was intrigued by the information that the mummies on show will include a woman who lived in ab. 700 AD Sudan and had an interesting, Christian tattoo on her upper inner thigh.

This reminded me how much a ritual, bodily practice Christianity was in antiquity, and how biased is the general, common view of it as all centred on spiritual and intellectual activities. In fact, religion in practice is well attested by some of my favourite pieces in our papyrus collection and others: written amulets from Egypt, dating from the pharaonic to the late antique period. (The magical manuscripts and objects from Egypt in the John Rylands Library go well beyond this period if we consider also items from the Cairo Genizah and the Gaster collections.) These amulets are sparse but fantastic evidence of a body-centred practice: that of writing religious-magical passages and formulas on a strip of papyrus, folding it into a small packet and hanging it around the neck, often as a part of a more complex ritual including praying, chanting and other activities.

These Egyptian sources show us a religious environment very close to that of the tattooed Sudanese woman. Like us, when facing crises of any kind, the ancients tried any possible means to solve or prevent troubles. Among the experts they could consult for help were priests, magicians, sorceresses, and later saints, monks, priests and other specialists in the field. Christianity changed only partially and very slowly beliefs and practices that people living on the Nile shared for millennia, which are hard to define according to modern categories of religion, magic and medicine. In fact the first generations of papyrologists struggled to place these amulet texts under the categories they used in publications. For instance, anything Christian was published by Grenfell and Hunt in the opening section of their papyrus volumes, under the title of ‘Theological fragments’, which ranged from Biblical fragments to liturgical texts, and also amulets with Christian references. In the Rylands catalogues you will see placed under this category, for instance, P.Ryl. III 471, recently studied by Theodore De Bruyn. Here’s his English translation (you can see an image of the papyrus clicking here):

Holy oil of gladness against every hostile power and for the grafting of your good olive tree of the catholic and apostolic church of God. Amen

These words were taken from a baptismal anointing formula, containing reminiscences of Paul’s Romans 11:24. This was a type of amulet of which  Church Fathers would have certainly approved. John Chrysostom, for instance, was pleased to see women and children carrying gospels on their chests, and Augustine recommended the use of gospel books for curing headaches instead of enchantments. However, the Church was aware of the persistence of practices and beliefs of pagan origins including amulet-making, and repeatedly condemned them.

Troubling cases for both the Church at that time, and papyrologists more recently, include items such as P.Oxy. VII 1060, which despite the ‘Oxyrhynchus/Oxford’ abbreviation is in Manchester. It was not placed by Grenfell & Hunt among the ‘Theological fragments’, but inserted into a Byzantine general ‘Prayers’ section and tagged as ‘gnostic’ (everything Christian but bizarre to Victorian eyes was gnostic…). The papyrus is small and written in a tiny, cursive handwriting of the 6th century AD, sometimes hard to decipher. Here it is with a translation from M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994), n. 25:

P.Oxy.VII 1060 (P. Ryl.452) © The John Rylands Library

P.Oxy.VII 1060 (P.Ryl. 452)
© The John Rylands Library

✝ The door Aphrodite, phrodite, rodite, odite, dite, ite, te, e. Hor, Hor Phor Phor, Iaoh Sabaoth Adonai, I bind you, arte‹m›isian scorpion. Free this house of every evil reptile [and] annoyance, at once, at once. St. Phocas is here. Phamenoth 13 (= March 9), third indiction.

As you can see, it consisted of a mix of Christian formulas and holy names and elements derived from more ancient pagan ritual traditions. The diminishing name of Aphrodite and magic onomatopoeic names are followed by the name of Iaoh Sabaoth Adonai (the Jewish, then Christian God as invoked in magical papyri), formulas of protection of the house from insects, reptiles and evil, and finally the invocation of Saint Phokas. The amulet was perhaps fabricated close to the day of Saint Phokas (March 5, the indiction dating system followed a cycle of 15 years). In this case the tiny sheet of papyrus was more probably deposited in the house than worn, but we cannot be totally sure.

Coming back to the Sudanese woman, there is a late Coptic Rylands amulet (P.Ryl. Copt. 103) that may be connected with the practice of religious tattooing. Despite being defined as a papyrus, this magic text is in fact written on paper, and palaeographically dated to the 9th century. The text inscribed on it is not always easily readable, as you can see from an image available on the Rylands Library database (click here).

This is a recent translation of most part of the amulet from M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian magic: Coptic Texts Of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994), n. 115:

… My mother is Mary. The breast… the breast from which our lord Jesus Christ drank. In the name of the seal that is traced upon the heart of Mary the virgin; in the name of the seven holy vowels which are tattooed on the chest of the father almighty, AEEIOUO; in the name of him who said, “I and my father, we are one,” that is, Jesus Christ; in the name of Abba Abba Abba Ablanatha Nafla Akrama Chamari Ely Temach Achoocha!I adjure you by the sacrifice of your only begotten son, Jesus Christ, Rabboni, in the way that you sealed the cup.

One aspect people tend to forget is that the vowels (AEEIOUO), which in this case are said to be inscribed on the chest of God, were in fact chanted in rituals, as explained in the studies of Sabina Crippa. The seal (σφραγίς) of God – possibly suggested here as traced upon the chest of Mary – has been related by some scholarship to real tattooing, according to a tradition rooted in Revelation and other Christian texts.

Tattoos in late antiquity have been most recently studied by Mark Gustafson. Interestingly, as in the case of the written amulets, Christian attitudes towards tattooing show ambivalence, reflecting how complicated it was for Christians to establish their own practices in relation to the surrounding religious and social system. On the one hand we see tattooing condemned as a barbarian and pagan practice, or used as an infamous mark, according to a longer Graeco-Roman punitive tradition. On the other hand, ancient Christians are recorded bearing symbols and words tattooed on their arms, and, like our Sudanese woman, on their legs, literally following Paul Galatians 6:17: ‘From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks (στίγματα) of Jesus’ – the word στίγμα (pl. στίγματα) was used for tattoos marking slaves, or people condemned to the mines and other penalties. While tattoos were against Jewish laws as established by Leviticus, religious tattooing was common in Egypt and other nearby areas and Christian later practices certainly relate to these longer traditions. Procopius of Gaza (ab. 465-528 AD), for instance, records the use of tattooing the cross or the name of Christ. In Africa, a Manichaean monk is reported to have tattooed on his leg: ‘Manichaean, disciple of Jesus Christ’. Probably this remained hidden since the episode is recalled in the context of Vandal persecution of Manicheans at the end of the 5th century AD.

