Fragments of an Unbelievable Past? Constructions of Provenance, Narratives of Forgery. A Report.

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Giving my presentation on day 2. Yes, I am vane I know…

 

Conferences could be a burden. You have to travel and sometimes it is terrifying to take a plane (it is often for me), you can end up in terrible hotels and the food, oh the food, is rarely great. The level of papers is usually uneven including your own, which always makes me feel depressed once it is over. I have to recover for at least a week after the event. Too much time and energy consuming for a middle-aged girl…

However, I would have never missed the one I just went to for the topic and line up: Fragments of an Unbelievable Past? Constructions of Provenance, Narratives of Forgery, hosted by Agder University from 14 to 16 September (click here for the full program). Since we were a small group and I know you would have liked to be there but you weren’t (eh!eh!eh!), I thought to post a summary/commentary about the event.

The conference, part of a wider research project on forgeries, The Lying Pen of Scribes, not only had the merit of gathering together ancient texts specialists from different disciplines, but counted also on the participation of two journalists who have written on forgers and forgeries: Nina Burleigh and Ariel Sabar. Burleigh is the author of Unholy Business (2009), a lively account of the famous case of the brother of Jesus’s (James) ossuary, which was discussed in the opening session. She is interested in the uses of Christian texts and artefacts in contemporary American political discourses and has recently written a long article on the opening-soon Museum of the Bible, sponsored by Hobby Lobby’s magnate Steven Green, for Newsweek. Readers of my blog do know that I have been horrified by the dismounting of mummy cartonnage and other feats performed by people working for the Green collection (the first incarnation of what today is the Museum of the Bible) in the recent past; I expressed my concerns on the way the history of Christianity was presented in the Rome exhibition Verbum Domini II of 2014, where I also spotted a papyrus which had previously been on sale through a dodgy eBay account.

Sabar is the author of a mind-blowing reportage on the search for and discovery of the owner (and possibly forger?) of the so called fragment of the Gospel of Jesus’s wife, a saga which kept us busy with solid research and overwhelming entertainment from September 2012 to last June, when the article appeared in the Atlantic.

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Ariel Sabar discussing his research on the provenance of the Jesus’s wife papyrus fragment

The presence of two journalists helped us (and maybe them) to delve into the many aspects of the cultural environment we operate within. Great stories involving academic research deserve to be heard by a wider audience, but scholars struggle in the new media context as Liv Ingeborg Lied has explained in her paper: it is difficult to translate technical research details for a public of non-specialists and media (especially social media) may even expose academics to forms of abuse (which has happened to Karen King at various stages of the saga). Ingeborg Lied’s analysis on the way Harvard organized the coming out of the fragment of Jesus’s wife showed how universities are now fully engaged in the media game, but can easily get trapped into the mechanism they put in place. The fact that a selected group of journalists (Sabar was part of this group) was aware of the discovery well before most of King’s academic peers demonstrates on the one hand how much universities value to transform research discoveries into sensational events, and on the other hand that there is a shift in the ways scholarship is produced. As a result of media exposure, a great part of the research on the Jesus’s wife fragment was disseminated through social media and more broadly the internet. The debate and scholarly production were definitely faster than usual and revealed the divide between those who were and were not part of the Facebook, Twitter and blogs conversation.

Update 20 September 2016: Ingeborg Lied’s draft paper is now available on Academia.edu, Media Dynamics and Academic Knowledge Production: Tracing the Role of the Media in the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Saga.

Together with the relationships between academia and the media, the other two big themes under discussion have been the construction of discovery and provenance narratives, and the interactions between science and the humanities in detecting forgeries. Ancient texts forgeries have been a problem since a long time; Tommy Wassermann’s paper has outlined the personality of a famous forger, Constantine Simonides, active in the mid-nineteenth century, who sold both genuine and forged manuscripts in different countries and still remains an elusive figure. Wassermann discussed the features of the forged New Testament papyri Simonides offered to the Liverpool entrepreneur and collector of Egyptian antiquities Joseph Mayer. To the modern eye, they definitely look like forgeries; however, they could have passed as genuine at the time of their appearance, before the large findings of Greek papyri and the establishment of papyrology as a discipline. Among other things, Simonides glued his papyri to cardboards in order to conceal the back, probably bearing traces of other documents in Egyptian languages.

