Frustration Week

Dear readers I should say this has been a week of social media and e-commerce failures. Having all been invited by the Museum of the Bible to join the @AskACurator ‏ day on Wednesday on Twitter, I thought to send a number of questions about provenance and guess what? Not a single one was answered. Others went unanswered too, but I have been asking since 2014, after all I felt I had to be treated with some respect. Even Mr Ask A Curator had a say…

 

Anyway, I brought my frustration to eBay and it went even worse. Two papyrus fragments appeared on sale from a German account, evangelist75, an interesting chap who according to his feedback report has sold quite a number of antiquities of all sorts, including other “interesting old Coptic papyrus sheets”, as he calls and sometimes misspells them. For once I give mine and my colleagues’ expertise: those just sold, one for £ 48.93 and the other for £ 77.75, are fakes (although the papyrus sheets might be genuine or faked better than the texts: hard to say). Actually they are hilarious fakes considering the Facebook comments when my friend Alin Suciu posted the links.

So the buyers have been cheated, which I really enjoy since these papyri would have never been acquired by responsible collectors. Mr evangelist75 has in fact told me via the eBay chat: “I have purchased from an antique dealer in Germany about 20 years ago and comes from nord Egyptian area. ” Maybe he had been cheated too? Who knows…

In the light of previous experiences, I did not bother this time to fill the eBay form for irregularities, since all those I sent have remained unanswered so far. I went straight to Twitter and talked to eBay through their @AskeBay account. This is what I got back (click on the link here below and you’ll see all the conversation):

Isn’t it amazing? Those fancy people in the Silicon Valley know how get by in this world. They earn tons of money and pretend us all to make their job of monitoring FOR FREE!!! If I were not the lady I am, I would pass at this point to Italian body language. But never mind, after all it is Sunday and frustration week will be ended soon.

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The eBay experience

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It is a while that I am chasing my Turkish friend Mixantik-Ebuyerrrr, who is selling his papyrus fragments and other merchandise via eBay since 2008. Although he likes to call himself Robert, we actually know that this is not his real name; soon or later we will delve into his interesting story. But never mind, today I’d like to talk about the e-commerce platform through which Robert and others can freely and easily offer their manuscripts and other antiquities for sale in a very convenient way. Convenient for buyers, sellers and above all for those who own the platform in question: eBay is listed 310 in the 2017 Fortune list of the 500 world leading companies. It is hard to quantify the overall amount of antiquities (licit and illicit, genuine and fake) which are exchanged through the platform, but to give you an idea of the size and profit margins, today there are 1,531 Egyptian antiquities and 3,974 antique (sic) manuscripts on sale through the UK platform, only to mention objects at the centre of my interest.

So let us consider the case of a responsible collector looking for papyri on eBay. Among the fragments recently on sale there have been two offered by luck_button, a user active since 26 September 2003 and based, as my friend Robert, in Turkey. As you can see from the screenshot above and checking the link (papyrus 1, papyrus 2), the seller specifies with a bizarre sense of pride that there is no provenance or document on any of the two. I do not want to give my expertise on the scraps, so I am afraid but I won’t tell you anything about their date, writing, if they are genuine, etc. I am just concentrating on matters of legality and ethics, which should come first.

Turkey has ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970 in 1981 and as a consequence has put very strict legislation in place for the protection of its cultural heritage. The main law for the protection of antiquities was issued in 1983; antiquities are ownership of the State, their commerce is illegal and penalties are harsh. It is fresh news that a British tourist trying to bring back ancient coins, which he found while snorkelling, is now detained in Turkey. In our case, however, the papyrus fragments are not from Turkey, but are originally from Egypt; their legal status could seem ambiguous. Nevertheless, since Mr luck_button is openly stating that they are unprovenanced and there are no documents on the acquisition history of the fragments, what is happening has high probability to be illegal and the fragments look like illicit fragments in transit through Turkey. Moreover, the seller candidly explains that he sends the merchandise through the standard Turkish post, as he has clearly done so far on the basis of his trade-history: what about customs duties? In a world where nations seem to have the less and less resources to control borders, it has become quite simple to send things around without any systematic check on the contents of packages. Never mind issues of conservation etc.