The Guido Reni version of the Archangel Michael done by William D. on the hand of a woman is my favourite among the hundreds tattoos on the subject you may find on the web.

The Guido Reni version of the Archangel Michael done by William D. at Studio City tattoo (CA) on the hand of a woman is my favourite among the hundreds tattoos on the subject you may find on the web.

The tattoo on the Sudanese woman’s thigh, also hidden from sight, is not only ideologically but also visually linked to the Christian magical papyri. The Telegraph reports the interpretation of the drawing as the name of the Archangel Michael, who was a powerful protector against evil and in fact is often invoked in magical papyri. Similar patterns with elaborate versions of the Christian cross and other symbols do occur in magical texts. The practice of tattooing Christian symbols, such as the cross, on the wrist and other body parts is still alive among Copts in Egypt and worldwide. A simple Google image search will reveal you how common and varied are tattoos with religious themes. Meanings  attributed to the practice may vary, ranging from marking identity to remembering pilgrimages to protection against illness and evil. Contemporary Ethiopian magical scrolls are also deeply rooted in the ancient Egyptian practices here discussed. You can read more about them, and see them, at this excellent website: Online Exhibit: Ethiopic Manuscript Production.

References:

Major studies on tattoos in antiquity are: M. Gustaffson, ‘Inscripta in Fronte: Penal Tattoing in Late Antiquity’, Classical Antiquity, 16/1 (1997), 79-105 and ‘The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond’ in J.Caplan (ed.) Written on the Body. The Tattoo in European and American History, London 2000, 17-31; C.P. Jones, ‘Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity’, Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987), 139-155 and ‘Stigma and Tattoo’ in Caplan, Written on the Body, cit., 1-16.

A brief, interesting overview on tattoos meanings and uses is A. Mayor, ‘People Illustrated: Tattooing in Antiquity’, Archaeology March/April 1999, 55-57.

J. Carswell, Coptic Tattoo Designs, Beirut 1958. A beautiful account with images of the trade of an Egyptian Copt tattooer, Jacob Razzouk, who lived in Jerusalem in the fifties of last century. He owned a tattoo-shop for pilgrims, mostly but not only Copts. He used woodblocks to stamp designs on the skin before using needles, and the designs are reproduced and explained in the book.

Tattoos in modern Egypt are also recalled in Winifred Blackman, The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, (1927).

T. De Bruyn, T., “P.Ryl. III 471: A Baptismal Anointing Formula Used as an Amulet”, Journal of Theological Studies 57 (2006) 94-109.

S. Crippa, 2002. “Voix et magie. Réflexion sur la parole rituelle à partir des Papyrus Grecs Magiques”, in Cahiers de littérature orale 52 (2002) 43-61.

M. Meyer, R. Smith (eds.), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, Princeton (1994).

My favourite books on religion in Roman and late antique Egypt are D. Frankfurter, Religions in Roman Egypt. Assimilation and Resistance, Princeton 1998, and J. Dielemann, Priests, Tongues, and Rites: the London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100-300 CE), Leiden 2005.

I published an article on Christian amulets and formularies from Egypt straddling religion, magic and medicine (‘P. Oxy. XI, 1384: medicina, rituali di guarigione e cristianesimi nell’Egitto tardoantico’, in: Annali di Storia dell’Esegesi, monographical issue on ‘Ancient Christianity and “Magic”/ Il cristianesimo antico e la “magia” 24/2 (2007), 437-62) that you can download from here.

Papyri, the Bible, and the formation of the Green Collection

A world-champion under threat?  P.Ryl. 457 aka P52 © The John Rylands Library

A world-champion under threat?
P.Ryl. 457 aka P52
© The John Rylands Library

If you come to Manchester, do visit the John Rylands Library and go to the permanent display room. There you’ll meet the star of our collection: P.Ryl. 457 aka P52 aka the oldest surviving fragment of the New Testament so far known.

This tiny scrap of papyrus, which B.P. Grenfell brought back, among other purchases, from his last trip to Egypt in 1920, was recognised as belonging to a codex with at least some passages from the Gospel of John only later on, by C.H. Roberts, who continued the work of the Oxford Dioscuri after their retirement and death (by the way, isn’t that a great nickname for Grenfell and Hunt?). Roberts published the fragment in 1935 and dated it on a palaeographical basis, assigning the handwriting to the first half of the second century AD.

From that moment onwards every discussion on the dating of the John Gospel’s redaction depended heavily on the Rylands papyrus’ palaeographical date. This had never been put under systematic enquiry or serious challenge until 2007, when Brent Nongbri, currently at Macquarie University, published an article in the Harvard Theological Review undermining the methodology of Roberts’ and others’ palaeographical dating, and concluding that later dates cannot be excluded on the basis of comparative evidence.

The head manuscript curator of the John Rylands Library, John Hodgson, and many of his colleagues know this story well because I often guide visiting groups and students and entertain them on the matter in front of the holy case (want to see me and the papyrus? click here, I know, I am not this great reporter…). At the Rylands we often joke about the imminent loss of our place as the oldest in the New Testament championship. I always try to console the others by saying that we have much more interesting pieces than that one, for instance my favourite one in the Christianity league: P. Ryl. 463, a fragmentary page from a codex containing at least parts of the uncanonical Gospel of Mary. This papyrus is constantly forgotten by the wider audience because reporters and journalist prefer to check out the other two surviving fragmentary copies of the Gospel in Berlin and Oxford, which I do not understand since, according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Manchester is even cooler than London so imagine compared to Berlin or Oxford (and it must be true if those stylish Italians say so). Whatever. Despite my repeated efforts I know that the Rylands librarians will never totally accept my alternative perspective.