Torleif Elgvin and Kipp Davis’ contributions highlighted suspicious features of Dead Sea scrolls fragments recently emerged from the antiquities market; the methodologies applied will add a substantial contribution to solve the well-known problem of fakes and forgeries in this field. Forgers need blank ancient writing material, and need to be able to reproduce ancient inks, styli and patinas to make their products convincing. They obviously must know ancient languages and some palaeography. Not to be discovered is becoming increasingly difficult for the fruitful interactions between humanists (palaeographers and other textual experts) and scientists (physicists, biologists and others). As many have recalled in discussions and papers, none of the two branch of knowledge specialists would be able to solve such complex questions in isolation, a fact that the general audience tends to forget believing that Science and Technology will offer solutions to any humankind  problem. Through the combination of different methods and working in such multidisciplinary teams, Elgvin and Davis have investigated various suspicious items in recently formed collections of Dead Sea scrolls (Schøyen and Museum of the Bible).

Update 20 September 2016: Davis has just uploaded the paper on Academia.edu and opened it to discussion, Gleanings from the Cave of Wonderers? Patterns of Correspondence in the Post-2002 Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments.

This brings us to the hot question of provenance, collecting and the antiquities market. Many of the case studies presented at the conference involved written artefacts (forged or stirring authenticity debates) of at best unclear and undocumented provenance, e.g. Aramaic bowls and Dead Sea scrolls fragments, the so-called Artemidorus’s papyrus, not to mention the Jesus’s wife fragment. In all these cases more in-depth research on and transparency about provenance (= collection history and relative documents) could have saved time, money and energy for other researches. (I obviously don’t care about collectors’ money: in fact I rejoice when buyers of antiquities not paying attention to due diligence end up losing money and the reputation of dealers who facilitated such transactions is damaged…). In my paper I reiterated a point about collecting and publishing ethics I have made in other occasions: collections must provide full access to acquisition and restoration documents of the manuscripts in their possession, and academics must give detailed and documented account of provenance and restoration processes when they publish an ancient text for the first time. This is the only way to avoid a number of serious problems, from endless forgery debates to voluntary or involuntary academics’ contribution to the infiltration of illegal antiquities into the market, collections and scholarship.

Discoveries and provenance narratives were at the centre of the papers read by Nicola Denzey Lewis, Eva Mroczek, Nils Hallvard Korsvoll and myself. These narratives present common features and display similar rhetoric devices, which deserve to be deconstructed and analysed; Mroczek interestingly considered such narratives in the longer period, linking modern to ancient literary tropes. When unclear (if not illegal) excavations or transactions are involved, accounts tends to remain vague and lack key-details like names, places and dates; in some cases, after doubts are casted, the narrative changes and is adjusted in order to appear slightly more detailed and acceptable. In all the examples discussed, from the Nag Hammadi codices to the recent case of the Sappho papyri owned by a London anonymous collector and the Museum of the Bible, documents proving such potentially plausible narratives have never been fully disclosed, are of doubtful quality or even proved to be forged as in the case of the Jesus’s wife fragment.

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Hidden counter-narratives of archaeological discoveries: the Punch jokes about the 180,000 mummy cats auctioned in Liverpool in 1890 to be used as fertilizer.