So in the light of this far from reassuring picture, a responsible collector would certainly avoid buying the fragments and would try, instead, to contact eBay in order to alert them on the situation. Here problems start. Any item on sale could be reported through a form that you should fill according to some pre-existent, standard criteria. In fact, none of them really fit to antiquities. Anyway, I made an experiment filling the form as best as I could few days ago. Nothing has happened and in the meanwhile the fragments have been sold to two anonymous irresponsible collectors: one for 512 and the other for 141 dollars.

e-Bay policies on the sale of antiquities varies from one country to another, in view of the different legislation regulating the market and approaches towards cultural heritage protection. For instance, eBay Germany policy openly forbids the selling of antiquities without accompanying documents regarding their acquisition history . The policy of eBay US seems less restrictive, or at least not so explicit, and gives some specific guidelines only regarding Native American cultural heritage. As for the UK, to my knowledge the only attempt made to regulate the nature of the antiquities sold on eBay concerns exclusively UK archaeological finds. This seems a narrow minded, nation-focussed approach for a country with a rich legal (and illegal) patrimony of antiquities originating from other countries on its territory, as a result of its imperial past, and a thriving antiquities market more in general.

As an academic who feels responsible of the objects I study, I had been able in the past to get in contact directly with the eBay policy office and they usually act quickly when some bids are flagged as potentially illegal. But it is clear that more proactive and structural measures should be put in place to tackle the problem.

The reality is that everything seems allowed because too many collectors/dealers, as the two who purchased the papyri at the centre of this post, do not respect the laws and ethics underpinning such exchanges (before you even start with a pointless counter-argument, I am afraid to say that no, darling, eventual ignorance of the laws does not excuse them). Moreover, eBay policies enforcement seems inefficient at best, and police active control is also low, even more so in the UK where the Art and Antiques Unit seems to be under threat of closure. Despite all the rhetoric on heritage preservation, and the amount of public money put in various programs, the truth is that this kind of everyday unregulated and unethical (when not illegal) market is slowly killing our cultural heritage in the open and apparently with the consent of everyone implied in the transactions.

Bibliography note:

I learnt a lot from reading J. Anglim Kreder, J. Nintrup, “Antiquity meets the modern age: eBay’s potential criminal liability for counterfeit and stolen international antiquity sale” Journal of Law, Technology & the Internet 5 (2014) 143–178 and N. Brodie, “The Internet Market in Antiquities” in F. Desmarais ed. Countering Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods: The Global Challenge of Protecting the World’s Heritage Paris: ICOM 2015.

 

Green papyri: Egypt steps in

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The Galatians Coptic fragment when advertised on eBay, screen shot from Brice Jones’ blog post

An article published today on the Times reports that “Egypt is investigating the possible illegal acquisition of national artefacts by an American craft store company, including a 5th-century fragment of the Bible that was displayed at the Vatican.” The craft store company is Hobby Lobby.

Readers of the blog know about my doubts on the provenance of that papyrus; at present the only documented information on it is that it was put on sale on eBay in October 2012, and later surfaced in the Green collection.

According to the article, David Trobisch, director of collections of the Museum of the Bible, “said the fragment came from the David Robinson collection sold through Christie’s in 2011 and then acquired by the museum through a trusted dealer. There was no photographic record of the 2011 sale, he said. ‘We are sharing what was told to us.’.” So the papyrus is one of the items which Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Green family, gifted to the Museum.

From the statement we may infer that papyri are sold by Christie’s without any precise record (I wonder how collectors might be able to exercise due diligence without such basic documentation…). The trusted dealer that might be able to clarify how a papyrus went from a Christie’s auction of 2011 to a Turkish dealer (mixantik aka ebuyerrrr) operating from Turkey in 2012 is still hiding somewhere. Why a trusted dealer cannot be named at this point is one more mystery of the amazing world of the antiquities market I will never be able to decipher.

The provenance for the ca. 1,000 papyrus fragments and the other Egyptian objects in the collection is an information we have asked for since 2014. Unsuccessfully, since I am still blogging about it…

The Green collection and the Museum of the Bible: 443,000 square meters of mess

One of the tablets confiscated by US customs. Source: the United States Department of Justice.

Readers who have followed my blog could have imagined my reaction to last week’s press release concerning the civil forfeiture complaint filed by the United States attorney’s office of New York Eastern District. I am not surprised. Along with other people, I have been raising concerns about the Green collection’s acquisition methods and unprofessional habits since the beginning of 2014. It was then that I first learned about its existence as it came out that they were connected to the discovery of new Sappho papyrus fragments. These fragments are now housed by an anonymous London collector and the Green collection: we still haven’t had access to any of the documents proving that they come from a lot sold through a Christie’s auction in November 2011. Their provenance rests on the word of the current director of the collection and some Green or ex-Green scholars. I have argued that is not enough information for papyri that have only recently emerged from the market, and even more so in light of the serious facts that have transpired since the complaint was made public. Equally, we have not yet received any documents or images explaining how a Coptic papyrus fragment of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, sold through eBay in 2012 by a Turkish account, also – according to David Trobisch, current director of the Green collection – had in its acquisition history a provenance from the same Christie’s auction, and finally landed in Oklahoma City in 2013 (in brief: 2011 Christie’s London –> 2012 Turkish eBay account –> “trusted dealer” mentioned by Trobisch – > 2013 Green collection. Quite a ride). This Turkish eBay account (mixantik which later morphed into ebuyerrrr) was active again in Spring 2016, when I reported it to the eBay Europe which closed it in view of the dubious nature and provenances of the antiquities on sale and the expedition methods of this vendor. Obviously, I also filed an official report with the Art and Antiques Unit of the London Metropolitan Police.