Now, while in search of information about the Green Collection in connection with their fragment from the same roll as the new London Sappho papyrus, I’ve discovered that in fact the Rylands fragment’s biggest threat doesn’t come from the learned mind of Brent Nongbri, but from Mr. Green, president of Hobby Lobby, and some of the scholars on his team.

I am a late-night-Google addict so I dug around a little bit in these days of Sappho frenzy. One of the most fascinating scholars I came across in this way, who started the Green Collection’s adventure, but whom I have been told was later sacked, is Dr. Scott Carroll, director of the Green Collection back in 2012 according to Huffington Post contributor profile.

Intrigued, I retrieved lots of information on Dr. Carroll’s activities, and discovered some very entertaining videos. For instance, you can watch him talking about his exciting labours and the Green’s mission in a video embedded into the The Christian Broadcasting Network News website article of 7 April 2012 about  the exhibition ‘Verbum Domini’ which took place  in the Vatican City from 1 March to 15 April 2012. Dr. Carroll, the article says, is: “a scholar on ancient and medieval manuscripts and is known by many as the “Indiana Jones” of biblical archaeology. He helped Green compile his still-growing collection.”

In the video Dr. Carroll explains how it was possible for the Collection to purchase so many artifacts (40,000 in 2012) in such a short time. From what I understand from listening to the  interview – although I must admit that I was distracted by the hypnotic effect of Carroll’s “Indiana Jones” personality and by the overpowering enthusiasm of the reporter and his colourfully-striped tie – he gives two main reasons:

  1. The collapse of the economy: apparently people put collections on the market when they are short of money, and this happened often in these last years.
  2. The incredible attraction of the Bible: people are increasingly interested in objects connected with the history of the Bible. There are a lot of collectors of these kinds of antiquities around the world that the Green team had been able to contact and meet, and who in fact lent pieces for the 2012 exhibition (see also on this point a Vatican document describing the exhibition online).

Dr. Carroll is also mentioned personally by Steve Green when presenting his collection to  CNN on 18 January 2012. Mr. Green shows, among other things, a fragment of papyrus bearing, according to Dr. Carroll’s discovery and study, the earliest testimony of Paul’s Romans.

I guess the papyrus is that presented the following November at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature by Grant Edwards and Nick Zola, at that time both at Baylor’s University (Papyrology and Early Christian Backgrounds Session, Chicago 19 November 2012), proposing a date in the early 3rd century.

I then read an enlightening interview Dr. Scott gave to the Weekly Trust (a national weekly newspaper based in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, part of the Daily Trust) published in two parts on 2 and 9 November 2013 (available here and here). Here he is presented as “an American scholar of ancient languages and texts and director of the Manuscript Research Group, who has been involved in building the two largest private collections of ancient documents in the world.” Dr. Scott gives details on manuscripts and papyri purchases, including an intriguing mention of Sappho (again, poor Sappho…). He says:

“I direct an independent research group, called the Manuscript Research Group, and it consists of the leading text, language, and manuscript specialists in the world. We work with private collections predominantly and also with museums to identify unknown ancient texts in a variety of languages. We seek to prepare those documents for publication. Because we have a deep passion as professors and teachers to see those documents have a meaningful impact on the community, students, and professors, we also incorporate them into university life, mentoring professors, mentoring students, and providing opportunity for them to participate in the publication and dissemination of information.”

There is no more direct connection with the Green Collection (although I guess that one of the two above mentioned “two largest private collections of ancient documents in the world” must be the Green), but our Indiana Jones is still active in his mission of “breathing life into mummified texts”, as the title of the article explains.

All this information, freely available on the web (God bless the internet!), has really given me an interesting, although sometimes bizarre, panorama of the contemporary collecting of antiquities inspired by religious and scholarly interest in the Bible. It reminded me of the (in)glorious imperial age of Britain, and brought me back to our own J. Rendel Harris, who, chasing Biblical papyri in 1916-1917, lost his friend J.H. Moulton in the Mediterranean on the way back from Egypt (you can read an old post on this). Mrs. Rylands (of whom I am the greatest devotee) and her husband also started collecting books, incunabula and manuscripts for their private and public libraries, inspired by their deep non-conformist Christian faith and love for the Bible. To collect Bibles and Christian manuscripts and books meant (and clearly still means, for some people) to get closer to God and his Word.

But let’s come back to the digital era. During my search, I went on both Facebook and Twitter to see if Dr. Carroll had accounts there. Indeed, he is on Twitter, and I am now following him! I scrolled down his tweets and found that he must already have been busy with the Green’s adventure in 2011, a fact which is confirmed in a post dated 21 September 2011 on the News of the Institute for Studies on Religion at  Baylor University. I list here some of the most interesting tweets for papyri, but you can read all of them on the most diverse kinds of manuscripts at @DrScottCarroll:

17 October 2011: “Landed in the UK and retrieved a private collection of papyri including unpublished biblical and classical texts.”

20 October 2011: “Retrieved a mummy mask, covered w/ gold made on the inside with discarded papyri paper-mache. Long-lost works will be extracted from it.” (There is plenty of mummy panels/masks around, it appears)

22 October 2011: “Classical papyri identified in the recently acquired collection including one of the earliest-known works of Plato and many more to follow.”

20 November 2011: “Presented and described biblical papyri to the President of Nigeria, cabinet members and advisers who showed great interest in the items.”

27 November 2011: “Finished exhibit and lectures in West Africa with over 21,000 registered. Now in Istanbul looking at a collection of unpublished papyri.”

Same day, later tweet: “My eyes feasted on classical texts, royal decrees, and Biblical and Gnostic texts; nearly 1,000 papyri hidden in this private treasure-trove.”

29 November 2011: “Met with scholars at Oxford regarding the Green Scholars Initiative and research opportunities for professors and students—It’s a go!”