Another fascinating feature of these narratives is their colonial tone: in them, western archaeologists, collectors and dealers are presented as the saviours of objects otherwise threatened by the Arabs or other Others. They usually are (self-) absolving when not (self-) celebratory narratives. However, private letters and other involuntary accounts often bear track of counter-narratives on the damages discoverers and their governments inflicted on the same archaeological remains. I have been amused reading a letter of James Rendel Harris from Egypt reporting the burning of a barrel of papyri collected by British soldiers (to be sold?), and judged to be just rubbish by their superior. While papyrologists and archaeologists still lament the damages provoked by the extraction of sebakh (organic fertilizer contained in ancient rubbish heaps among other deposits) by Egyptian peasants, little if anything is said about the damages provoked by British and other colonial enterprises. For instance, in 1890 over 180,000 cat mummies were sent from a village near Beni Hasan (an important archaeological site about 20 miles south of Minya) to Britain and auctioned in Liverpool to be used as fertilizer. Some items were deposited in the Liverpool Museum with a short description about the discovery and aspect of the cat mummies; the story has been recently brought to light in occasion of an exhibition on animal mummies at the Manchester Museum. Unsurprisingly, the downsides of occidental achievements in Egypt and other countries have gone easily forgotten. As Hallvard Korsvoll rightly reminded us, archaeological reports can be considered a genre, and this observation made me think about how they are increasingly becoming scientific/technical in tone compared to the more literary narratives produced when Egyptology and papyrology were born.

To conclude: the conference has been an excellent opportunity to discuss key-questions about the many connections between the creation of forgeries and fakes, the antiquities market, collecting, and the different narratives produced by such interactions. I am thankful to the project team, directed by Årstein Justnes, and their sponsor for the initiative, and above all for the UNBELIEVABLE icing forgery of the fake papyrus fragment of the Jesus’s wife on top of the celebratory tasty cake we ate at the end of the conference…too bad you weren’t there!

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Papyrology and Ethics: Next Week in Barcelona

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Next week I will be talking about Papyrology and Ethics at the 28th International Congress of Papyrology’s plenary session “Setting limits to our discipline?”.

You can download the draft paper from here: Papyrology and Ethics_Mazza, or via Academia.edu (https://www.academia.edu/27369636/Papyrology_and_Ethics).

The program and abstracts of the Congress are available at http://papyrologia.upf.edu/.

The Jesus’s Wife Fragment: End of Story?

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The Jesus’s wife fragment debate has entertained us since 2012, but it seems time to let it go. In a piece of great investigative journalism published yesterday on The Atlantic Ariel Sabar recounts his meeting, after following many leads, with the owner (and possibly forger?): Walter Fritz.

I recommend reading the article in order to enjoy the entire story, its many shadows and implications, and its disquieting protagonist. Here I just want to comment briefly about what I have been mainly interested in so far: provenance, provenance, provenance, as my colleague Carrie Schroeder has entitled her blog post on the recent developments of this saga.

I never stepped into the authenticity debate simply because I am not competent enough in Coptic papyrology; I was rather worried, however, about two main points: 1) the dangers academics inevitably encounter when publishing texts in the hands of anonymous collectors and lacking secure, documented provenance (= collection history, including archaeological finding circumstances when known); 2) the risks academics take engaging with the media, especially in the current University system which prizes media exposure.

The Jesus’s wife fragment posed a number of challenges since its appearance. I explained in an old blog post (Papyri, private collectors and academics: why the wife of Jesus and Sappho matter) that even if professor King in her publications was making an effort to give account of the provenance documents produced by the anonymous owner, that dossier was far from satisfactory for reasons ranging from the acquisition dates, to the quality of the scripts themselves (scanned copies of letters and statements, from what we were told). Well, we now have the proof that the doubts some of us has had were reasonable.

Some of King’s statements in the article (e.g. “I haven’t engaged the provenance questions at all” is the reaction to Saber’s first discoveries on Fritz) and her post-article interview which has just appeared (Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelieveable Tale of Jesus’s Wife) demonstrate a shocking unawareness of the importance of verifying the collection history of an object before publication. (I should say this is at odds with a brief exchange of emails I had with her in the past). What is even more disconcerting is that as rightly recalled in a post published by Christian Askeland, hints and doubts about Laukamp and the source of the papyrus and its companion fragments were already circulating since the appearance of an article by Owen Jarus; the fact that even Askeland, who I am sure just made some searches through Google or similar tools at his desk, had already a clue about the profile of the people involved, while King and the Harvard Theological Review seem to have underestimated if not ignored the entire question tells us that something went seriously wrong.