We also don’t yet know the provenance of the Green mummy mask dismounted at Baylor University by Scott Carroll together with some Green scholars and students, while the Evangelical preacher Josh MacDowell was in attendance. In short, nobody knows anything about the acquisition circumstances of the objects and manuscripts in the collection – some of which will be on display in the Washington Museum – except for an irrelevant percentage of famous pieces (e.g. the codex Climaci rescriptus and P.Oxy. 15 1780), and the now infamous over 3,500 objects identified by the feds for repatriation. We were promised an online catalogue but nothing has materialized.

Of course, academics who are working on the collection pieces do know the acquisition circumstances of the artefacts to which they have been assigned, and I am expecting they will intervene on the topic soon. I personally appreciated some of the younger academics, who last year at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature raised concerns on the provenance and genuine status of the Dead Sea scrolls’ fragments they had been assigned at the presentation of the volume of the Green collection fragments recently published by Brill. This volume does not contain any information on the fragments’ acquisition history. We are now waiting for the forthcoming papyri volume to see if publishing without provenance and acquisition circumstances is the standard for the Green collection and Brill series.

I am not going to comment here on the technical aspects of the prosecution, fines and settlements: I am not an expert in the law, and you can find excellent assessments online by Rick St. Hilaire and others. In short, what has happened is a very serious and sustained breach of national and international laws, not only related to cultural heritage protection, but also to custom regulations and other laws. Steve Green has admitted that the facts described in the complaint happened and a settlement was reached. Now it is the case to remind here that irresponsible collectors who do not check carefully the provenance of the antiquities they purchase contribute to foster a black market in the hands of criminals of various sorts as Italians know too well since the Mafia has grown rich through this business. In Egypt, looters are not only destroying cultural heritage sites and objects, but also killing people including children. In the case of Iraqi material terrorism might even be involved.

There are a few considerations which I’d like to share as an academic who studies and curates ancient documents.

To found a museum is an enterprise that must be carried out by properly trained experts in many different subjects, including cultural heritage managers and lawyers. What has happened with this collection/museum is exactly the opposite: the first director and counsellor of the Green collection could not boast this professional profile, and recommendations made by first-rate scholars like the one mentioned in the complaint who warned about purchasing antiquities from Iraq went totally ignored. We now know that the change of director in 2013/2014 and the recent issue of an acquisition policy (by the way, what about a publication policy in light of what we have seen so far?) probably came out as a consequence of the lawsuit, as the timeline shows. If this had not happened, things might have gone on and on.

There is too often the tendency to treat archaeology and similar subjects as fields in which everyone is entitled to comment on and even participate in. While I am a big fan of public engagement, I am in absolute disagreement with unsupervised work done by amateurs: would you ever allow an enthusiastic layperson in medicine to perform surgery in a hospital? I don’t believe so. What makes people think that anyone could handle cuneiform tablets, papyri and other antiquities on the basis of their enthusiasm? This is something that does not only concern Hobby Lobby, but also our society in general: in the UK, for instance, departments of archaeology are under threat of being shut down as they are considered irrelevant, and curators of manuscripts with postgraduate degrees are paid less than a secretary without a degree in London. This is to say nothing of the madness of metal-detectorists.

But to return to the Greens: it was clear since Scott Carroll’s beginnings that unskilled (to put it mildly) personnel were in charge of the Green Collection/Museum of the Bible. Scott Carroll has barely produced a PhD dissertation, which never became a monograph as is standard in academia, and seems to have never published a line in an academic journal in the field (if you can unearth one, please send me the reference SEE CORRECTION BELOW). This man, who currently is putting on one of his shows in Thailand, is still selling manuscripts of all sorts to Evangelical Christian colleges in the US. Actually, what he is doing is even more ingenious: he sells artefacts to wealthy evangelical Christians who then donate them to those colleges. Carroll earns money in the transaction; the donors receive tax-rebates, and the colleges are thrilled to own ancient artefacts, which I bet will be revealed as something different from whatever they are declared to be by Carroll, if not fakes. Incidentally, one of the last ones, now at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminar of Louisville KY, is said to come from Italy, from where an ancient Torah of that kind can hardly be exported. While Carroll, who later was fired or resigned (the versions don’t coincide), has certainly played a major role in this mess, it should be brougt in mind that many of those in key positions, who must have known something about what was going on (for instance Cary Summers and Jerry Pattengale), are still leading figures of the opening-soon Museum of the Bible.