And last but not least, the day before my birthday (!!!) he threats the Manchester super-star:

1 December 2011: “For over 100 years the earliest known text of the New Testament has been the so-call John Rylands Papyrus. Not any more. Stay tuned…”

This all gave me a big headache. My normal life is so far removed from all of this, the tie of the CBN reporter included, that I began to feel like a lost character in a low-budget version of the Da Vinci Code. I could not formulate any thoughts other than the following two:

  1. Dr. Scott Carroll is quite an interesting personality. Maybe his over-enthusiasm for mummified texts is the reason he no longer works with Mr. Green. I’ve not been able to find anything more recent than this webpage on him: http://christiancourses.com/professors/dr-scott-t-carroll/. Maybe someone out can fill in the gaps for me?
  2. The world is full of private collections of Biblical related artefacts that you can buy legally on the market, as long as you have a religious-agenda-inspired passion for antiquities, the millions of Mr. Steve Green, and, last but not least, scholars happy to contribute to such an  enterprise.

At this point, I have one hope: that Mr. Green, the Green Collection, and the scholars taking part in the Green Scholars Initiative and their publishers (e.g. Brill), will consider giving full public access to the documents relating to the acquisition of the manuscripts and objects, and therefore details on their provenance, for the sake of their further study. In this way, we could begin to map this wonderful but hidden world of legal private collecting. Shall we work together to bring all these private treasure troves out of the shadows?

In conclusion, I wish to reassure Mr. Green and his team of experts in early Christian manuscripts that one day Manchester will be happy to leave the New Testament Papyrus World Cup to someone else, since we have had it for so long. But please do not pass this information on to my colleagues at the Library…

Sappho, papyrology and the media

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

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

At the end of last month we read in newspapers and on the web that previously unknown poems of Sappho have been discovered on a fragmentary papyrus from Egypt, now owned by a private collector in London. The poems will be published by Dirk Obbink, papyrologist of Christ Church, Oxford in a forthcoming issue of Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (189 2014). The news went viral (obviously on a Classics-nerds-scale, which is nothing compared to kittens-doing-stuff on YouTube) and a debate has started not only on the poems as texts, but also and maybe foremost on the papyrus itself as an archaeological object.

The basic facts so far:

29 January, the media announce the discovery worldwide, often with mention of and/or link to Dirk Obbink’s preliminary version of the forthcoming article freely available at an institutional address (e.g. BBC News). Dirk Obbink and his team open a forum: New Sappho. A discussion on the new Sappho Papyrus. First questions about the lack of details on provenance are posed in the blogosphere, twitter and then posted also on the forum (Francesca Tronchin, Douglas Boin, Caroline Schroeder, Justin Walsh among others).

30 January, first public comments by classicists in the media (e.g. Edith Hall on BBC 2, Tim Whitmarsh in the Huffington Post). The link to the draft article (at the address http://www.papyrology.ox.ac.uk/Fragments/Obbink.Sappho7.draft.pdf) in the meanwhile has stopped working.

2 February, Bettany Hughes publishes an article in the Sunday Times with new information on the ownership and acquisition of the papyrus: “The elderly owner of our new Sappho papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, and its provenance is obscure (it was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer), but he was determined its secrets should not die with him.”

5 February, Dirk Obbink publishes an article in the Times Literary Supplement where important details are added on the archaeological history and ownership of the papyrus, and on the results of carbon dating and other tests. He presents his main arguments for attributing the poems to Sappho: the article concludes with an English translation of the poems by Christopher Pelling.

Since I have been asked many similar questions about this in the last few days by friends, students, colleagues and others, and since the subject is of great interest to everybody due to the iconic status of Sappho as well as the increasing awareness of the issues surrounding papyri and other objects of cultural heritage, I thought I might share these questions and my answers on this blog.

I am excited when people get excited about papyri since I have the privilege to work in a world-renowned University collection which is rich in published and unpublished fragments: to keep the attention alive and increase the standard of information available on papyri and papyrology is vital for the preservation and study of this incredibly important heritage.

How and when did papyri arrive in the United Kingdom?

Papyri, like many other antiquities from Egypt, arrived in the United Kingdom in large quantities in the last decades of the 19th and the first of the 20th century. Egypt became a British protectorate in 1882, after the army of Queen Victoria occupied the country on the pretext of protecting the Khediveh (viceroy) from the nationalistic revolt headed by colonel Ahmed Orhabi (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?).

After the soldiers, scholars arrived too. Egyptomania, a trend that is as old as Herodotus, boomed in Britain (and elsewhere). Public and private British collections began to form in two main ways: as a result of official excavations, and through the purchase and export of objects. The history of these collections is fascinating, and sometimes complicated to follow. This is because in that period, archaeologists, librarians, curators, collectors and papyrologists were not as aware as we are nowadays of the importance of keeping precise notes of the provenance of archaeological findings or object acquisitions.

As I said, some papyrus collections (e.g. that in Oxford, published in the series The Oxyrhynchus Papyri) are mainly the results of archaeological campaigns for which papyrologists like B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt had obtained permissions from the Egyptian authority (which were controlled by the Europeans anyway, at that time mainly the French). There were agreements establishing how many items from the archaeological finds had to remain in Egypt, and how many were allowed to be exported to the United Kingdom. The international conflicts between imperial powers over controlling other regions also had consequences on scholars and archaeologists who similarly competed to obtain excavation permits, and frequently discussed and fought over the division of finds. The colonialist attitude of Europeans and Americans towards Egypt and its population led to massive exports and dramatic dispersion of cultural heritage from that country, as we all know.

Other papyrus collections, both private and public, were instead formed mainly through acquisitions on the antiquity market. This was because Egyptians realised the appeal of archaeological finds, papyri included, to the mass of Western visitors, particularly wealthy tourists. There were well-known dealers in Cairo and elsewhere whose merchandise came from both illegal finds and the pillaging of legal excavations, often excavations directed by the same archaeologists who frequented their shops. Finally, papyri arrived in private and public collections as a result of the distribution of objects to institutions and donors for having sponsored the archaeological campaigns.