But I am not entirely surprised. The Jesus wife fragment is not the only Egyptian manuscript to have raised questions of provenance recently. As I have already written in the above mentioned old post and elsewhere, and repeat here again since nothing has changed in the meanwhile despite following publications, I still have my own reservations on the quality status of the provenance provided for another recently emerged fragmentary papyrus, the new Sappho owned in part by a London anonymous collector and in part by the Green/Museum of the Bible collection (Washington).

To sum up: are simple statements of academics, dealers and collectors, eventually accompanied by unchecked and/or not publicly available documents, sufficient to prove provenance in scientific publications of recently emerged texts? Personally, I do not think so, especially after what we have been seeing in recent years and in the wider context of a market inundated by an increasing stream of objects coming from Egypt (You want number and graphs? Then read e.g. D.W. Gill, ‘Egyptian Antiquities on the Market’, in: The Management of Egypt’s Cultural Heritage, edited by F. A. Hassan, and al., vol. 2: 67-77. London 2015).

This story invites all of us – members of editorial boards in particular – to reflect very carefully on documenting provenance. Imagine a different, and more sinister scenario, one involving someone who smuggles a papyrus, or buys it illegally, and then offers it to an academic so desperate to publish to avoid checking provenance in depth: in this case, if the academic is based in the United Kingdom, he can risk to be charged with an offence under section 328 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 connected with money laundering, because his publication or opinion facilitates exchanges of criminal property. (You don’t believe me? Then read J. Ulph and al., The Illicit Trade in Art and Antiquities. International Recovery and Criminal and Civil Liability, Oxford 2012, esp. pp. 110-111).

Now, my fellow academics, ask yourself once again: would you publish a papyrus without solid, documented provenance for a flashy appearance on the media and one more article out?

An experiment through Pinterest

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I am trying to find a way to keep track of papyri and parchments from Egypt appearing on the antiquities market. I have decided to start experimenting Pinterest, which is an easy platform for sharing images. There are a few inconveniences, e.g. the description field is limited to 500 characters and pins are just added chronologically without any possibility to organise an order of your own choice. However, I hope this would be a useful way to store images of manuscripts that otherwise risk to be lost. You probably remember how useful was to have Brice Jones’ old blog post to check the odd collection history of the Galatians 2 papyrus now in the Green/Museum of the Bible collection — if not check my old post A trip to Rome with a detour on eBay, and above all read the summary on what we have understood so far in my recently published article: “Papyri, Ethics, and Economics: A Biography of P.Oxy. 15.1780 (P 39)”, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologysts, 52 (2015), 113-142.

The address of the Pinterest board is: https://uk.pinterest.com/facesandvoices/papyri/

As I explain in the board’s description, my aim is not that of revealing what the manuscripts contain, but to document the market “as it happens” so to say. As I have already said in an old post, very often the objects in question are far from interesting and mislabelled by dealers to inflate prices.

If you believe this is a good experiment and service, please drop me a message or an email if you know of any sale, and give me some feedback on how to improve the information collected. This is a work in progress!

Dating early Christian papyri: old and new methods

The Archaeology of Religion in the Roman World group is organizing a panel on old and new methods in the dating of early Christian papyri at the next Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (San Antonio, Texas, 19-22 November 2016).
Topics may include, but are not confined to, methodology issues and problems, palaeography, papyrus case studies, and the application of new technologies.
Invited speakers: Brent Nongbri and Malcolm Choat.
Instructions for submitting an abstract through this link:
Join us!

Faith after the Pharaohs: Christianity and the Rylands Gospel of Mary

Our Gospel of Mary (P.Ryl. 3 463) is currently on loan to the British Museum exhibit Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs. In the video below you can listen at me talking about the importance of papyrus findings for the understanding of early Christianity (or better: early Christianities), and above all you can see the fragment itself as recently restored by the excellent John Rylands Library conservation department.