Academics do not come across well in this story; there has been very little if any awareness of the questions involved in establishing a collection of antiquities of this sort. In recent years, I have had conversations with colleagues who joined the Green scholars initiative or engaged in other ways with the collection and the Museum: money was a recurrent theme. From minor universities in need of PhD and research funding to professors from top-ranked universities, everyone was in need of money: to collect as much money as possible is one of the tasks of the modern academic. (Even the Vatican hosted an exhibit of the collection in 2014 without posing many questions on the provenance of the artefacts: there was not a single label addressing the point and any information was noticeably absent from the catalogue.) There is also an obsession with producing research on exceptional items, with the aspiration of discovering a sensational-something in order to attract the media. As an academic myself, I am part of this circus: I believe it is time to set higher ethical and professional standards when accepting donations and establishing collaborations. I am worried about what has happened in terms of academic behaviours because the reasons behind these have more to do with the nature of academia as it is evolving in the last decades, rather than with the Green/Hobby Lobby mess. It is inevitable that the market-oriented model in the education and cultural sectors increases the perils involved when one forgets the ethical mission of the university, which is not business, as some seem to believe, but an education and research institution. Academics and institutions should ensure that research money and facilities are accepted only while adhering to high ethical and professional standards and holding them in the utmost respect. I am very sorry to say that it was clear since the beginning that there was tension regarding this point in the case of this collection: some simply were in denial about this.

To conclude: as you may imagine, I am not particularly worried about the future of the messy Museum of the Bible. Despite the efforts of the current management to set a distinction between the Green collection and the Museum of the Bible, I struggle at seeing one (unless the Museum will release a list of the artefacts in their ownership or on loan for exhibit with their full documented collection history). I am instead much more worried about the status of already existent cultural institutions in the current climate. You can already enjoy Biblical artefacts in many museums and libraries, even in Washington D.C. where the new museum will be located. Manuscripts and historical copies of the Bible are disseminated everywhere (come to Manchester and I’ll guide you throughout our riches): what is really needed is public and private money to take care of already existing collections and to educate the next generations of teachers, curators, archaeologists, papyrologists and so on. You might wonder why Steve Green didn’t fund already existent libraries and museums. Of course he is free to spend his money as he likes, as long as he and his crowd obey the laws of each and every country.

13 July 2017, CORRECTION: A reader of this blog has emailed me saying that Scott Carroll seems indeed to have published at least an academic articles and possibly a few more, see Carroll, Scott T. “The Apocalypse of Adam and Pre-Christian Gnosticism.” Vigiliae Christianae 44.3 (1990): 263–79. In some sense this is even more worrisome: in spite of his academic training, professional ethics went clearly missing.

Donald Trump is as tacky as Roman Emperors: So what?

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Perpetuating stereotypes. Jan Syka Nero at Baiae, c. 1900 (photo by M0tty, Wikimediacommons)

 

I have enough.

I am an immigrant. I have already to endure Brexit, so I am sorry but I cannot possibly endure the rhetoric on Trump and Roman emperors on top of all this. I forgot to add that I am not only an immigrant, but an Italian immigrant, which means that I already had Mussolini and the Fascist fascination with Roman imperial history, and Berlusconi and his Cinecittà version of Hollywood Trumpland.

We live in the big world of Absurdistan, I know, but this does not entitle members of the British establishment to continue brutalizing Roman history as if we were still living in Edward Gibbon’s glorious days, with the downside, it must be admitted, of not having the same proficiency in Greek and Latin. This is the twenty-first bloody (indeed) century and Ancient History and Classics cannot be treated as a museum collection of white marble portraits from where politicians, journalists and any other establishment member can freely pick up samples to throw in the face of the public as pieces of their historical alternative facts.

This time it is a glorious column of the Guardian, a newspaper that I love deeply so it is even more depressing. Few days ago Mr Jonathan Jones has warned us that  “to understand Trump, we should look at the tyrants of ancient Rome” (… why am I not surprised?) And what does this specifically imply? Well, going through some marble portraits (actually just one and an eighteenth century drawing of another). Whose portraits? What a stupid question: of Commodus and Nero, who else? Gladiator and the Anti-Christ. There is also some Latin literature that might help: Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars, “written in the reign of the ‘good’ emperor Hadrian.”