As a result, the history of public collections in the United Kingdom varies a lot: the John Rylands collection, for instance, was formed by the acquisition of the Eastern manuscripts of the private library of Lord Crawford, the Bibliotheca Lindesiana, in 1901 and later purchases on the Egyptian antiquity market. The purchases for Lord Crawford and later the Rylands collection were all made by famous papyrologists through the antiquity market (mainly Grenfell and Hunt, and J. Rendel Harris). At that time many scholars as well as wealthy families and individuals formed their own private collections of papyri and other objects. These collections sometimes ended up in the public collections of universities, museums, libraries etc., but in other cases I guess they remained in private hands, were transmitted to the following generations and sometimes legally sold at auctions, through antiquity dealers and so on. In principle it is plausible that some papyri and objects (e.g. mummy cartonnages) that came to Europe from Egypt before the middle of the 20th century have been still in private hands and eventually would become available on the antiquity market once again. In this case it will be easy to give information on their provenance to scholars.

Is there a difference nowadays between public and private collections of papyri?

Collections are obviously different from one another in their history, as we have seen, and in the amount of material they own. In the UK for instance there are few large public collections (e.g. in Oxford, London and Manchester), and many smaller ones, since a large number of universities, museums, libraries, etc. own a few papyri distributed as a result of sponsorship, mainly via the Egypt Exploration Society, or as inheritances from private legacies. To my knowledge there are very few large private collections of papyri in the world. One of these is the Green Collection, which owns, among other things, a papyrus fragment from the same roll as the Sappho of the London collector (this is what ‘P. GC. inv. 105’ mentioned in the provisional copy of the forthcoming article means in papyrological terminology: Papyrus Green Collection inv. 105).

When collectors want to remain anonymous, and they have the right to do so, it becomes more difficult (but not impossible) for scholars and the public generally to have direct access to information about the acquisition of the papyrus and to the papyrus itself. On the contrary, public collections, at least in the United Kingdom, do encourage access to all these things. There is a branch of papyrology, named ‘museum archaeology’, dedicated to the study of modern archival material (letters, receipts, book-keeping records, etc.) for reconstructing the history of collections and their connections in order to increase our knowledge of the papyri’s archaeological and/or acquisition provenance.

Is there any institutional guidance for papyrologists on publishing papyri from private collections?

Not that I am aware of. There are only guidelines referring to papyri of illicit provenance. Under the auspices of the American Society of Papyrologists, an official position against the publication, presentation or exhibition of material excavated illegally or exported from its country of origin after the enforcement of the Unesco Convention of 1970 is taken in section 2 of the Resolution Concerning the Illicit Trade in Papyri of June 2007 (http://tebtunis.berkeley.edu/ASPresolution.pdf). This is similar to other policies issued by societies or journals that deal with antiquities, for instance the American Journal of Archaeology and the Journal of the Hellenic Society.

The International Association of Papyrologists (http://www.ulb.ac.be/assoc/aip/ ) has taken an official position on illicit trade too, although nothing was established regarding publication, conferences and exhibitions. The ‘Recommendations’ issued by a working party in August 2007 and available on the Association’s website make clear that the Association members are committed to the international and national laws and agreements on trade in antiquities, illicit excavations, etc. and encourage fostering papyrology and archaeology, and cultural activities more broadly, in Egypt in order to cooperate on the protection and care of the cultural heritage of the country.

All the regulations and statements mentioned so far have two main aims: on the one hand to fight looting and illicit trade of antiquities; on the other hand to increase the awareness of the importance of recording and preserving archaeological provenance in the widest sense (from find spots to all the information connected with the excavation as well as the history of the object) for the understanding and interpretation of ancient objects.

Having clarified that we must obey the laws and work only with collectors and collections with documented legal ownership, in my opinion when papyri are in the hands of private owners legally, everyone is free to take their own approaches. Some may decide to offer expertise, do research and publish. Others may refuse to deal with private collectors in any case because of feeling uncomfortable, for instance, with understandable and licit requests of anonymity and the consequent lack of some information on acquisition details. Some may believe that private ownership of antiquities must not be encouraged in any case, even when legal. Both lines present pros and cons, and scholars must decide case by case what to do. I tend towards the principle that ‘public is better’ and would feel uncomfortable with the whole ‘confidential’ part, but on the other hand I recognize that refusing to work on private collections may mean a loss of knowledge of ancient texts. (Although an article of Neil Brodie published in 2009 on academic involvement in the illegal trade of manuscripts and available online makes a strong case against this argument).

What is really crucial is to maintain an ongoing discussion on this topic, in order to consider those pros and cons once in a while, and to help improve policies and legislation on the matter too.

Has the value of the Sappho papyrus increased?

I am not an expert on the antiquity market, but I am sure it has increased. This has now become a sort of iconic piece since Sappho is a very popular author (even though there are not as few papyri transmitting Sappho as people might think, see http://www.trismegistos.org/authorref/list.php?tm=2151 and data available through http://promethee.philo.ulg.ac.be/cedopal/indexsimpleanglais.asp ). That being said, I am not fully convinced that papyri are such a good investment for collectors. If this collector ever wants to sell the piece, he will need to find either an institution or a wealthy private individual with a very specific interest in classical literature. I believe there are not many in the last category, and this is not a nice statue or painting you could hang on the wall… In both cases his ownership documents must be in very good order, which so far I have no reason to doubt, and which I expect to be fully clarified in the forthcoming publication.

In other words I don’t think there’s a big demand for papyri on the market, but as I said I am not an expert. You may want to ask someone who has bought papyri and other antiquities recently, for instance the owner of the Green Collection and his team of experts.

What do you think of the papyrus and the poems?

I don’t think anything because at the moment I don’t know much: I am just vaguely and uncritically elated the way classicists are when discoveries like these are announced, and the way the media wants us all to be.

I have downloaded the draft-article, which the author clearly no longer wishes to circulate since he has pulled it from the web (there is a cache-copy on archive.org), some translations, some information regarding the papyrus’ provenance from an ancient mummy cartonnage panel (see Obbink’s article on the Times Literary Suplement: I still don’t know what to do with Hughes’ reference to the ‘high-ranking German officer’), and no images at all. The research process is not concluded: we are all waiting to see the images of the papyrus, and to read the final version of the article on this and the other fragment from the same roll which is cited in the draft-article (the aforementioned Papyrus Green Collection inv. 105), and last but not least, to have more details on the provenance and the legal ownership of both papyri.