I have written about this fragment offering my own translation in a previous post.

Making the Mummies Talk (without Palmolive soap!)

Checking potential samples for the project with Alice Stevenson (Petrie Museum-UCL) and Kathryn Piquette (UCL)

Checking potential samples for the project with Alice Stevenson (Petrie Museum-UCL) and Kathryn Piquette (UCL) at the Petrie Museum, London.

As the readers of my blog know, I have been following the amazing adventures of Scott Carroll, former director of the Green collection and now partner of Ancient Asset Investments, and his friends dissolving Ptolemaic and early Roman mummy masks in Palmolive soap with the strange idea to retrieve New Testament manuscripts, but in fact finding some administrative Ptolemaic documents and Greek literary fragments as a result of their washing up. We will possibly have more precise information about what was inside the artefacts when the first volume of the Green papyri will be published, with the hope to receive also explanations on the methods employed for the dismounting, and on the provenance of the masks and cartonnage, especially after we learnt that Iraq clay tablets from the Green collection have been seized and are under investigation by the federal authorities.

As it often happens in research, some good came as a result of what happened. Public concern raised by the Palmolive Indiana Jones YouTube exploits has pulled together a multidisciplinary team of specialists lead by Melissa Terras (UCL) and Mike Toth (R.B. Toth Associates), including myself among others, that has received funds from Arcadia Foundation to investigate how special imaging techniques, such as multispectral technology, can lead to the establishment of non invasive methods for reading papyri encapsulated in mummy masks and other cartonnage objects. We named the project Making the Mummies Talk.

Sorting out cartonnage samples at the Petrie Museum

Sorting out cartonnage samples at the Petrie Museum

The work of the team has just begun. There are a number of challenges we are facing, ranging from conservation issues to the little information available so far on the compositions of ancient inks and how they respond to the different imaging techniques we are going to apply. But we are convinced that the project will be a decisive step forward into finding ways not only to avoid the destruction of ancient artefacts in the future, but also to gather data on their material features and freely share them for study. Classicists and other specialists have tended too often to focus only on the texts written on ancient papyri and other materials, overlooking other key aspects of ancient manuscripts, such as the quality of the papyrus employed, ink compositions and other means involved in their production, and their multiple lives as books or documents first, and later as recycled materials for the fabrication of something different.

This project will also allow us to evaluate what impacts past conservation techniques used in museums and libraries, or by dealers, had on the objects under study. While working with Mike Toth at the John Rylands Library, for example, we obtained some interesting information on the tax receipt on the back of the so-called Last Supper Rylands amulet: besides the text of the receipt otherwise unreadable, multispectral imaging brought to light traces of cell-tape unfortunately employed in the past on the papyrus surface, the effects of which were, however, invisible to the naked eye.

P.Ryl.Greek Add. 1166 back: the lighter stripes visible especially on the left half of the papyrus match with cell tape that was found in an envelope with the papyrus.

P.Ryl.Greek Add. 1166 back: the lighter stripes visible especially on the left half of the papyrus match with cell tape that was found in an envelope with the papyrus. Images were taken before conservation.

 

Greek Papyrus 6: The Nicene Creed

Some Christian Rylands papyri will be on display at the British Museum for the exhibit Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs. Read what our conservation department has done in view of the event.

John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

Tim Higson, Collection Care team leader writes:

The Collection Care Department have been preparing a number of items being loaned to the British Museum as part of their Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs exhibition, which opens in October 2015.

http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/faith_after_the_pharaohs.aspx

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One of the items to be loaned is Greek Papyrus 6, a Christian theological text, which is considered to be the oldest copy in existence of the Nicene Creed.

The papyrus fragment, which measures 124mm x 125mm, was housed within a glass frame along with another fragment of Greek papyrus (Greek P 7).

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The decision was taken to re-mount the two items individually.