Now the mention of the adjective “good” together with Hadrian (to be fair to the others, a brutal murderer too…) clarifies what is going on. Mr Jones is the average product of a certain British traditional education in Roman Imperial history: just let us read together some Tacitus and Suetonius in good Oxbridge translation and make this story straight. Empire was good and gave the world civilisation up to a certain point. That is until when the “bad” emperors outnumbered the good ones and everything went to Decline-and-Fall mode, with the help of corrupting superstitions from the East, and foreign invasions from all sides, except for those glorious Anglo-Saxons who – thanks God – resisted and brought civilisation back to the world through the Middle Ages and beyond. (For some people the British Empire never fell apart, as we all have learnt too well recently.)

I am afraid, but things did not go that way and as we patiently find out with our students in class, the Roman Empire was a much more interesting place than what few literary sources, written by the male elite, and some decontextualized emperor portraits pretend to sell. Archaeological discoveries and sophisticated methods for interpreting the extant evidence have disclosed a world populated by people of different sex, gender, ethnicity, age, religion and socio-economic backgrounds. People who found their way through the political imperial system, despite widespread poverty, massive inequality, diffuse injustice, and the many life threats typical of pre-modern societies. I invite you to look at this people in order to understand the Roman Empire and eventually modern societies, not just at their rulers as seen through the eyes of the male elite.

So how was the Roman Empire for those who lived there? What did they make of the emperor? Do we know? Yes, we do. This, for instance, is a letter sent by a young recruit in Italy to his father in their hometown in second century AD Egypt (you can find further information and a picture of the original here):

Apion to Epimachus, his father and lord, very many greetings. Before all else I pray for your health and that you may always be well and prosperous, together with my sister and her daughter and my brother. I thank the lord Serapis that when I was in danger at sea he straightway saved me. On arriving at Misenum I received from Caesar [i.e. the emperor] three gold pieces for travelling expenses. And it is well with me. Now I ask you, my lord and father, write me a letter, telling me first of your welfare, secondly of my brother’s and sister’s, and enabling me thirdly to make obeisance before your handwriting, because you educated me well and I hope thereby to have quick advancement, if the gods so will. Give many salutations to Capiton and my brother and sister and Serenilla and my friends. I have sent you by Euctemon a portrait of myself. My name is Antonius Maximus, my company the Athenonica. I pray for your health. [Postscript] Serenus son of Agathodaemon salutes you, and …, and Turbo son of Gallonius, and …

On the back: [Addressed] To Philadelphia, to Epimachus from Apion his son. [Additional address] Deliver at the camp of the first cohort of the Apameni to Julianus, vice-secretary, this letter from Apion to be forwarded to his father Epimachus.

(You can read this and many other papyri in translation in Select Papyri, I, Private Affairs, ed. A.S. Hunt and C.C. Edgar. The Loeb Classical Library. London and Cambridge, Mass.1932; see also an electronic version available here)

It is clear what Empire meant to this family. The young son is proud to have first of all received an education through the efforts of his father, and then to be given the opportunity of a career in the Roman army. It is also clear that the Empire created the infrastructures to allow communication throughout its large territory. Apion, who has just changed his very Egyptian Greek name into a more appropriate Roman Latin Antonius Maximus, is still devoted to his Egyptian God Serapis, who protected him from the perils of the sea while sailing to Italy. Serapis actually conquered Rome so much to become a very popular deity even in the most remote parts of the Empire, including Britain.

But not everyone was happy in this Mediterranean world, globalised through empire, and voices of resistance and dissent are found in the sources too. Among the same local Greek communities of Roman Egypt, for instance, some felt deprived of their previous prestigious standing in Ptolemaic society, before Roman citizenship became the key to the highest political and socio-economic benefits. They produced and loved reading the so-called acts of the Alexandrian martyrs (a modern label, for their resemblance to the almost contemporary and similar Christian martyrdom literature.) This literature transformed Egyptian Greeks into brave opponents to the brutal Roman government: heroes who went as far as Rome to stand for their values and rights, and ended been put to death by the deaf Roman tyrants. The authors targeted not only the new Roman ruling class, but also local minorities such as the Jews, as a reaction to the fear of stepping down the social ladder of the new order, and see their own identity dissolving into the broader world they now belonged to. (Does this recall you something on current feelings towards immigrants and minorities? I bet it does…)

Examples of this sort can be multiplied, as it is easy to discover digging into Roman imperial history produced in this century, in this and other countries.