So here is my final question: was it worth it to circulate information about this papyrus and the poems before their final publication?


Call for papers

Mrs Rylands on a trip to Egypt (Courtesy of the John Rylands Library)

Mrs Enriqueta Rylands, founder of the John Rylands Library, on a trip to Egypt (ca. 1907-1908)
(© The John Rylands Library)

From Egypt to Manchester: unravelling the John Rylands papyrus collection.
This conference aims to bring together scholars who are working or have recently worked on the John Rylands papyri. We welcome papers from any period and perspective based on papyri from our collection in any of the languages and scripts attested from the Ptolemaic to the early Arab period.
Topics are open, and may include, but are not confined to: edition and commentary of texts, historical studies based on the Rylands papyri, connections with other collections, history of the collection, and archives and dossiers of individuals and institutions held or partially held in Manchester.
We are particularly interested in papers offering new insights on the papyri considered and at the same time dealing with methodological questions related to the value of papyrus sources for the study of the past.
Abstracts of about 300 words for papers of 30 minutes must be sent via email to Roberta Mazza (roberta.mazza@manchester.ac.uk) by 15 February 2013.
The language of the conference is English.
The conference is sponsored by the John Rylands Research Institute and will take place at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, 4-6 September 2014.

‘If your anus twitches, then troubles will follow…’ Human bodies, divination and papyrology

Caroline Checkley-Scott showing us a possible way to stitch pages of a model-codex

Caroline Checkley-Scott showing us a possible way to stitch pages of a model of our small codex

There is a proverb in the Veneto region of Italy, which says that if your right eye has a spasm (actually it says ‘dances’) then you will have troubles in love. If the left eye does the same, you will be heartbroken. Knowing it or not, Veneto-Italians are continuing an ancient divination technique called ‘palmomancy’, the interpretation of the involuntary spasms or twitching of the human body. In the Graeco-Roman world, professional diviners and magicians gave body-based predictions of the future to their clients on the basis of manuals and centuries of experience. This field of knowledge is hard to be defined according to modern categories of religion, magic and medicine, since it often shares features with each of them.

Not many manuals of palmomancy have survived from antiquity, but we do have a fine one in Manchester: P. Ryl. I 28. The Rylands treatise occupies a very special position in the history of such literature, because it is one of the earliest, and one of very few extant copies, and because it was fabricated as a small codex, measuring about 7.5 x 6.6 cm. P. Ryl. I 28 was classified by E. Turner in his ‘group 11’ of codices (‘miniature codices’), a definition that has since been applied to early codices measuring less than 10 cm. Another intriguing feature of Ryl. I 28 is its handwriting, which can be classified as a sample of the so-called ‘Biblical majuscule’, a writing canon that developed from the second to the ninth century AD and was especially but not exclusively adopted for Biblical manuscripts. Dating to the fourth century AD, our papyrus is another proof of how misleading is to separate neatly the interests, readings and writings of people living in late antiquity.

I am conducting some research on this piece as part of my pilot project on the Rylands papyri for the John Rylands Research Institute, with the help of two of the Library conservators, Timothy Higson and Caroline Checkley-Scott, and this week also of one of my most recent MA students, Chris, who wrote a successful dissertation on this papyrus.

Among the many issues we will address, the central one concerns the fabrication of the booklet. I am convinced that the clarification of this point may help us to understand something more about the small book’s history and that of its ancient owner.

My first research question is whether we possess the entire book or if some pages went missing. As it stands, the manuscript is composed of four papyrus sheets, each bearing 4 pages (2 on each side). This became at some point the standard for the fabrication of codices: the group of four sheets (=16 pages) was called quaternio (‘set of four’) in Latin, and later became ‘quire’ in English. The four sheets were put one on top of the other, folded and then stitched together.

Detail of the thread's remains © The John Rylands Library

Detail of the thread’s remains
© The John Rylands Library

P Ryl. I 28 is exceptionally interesting because remains of the binding thread are still in place. It is here that Caroline Checkley-Scott, a renowned expert in bookbinding, is helping me to solve a problem. Palmomancy treatises follow a very schematic pattern: they describe twitches and their significance from top to bottom, i.e. from the head to the feet. Our treatise, however, starts with the abdomen, and ends with the toes. In other words, it seems to consider only the lower half of the body, which led me to suspect that at least another quire of the original codex is missing. The analysis of the threads and little holes on some pages seems to confirm this hypothesis, but more experiments and analysis are due in order to prove the point. Caroline has also noticed that on the sheet that constituted the middle of the quire there are traces of a piece of material, maybe a strip of papyrus or leather, probably inserted to protect and reinforce the binding. We have also some ideas on the rounded form of the page edges. More experiments, multispectral imaging, and some laboratory analysis will help us testing our hypotheses.

For now, I leave you on a funny note. P Ryl. I 28 was first published in 1911 by A.S. Hunt, the famous papyrologist from Oxford who formed a formidable pair with his friend and colleague B.P. Grenfell. Hunt avoided translating the sections of the Rylands treatise describing the twitching of private body parts like the one alluded to in the title of this post, which runs as follows:

‘If the anus, that some also call ‘ring’, twitches, it shows inspections, abuses, and the discovery of secret matters’.