When Greek P 6 was carefully removed from its glass frame, a salt deposit, on the inner surface of the glass was evident, which had been partially obscuring the view of the fragment and text.

Salt deposit visible where the document was mounted Salt deposit visible where the document was originally mounted

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‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’ – Press Release

Opening soon at the Manchester Museum. Come and visit!

Egypt at the Manchester Museum

Wooden cat coffin, acc. no. 9303. From Saqqara. Wooden cat coffin, acc. no. 9303. From Saqqara.

Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed

8 October 2015-17 April 2016, Manchester Museum

Free Entry

This myth-busting exhibition will present and explore ancient Egyptian animal mummies, prepared in their millions as votive offerings to the gods. Gifts for the Gods will explain the background behind this religious practice in the context of life in ancient Egypt and the environment in which the animals lived. It will explore the British fascination with Egypt, the discovery of animal mummies by British excavators, and how the mummies ended up in the UK, as well as taking a look at the history and future of their scientific study in Manchester. The display will combine mummified specimens such as jackals, crocodiles, cats and birds with cultural artefacts such as stone sculpture and bronze statuettes, alongside 19th Century works of art and never-seen-before archives.

The exhibition…

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Speaking of Prices: The Wyman Fragment

The Wyman fragment. Screenshot from the 2012 Sotheby's catalogue

The Wyman fragment. Screenshot from the 2012 Sotheby’s catalogue

On the 3rd of July 1950, Leland C. Wyman, a professor at Boston University, bought a small fragment of parchment with Greek writing on it in Cairo. According to the dealer, the fragment had been found by some local people in al-Fusṭāṭ, a story which might or might not be true as correctly noted by the first editor, W.H.P. Hatch.

The parchment, which has received different palaeographical dating ranging from the second half of the second century to the second half of the fourth century AD, bears some lines from Paul’s Romans chapters 4 and 5 attesting interesting variants. It is registered as 0220/20220 in the official list of New Testament manuscripts.

The Wyman fragment was sold through Sotheby’s, London twice: in 1988 by Wyman’s heirs and in 2012 by the 1988 purchaser, the Norwegian businessman and collector Martin Schøyen. At the first auction (21 June 1988, lot 47) the fragment had an estimate of £ 15.000-20.000, but reached the final price of £ 95.000. A similarly high increase was obtained at the 2012 auction, when from the estimate £ 150,000-200,000 the price went up to £ 301,250. The sum in this last case was paid by the Green family, who have later donated the manuscript to their Museum of the Bible.

So what does determine prices of ancient manuscripts these days? I am not entirely sure since as I said already in this blog and elsewhere the market (legal and illegal) is secretive by its own nature and we can collect only partial data on prices through publicly available auctions’ catalogues, or information that collectors and dealers are eventually happy to provide. Certainly those collectors who are opening public museums will be sharing price information; therefore I should add that in order to obtain a clearer picture of the economy surrounding world cultural heritage objects, it would be very helpful to add also appraisals to contrast and compare. We tend to forget that manuscripts and other antiquities are investment goods at the centre of interesting economic besides cultural enterprises that are worth studying.

In any case we may infer that prices are determined by a combination of factors, not necessarily in this order:

  1. The importance of a piece. In the case of the Wyman fragment its Christian content, the early – although debated as above mentioned, see e.g. W. Clarysse and P. Orsini recent re-dating to 350-400 AD – date and its rarity.
  2. Documented provenance. In this case pre-1972 purchase seems to be enough to make everybody happy. But legality on these questions is more a point of view than a firm subject since there was already Egyptian legislation on the antiquities market which was not always respected.
  3. The presence on the market of wealthy collectors as Martin Schøyen and the Green family/Museum of the Bible, who invest large sums of money on acquisitions for various reasons.
  4. Finally, marketing i.e. the way dealers and auction houses pack the merchandise they sell. In this specific case it was an easy job, in view of the contents and features of the fragment and the academic literature produced on it.