So do we need to look at antiquity to understand the present? Yes, we certainly do. Now more than ever we need to train our critical skills through the patient and careful exercise of deciphering, reading and interpreting with method this wide and composite corpus of sources the ancients left behind. This training could reveal extremely helpful for navigating through life, especially in times of post-factual journalism and politics informed by alternative-facts. On the other hand, the exercise of comparing different historical periods and figures can be meaningful only if it helps answering questions we are investigating: what is the point then of comparing Donald Trump’s tackiness and moody conduct to those of Roman emperors? Does this enlighten any aspect of the politics and behaviours of the leaders here compared? I do not believe so: it is just a pointless repetition of the British elitist tale of “good” and “bad” emperors. The tale of the “bad” emperor, in particular, enables their users to create a (false) distance from the ruler when he does not fully conform to their expectations. This tale gives the taletellers the very convenient illusion of not being part of the socio-political dynamics that empowered the emperor, in which, on the contrary, all of us are entangled.

Four books

A. Giardina, A. Vauchez, Il Mito di Roma. Dal Medioevo a Mussolini. Bari 2000.

R.K. Gibson, T. Power (eds.), Suetonius the Biographer. Studies in Roman Lives, Oxford 2014.

A. Harker, Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt: The Case of the Acta Alexandrinorum, Cambridge 2008.

N. Morley, The Roman Empire: Roots of Imperialism, London-New York 2010.

Two Blogs:

Katherine Blouin, Usama Gad, Rachel Mairs, Everyday Orientalism

Sarah Bond, History From Below: Musing on Daily Life in the Ancient and Early Medieval Mediterranean

And a podcast:

Shushma Malik, Ancient Rome’s most loved and despised emperor, Nero

Overdue: Dating Early Christian Papyri at the SBL Annual Meeting. A Report

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The unruly half of the panel, i.e. Nongbri and Choat, and myself before losing control over those two….

You know academics are always late, right? So I am super-late in reporting a much fun session I organised and chaired on November 21 in San Antonio (Texas), at the last Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, a monster of a conference gathering together thousands of people interested in the history of the Bible from the most amazing perspectives.

As a member of the Archaeology of Roman Religion Group (obviously the coolest group of all), I planned a session on “Dating Early Christian Papyri: Old and New Methods”. The reasons behind the panel were basically three. First of all, in recent years there have been lively discussions on the dating of the earliest copies of the New Testament, driven in some cases by ideology (you remember all those laughs about the first-century Mark fragment madness, right? By the way, I believe there might be fun developments forthcoming…so stay tuned), and in others by well-argued doubts about the methods papyrologists have applied so far in order to date such manuscripts. Secondly, new technologies and methodologies developed by the so-called “hard” sciences have appeared opening new possibilities to scholars. Finally, the new multidisciplinary context in which the dating and study of manuscripts is nowadays conducted requires more conversation between specialists in different fields, and needs to find clearer languages through which communication exchanges might become more effective. (You can download and read my introduction to the panel from here or sbl2016_introduction).

  1. Speed-Dating Papyri: Familiarity, Instinct, and Guesswork

The first paper was delivered by Malcolm Choat who started with an important methodological warning: especially when studied as material objects, Christian papyri shouldn’t be considered as a separate group from the rest of the evidence because this would lead to distortions in the interpretation of data. (There is now a very useful IT tool that provides dated comparanda for documentary papyri: PapPal). Malcolm’s paper was influenced by his current project on forgeries. He focussed on the birth of the diplomatic science (the study of Medieval documents’ shape and palaeography) in sixteenth century France, drawing attention to the fact that while this was born with the goal of proving the authenticity of manuscripts for legal, practical matters, papyrology-palaeography, on the contrary, was developed as a means to date documents which did not contain dating formulas and other clear chronological indications and above all as a discipline which studies writing as a complex social act connected with many aspects of history. One of the most interesting aspects of the paper was the discussion of the “expert eye”: Malcolm rightly pointed out that papyrology and palaeography are practical subjects. In other words, you learn more going through documents (what he defined as “speed-dating papyri”) than absorbing notions and theories from books. This opens the door to a problematic aspect of papyrology, which recalls “art expertise”: the idea that the more papyri you see, the more you would be able to evaluate pieces in terms of date, location, style and so forth so on. It is certainly true that some papyrologists have developed special skills in dating papyri based on the large numbers they’ve studied, nonetheless to attribute a date in a peer-reviewed journal article should be based on solid arguments, first and foremost extensive discussion of comparable, securely dated examples.