Avoiding words linked to sexuality and other bodily functions was typical of late Victorian morality, and very far from Greek and Roman direct attitudes to the human body. However, we have been recently amused by the discovery of a naughty photograph of a beautiful naked woman stitched into a page of B.P. Grenfell’s paper archive in Oxford (reported by Viceandvirtueblog). It seems the scholar was interested in human bodies after all. So beware, scholars! Other scholars will later investigate your files and will notice inconsistencies in your behaviour: consider burning after reading…

Further reading: the best edition and discussion of Greek palmomancy treatises is available in Italian, S. Costanza, Corpus Palmomanticum Graecum, Florence 2009. On divination in antiquity I like Sarah Iles Johnston, Ancient Greek Divination. Blackwell Ancient Religions, Oxford 2008; on the development of the codex as a book form,  E.G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex, Philadelphia 1977; sensible warnings on the category of ‘miniature codex’ have been recently made by T.J. Kraus, ‘P.Oxy. V 840 – Amulett or Miniature Codex? Principal and Additional Remarks on Two Terms’, in Id., Ad Fontes: Original Manuscripts and Their Significance for the Studying Early Christianity, Leiden 2007.

On proverbs and names: Methuselah of P Herm. Rees 25

P Herm. Rees 25 © The John Rylands Library

P Herm. Rees 25
© The John Rylands Library

Last week at the John Rylands Library we have restored and glazed a Byzantine contract, P Herm. Rees 25. The papyrus has lost the beginning but the bottom is almost complete and the subscriptions of both the parties and the witnesses are legible. These open interesting insight into questions of literacy and writing skills in late antique Egypt. As it is often the case, the witnesses have uncertain handwritings, which look very different from the more accomplished hand that composed the body of the contract, a deed concerning the property of a house. They are barely capable to write their signature and a few other words in big capital letters penned with trembling hands.

Were they almost illiterate? Or did they have eyes problems? Were they old aged and maybe longsighted? Having problems with my eyes, I imagine how miserable life must have been for people like me in antiquity! Devices as glass-lenses were known and used, but they must have been very expensive and therefore available only to a minority. The subscription of the people involved in the deed was penned by Paul, the brother of Victor accountant of Memnoneia, in charge of the writing of the document since they ‘do not know letters’; in the case of the witnesses, however, you realise how bad were their handwriting and Greek grammar only checking the original manuscript.

'I, Methuselah (son) of John, elder, act as a witness'.  Methuselah made a number of mistakes. He wrote his father's name in the wrong case, and without one of the two 'nu' (Ιωάννης). But the abbreviated form for his profession, 'elder' (πρεσβύτερος), and the (mis)use of a diaeresis (double dots on the Ι) show that he was acquainted with document reading and writing.

‘I, Methuselah (son) of John, elder, act as a witness’.
Methuselah made a number of mistakes. He wrote his father’s name in the wrong case, and without one of the two ‘nu’ (Ιωάννης). But the abbreviated form for his profession, ‘elder’ (πρεσβύτερος), and the (mis)use of a diaeresis (double dots on the Ι) show that he was acquainted with document reading and writing.

Methuselah is the witness of P Herm. 25 I was most intrigued by.  His Biblical name has become proverbial for longevity (‘as old as Methuselah’), and in Egypt it does not seem to have been common. The few attestations so far are mainly from late antique Djeme (Greek Memnoneia, Thebes West) where also our document seems to have been drawn. Methuselah is an unskilled writer and makes some grammar mistakes, but at the same time his signature shows that he was familiar with written documents.

Wide questions on alphabetization and degrees of literacy in late antiquity arise when considering papyri like this one, of course, but I must say that my curiosity is all for Methuselah. I imagine him subscribing the deed, writing slowly and uncertainly, with his head very close to the papyrus in order to see, and I wish I knew more about him and his story. Imagine this man, who received such an unusual name: did the parents choose Methuselah for him? What a cruel name for a new born…if nomen est omen I bet Methuselah looked already old as a child! But the choice could also have been a way to wish the son a long life in a world where the infancy mortality rate was incredibly high. He identifies himself as an elder, a presbyter. What did it mean to bear this role in fifth century AD Egypt?

In a time when historians have to spend words to explain why their subject is relevant for society and what their research impact is – all self-evident to me and the general audience up to few years ago –, I plainly confess that I do ancient history and papyrology because through these subjects I am given the possibility to connect with a mass of past normal people in their everyday activities. Whatever big questions I may help answering, the joy comes from the humanity impressed in ink on that papyrus, and the attraction exercised  by that very man, Methuselah.

To me history is, among many other things, a way to overcome the finitude of human life giving a permanent voice to those whose voices were not loud enough when alive: a way to rescue Methuselah of Djeme from oblivion. Is it worth?

Further readings: B.R. Rees, Papyri from Hermopolis and other documents of the Byzantine period, London 1964 has full edition and translation of the papyrus; on questions of (il)literacy and reasons for not being able to write you may read the groundbreaking article of H. Youtie, ‘Bradeos graphon: between literacy and illiteracy’, in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 12 (1971) pp. 239-261, and the more recent T.J. Kraus, ‘(Il)literacy in non-literary papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt: further aspects of the educational ideal in literary sources and modern times’, in Mnemosyne 4a s., 53 (2000), pp. 322-342. On late antique Egypt, R.S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity, Princeton 1993.

Ancient Lives/Future Skills: Discovering Graeco-Roman Egypt at the Manchester Museum

The team of Kim and Katharina working on Artemidora's dossier

The team of Kim and Katharina working on Artemidora’s dossier

Yesterday I led a school day on Graeco-Roman Egypt with a group of colleagues, graduate students and staff of the Manchester Museum. Using artefacts and papyri from the Manchester Museum and the John Rylands Library collections, we asked sixth form students of Runshaw College (Manchester) and Holy Cross College (Bury) to create short I-pad video-biographies of fictitious characters supposed to have lived in Egypt under the Roman rule. The results were impressive in terms of creativity and competence. They made me think a lot about how dramatically different the learning environment has become, and how inadequate some of our teaching still is.

Based on last year experience with schools for the exhibition Faces&Voices, the Graeco-Roman Egypt day at the museum has confirmed some trends:

Pupils do like ancient history and museums. The school day was attended by about 30 enthusiastic and engaged students. In their feedback forms pupils said that they wanted more time to be spent in the galleries where they were asked to find one object to add to their biography dossier. They also liked the object-based approach to ancient history as a more effective way to study history.