  1. Palaeography and Radiocarbon Analysis in the Dating of Early Christian Manuscripts: Problems and Prospects

Brent Nongbri came next. I have a passion for Brent despite he’s a troublemaker: since the publication of his “The Use and Abuse of P52: Papyrological Pitfalls in the Dating of the Fourth Gospel” on the Harvard Theological Review in 2007, he has constructively criticized the ways papyrologists, palaeographers and as a consequence NT scholars have proceeded in assigning a date to our league champion, P52 (= P.Ryl. III 457), a fragment of the Gospel of John supposedly being the first extant copy of the New Testament. The fragment is one of the big attractions of the John Rylands Library of Manchester, where it is on public permanent display, and we had to change labels in the Rylands: Brent truly is a nuisance…

He divided the paper into two sections: in the first he discussed current standard methods in dating texts, while in the second he dealt with radiocarbon dating. His careful analysis has brought to light positive aspects, but also shortages, in both methods. What seems important to achieve in the future is more clarity in the way experts present data and methods related with date attributions; according to his research, at present both palaeography and radiocarbon analysis are only allowing to locate a manuscript in a time span of a century, while some scholars tend to attribute shorter, more precise chronological indications without giving solid arguments in doing it.

  1. Dating Ancient Egyptian Papyri through Raman Spectroscopy: Concept and Application to Fragments of The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife and the Gospel of John 

The third paper was the most challenging, but the one showing how science and technology are impacting our field. It also had a “sexy” aspect besides science since the entire project behind it started as a means to test the authenticity of the so-called Jesus’s Wife Gospel and his twin John Gospel fragments, now both known to be forgeries. So we had professor Karen King and journalist Ariel Sabar joining the session. (Besides a fully packed room: I told you we are a cool group…).

Settled after the “finding” of the Jesus’s Wife fragment, the Ink Analysis Laboratory based in New York is composed by five members: a leading scientist (James Yardley) with two assistant researchers (Sarah Goler and Angela Cacciola), two papyrologists (Roger Bagnall and David Ratzan), and a conservator (Alexis Hagadorn). The main aim pulling the team together was that of starting a systematic study of the Raman spectrum of carbon based black pigment as a function of date. Seventeen securely dated papyri were selected from the Columbia University collection, and analysis began. Basically, micro-Raman spectroscopy is a non-destructive light scattering process through which incoming photons from a light source cause quantized vibrations in a material and as a consequence the scattered light is measured. In short, Raman-spectroscopy provides detailed information of the structural properties of the materials under analysis. So what the team has obtained so far is a precise description of the qualities of the ink of the abovementioned seventeen papyri; these results were then processed through mathematical models in order to develop a system to ‘predict’ the date of undated manuscript through Raman-spectroscopy analysis. Then blind-prediction analysis was performed: in brief, some dated papyri were processed through Raman spectroscopy and then attributed a date according to the abovementioned model in order to see if that date matched with the documented one (here results were mixed). Now, when such analysis was applied to the infamous Jesus’s Wife and Gospel of John fragments the outcomes were interesting. The structure of the ink of the John fragment was incompatible with any of the ancient ones, while the pigment of the Jesus’s Wife fragment presented some similarities to those of the second century CE, but the morphology was different from those of securely dated papyrus samples. In both cases, the conclusion was that both fragments are forgeries (and that the forger has used different inks, I would add).

To sum up: the paper showed that this technology has the potential to help developing a more refined method to analyse ancient ink compositions, to improve dating of texts not containing chronological indications, and to establish if a manuscript is authentic or not. I want to underline the phrase I used: to help developing. In fact this paper and the whole session made absolutely clear that science in isolation is unable to function properly as a means to achieve such goals.

  1. Conclusion

Discussion was gripping. We were very lucky to have in the room Ira Rabin (Bundestal für Materialforschung und Materialprüfung, Berlin), who moved a number of critiques to the Raman spectroscopy project, mainly for the small sample considered so far, the chemical processes analysed by the team, and the mathematical models applied. Many of the people in the room recognized the need for more interactions between disciplines and the invention of far more precise ways to communicate results concerning the dating of papyri when based on either palaeography or radiocarbon analysis and other scientific methods. Transparency on the way we reach conclusions – conclusions always ephemeral and subject to be constructively criticised – is an essential methodological aspect of our profession, which allows research moving forward.

We are going to publish the papers as a section or a special issue of a peer-reviewed journal, so follow my blog and I’ll keep you posted.

 

More Christmas “prestigious” auction alerts

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Screen shot of the vintage souvenir of the Rylands fragment of John on sale through Sotheby’s New York on December 5th

Christmas auction madness never ends surprising me this year. In few days, Sotheby’s New York will auction an awful vintage reproduction of our P.Ryl. III 457 (P 52), with an estimate price of $ 300-500. By the way, the other side of the facsimile fragment is BLANK. So this really is a super-crappy souvenir.

To maybe add an ironic touch, the catalogue specifies that provenance (whatever they mean through the term…) is unknown, and date is 19-20 century. You bet.