Students' feedback with appreciation for Chris, the graduate student team leader

Students’ feedback with appreciation for Chris, the graduate student team leader

Pupils like to be taught by people closer to their age. The pupils were divided into five groups led by a graduate student of our division (Classics & Ancient History, and Religion & Theology), and they enjoyed the experience. I noticed that they chatted a lot with their University peers, but were much less talkative when I interacted with them. Graduate students should be given more seminar teaching by Universities in close collaboration and under the supervision of senior course leaders. This will increase the quality of our courses and the student experience as both undergraduates and graduates.

Pupils like objects better than texts. Being a visual generation this is not surprising and it is positive because material culture should be much more integrated into ancient history teaching at all levels. It is nonetheless a point on which educators must find some sort of counter-balance. The ability of critical textual analysis is still a crucial skill. The syntax and grammar of social media communication and the overwhelming quality and quantity of digital and non-digital images that surround us are undermining students’ ability to approach texts critically and to write. (Answers to this? I don’t see many at the moment. May group reading be a strategy?)

Pupils are creative. This actually enhances our experience as teachers and scholars. Our work, especially as scholars, tends to be restricted by academic conventions that do not encourage creativity. I was actually inspired, entertained and intellectually stimulated in ways I am not so often, for instance, while listening at conference papers. Creative intelligence tends to be forgotten and less valued than other intellectual qualities in the education process.

This model of seminar is definitely successful and rewarding for all the people involved, and I am now trying to find ways of integrating aspects of it into my university courses. In the light of this on-going experience, I believe that having closer relationships with college students and teachers is essential for lecturers.

Cleopatra in Manchester

Did you know that the Manchester Museum owns a fantastic collection of Ptolemaic and Roman coins from Alexandria? I didn’t (shame on me…) but yesterday I was introduced to it by Keith Sugden, the curator of numismatics. Keith is helping me to select some pieces from the 1,400 (!!!) for a School day dedicated to discovering Graeco-Roman Egypt.

Bronze coins of Cleopatra VII, Manchester Museum

Bronze coins of Cleopatra VII, Manchester Museum

He had bronze coins of Cleopatra VII on his desk ready to be inspected. An intriguing profile of a woman with a big nose, which has reminded me the famous sentence of Pascal, “Cleopatra’s nose: had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed”. The idea that people with big noses are strong and volitive was typical of physiognomic theories of the past, in Italy we use to say ‘un naso importante’, an important nose, to underline the concept and a certain kind of beauty.

In Pascal’s view Cleopatra embodied vanity, the object of men’s negative passion. But I propose an updated interpretation of the sentence, women have to gain big noses rather than other big attributes (you may esily imagine which ones..) for themselves. It’s time to leave Caesar and Mark Antony at home, defeat Octavian and take control. Don’t you think?

Dion, aged 45, farewell

Gilded mummy case of Dion Manchester Museum 2179, Ancient Worlds Gallery

Gilded mummy case of Dion
Manchester Museum 2179, Ancient Worlds Gallery

The gilded cartonnage upper-body mummy case of Dion is on display in the Manchester Museum Ancient Worlds Gallery. We know the name of the dead and his age at death because of a Greek inscription on the back of the head: ‘Dion, aged 45, farewell’.

As Artemidoros and his family, Dion was a member of the Hellenised elite that administered the Arsinoite nome under the Roman rule. His family wanted him to be buried in Hawara, following traditional Egyptian funerary practices.

The mummy case has been dated to the first century AD. The face mask resembles the traditionally Egyptian, gilded ones but at the same time, following a new Greek and Roman taste, individual features are introduced, such as the black hair and the inlaid eyes. The upper part of the body is protruding from the mummy case. Dion holds an intense pink flower wreath in his right hand and a papyrus roll in the left. Below his bust, on the case, a mummy, possibly that of Dion, is guarded by two mummified rams.

Garlands and wreaths: flowers and their possible meanings

Not differently than in other parts of the ancient world, flower garlands and wreaths were commonly used in Egypt for different celebrations and rituals, as these lines from a 2nd century AD papyrus letter from Oxyrhynchus (P.Oxy. 44 3313) informs:

‘Apollonios and Sarapis to Dionysia, greetings. Your wonderful announcement about the wedding of the most excellent Sarapion has filled us with joy, and we would have come straight away to serve him on a day long-awaited by us and to take part to the celebration; but because of the prefect’s court sessions and because we are just recovering from being sick, we were unable to come. There are not many roses here yet; on the contrary they are few and from all the estates and the garland makers we were barely able to collect the thousand that we sent to you with Sarapas, even by picking those that should have been picked only tomorrow. We had as much narcissus as you wanted, so we have sent four thousand instead of the two thousand…’

Remains of flowers and garlands have been found in many tombs of the Roman period in Hawara and other Egyptian sites. Petrie mentions them often in his notebooks and excavation reports, a well-preserved example of a wreath can be seen at the British Museum and the Manchester Museum have some too (5371.c-d). As many others, the British Museum sample was made by immortelles (Helichrysum stoechas), a perennial flower imported to Egypt from Italy or Greece that now seems to grow especially on canal banks and in cemeteries (S. Walker et al., Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, London 1997, p. 207).

The shape and colour of the garland’s flowers represented on Dion’s mummy case recall rose buds and may have a connection with Isis and Osiris cult. In Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, a Latin novel written in mid-second century AD, Lucius returns to his human nature thanks to a complex ritual in which a garland of roses carried by a priest in his right hand (the same as our Dion) and later ingested by the protagonist has a central meaning (XI, 6; 13). The ritual has been linked by scholars to the so-called ‘Spell of the Crown Justification’ contained in the Book of the Dead and preserved on papyri and temple walls (P. Derchaine, ‘La couronne de la justification: Essai d’analyse d’un rite ptolémaique’, Chronique d’ Égypte 30 (1955), 225-87). This ritual was transformed and integrated with Greek practices in the Ptolemaic period and linked with Isis and Osiris religious rites. We may wonder then if the papyrus roll in Dion’s left hand was actually a copy of this book or of the spell.

We will try to have a look at the back inscription of Dion soon, stay tuned!