The lot is part of the sale of the Bible Collection of Dr Charles Caldwell Ryrie, on which see Brice Jones’ blog.

Are you thinking to buy this “souvenir”? You should really be a bizarre collector full of money to throw away: consider donating to the poor instead, it’s Christmas time after all…

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The real P.Ryl. III 457, and there’s more on the back…

Caveat emptor! A note to Christie’s prospective buyers

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One of the bronze statuettes on sale (Resandro Collection)

Are you going to join next 6th December Christie’s auction of Egyptian antiquities in London King Street? If so, be aware that Christie’s people seem to be in some confusion about Egyptian legislation related to cultural heritage protection and the concept of provenance. In their Collecting Guide, under point 6 entitled “Pay Attention to Provenance” (indeed…) antiquities specialist C. Corti writes the following:

“Provenance is important in all fields of collecting, and particularly with Egyptian bronzes. It is essential to check whether the piece you are interested in was extracted from the ground and exported from Egypt before 1983, when the country passed a law forbidding artefacts to be removed from its borders. A history of important collectors is also desirable, as in the Resandro Collection, within which many pieces boast prestigious provenance as well as having appeared in numerous exhibitions and publications. These factors help to ensure that an object retains its value and will remain appealing to future generations of collectors.”

I must say that the reference to the law of 1983 is quite misleading. The export of antiquities, as well as their excavation and commerce, was regulated by the Egyptian State well before then. Legislation on the preservation of cultural heritage has been in place in Egypt since 1835 (yes, since almost two centuries ago…); it allowed the excavation and commerce of antiquities to some extent, but under the control of the State. Different measures were undertaken mainly in 1912 and in 1952 to control the market through licenses. Moreover, Egypt was one of the first countries to subscribe the UNESCO Convention of 14 November 1970 on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which is in fact adopted by most museums, institutions and academic associations as a watershed date in their ethical policies (usually 1972, the year of the convention’s enforcement).

The principle that all the antiquities found in the country belonged to Egypt was clearly fixed already in art. 1 of law n. 14 of 1912. Antiquities were legally exported outside the country on the basis of specific and regulated cases, for example as a result from partage or legal purchase from an authorised dealer.

The new law issued in 1983 (amended in 2010) basically forbade the commerce in antiquities (before then conceded to some authorised dealers, as just mentioned) and established again and once for all the important principle that the State owns archaeological sites and cultural heritage objects of any kind found in the country. So while this is a very important law, it is far from being the only one to be considered when establishing licit and ethical provenance of an object. (You can check the complete list of Egyptian laws through the website of the International Council of Museums: http://icom.museum/resources/red-lists-database/red-list/egypt/legislation/).

Now, in practice due to the socio-economic and political situation of Egypt, this legislation has been often disrespected, in different ways and even in recent years, not only by criminals, but also by some dealers and buyers (including “important collectors”, to use Christie’s terminology). This common disrespect does not imply that such behaviours are to be considered legally and above all ethically acceptable: quite the opposite. So before buying, be aware that in case the collection history of your purchase is not properly and sufficiently documented (more below on this), the Egyptian government or previous owners might decide to ask for repatriation or restitution: then you’ll have to sort things out. I also invite you to think about the important ethical implications connected with the circulation of antiquities on the market, and the many issues involved in the preservation and availability for study of cultural heritage objects such as those on sale on December 6, objects which belong to humanity besides to their legal owners. If you are a collector, do please be a responsible one.

Christie’s has clearly to sell its merchandise as any other shop and auctioneer, so I appreciate that the language in its leaflets, despite the flair for elegance and exclusivity, is just that of vendors looking for a profit. But the concept of “prestigious provenance” really gets on my nerves. What does this even mean, apart being an easy advertisement for unaware collectors to flog to the auction rooms thinking to be “prestigious” themselves? Here the key adjectives should rather be legal and documented. Provenance is a technical term indicating two aspects in the history of an archaeological object: 1. The find spot, i.e. the place and context from where the object was excavated; 2. The collection history of the object, i.e. its history after the find: eventual distribution to museums, sale to collectors, etc. Both these facts in order to be credible should be documented, that is proven to be trustful through written, original statements, demonstrating the history attached to the objects. I am sure Christie’s has all these documents in good order, so ask for them before buying, and check them very carefully to stay on the secure side.

After all, as we have read in many accounts, researches and legal proceedings, even “important” auction houses and dealers have sold in the past authentic and fake antiquities with forged provenance documents. (You don’t believe me? Then read these two books: P. Watson, Sotheby’s: Inside Story, London 1997 and P. Watson, C. Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy, London 2006, and check among others the Trafficking Culture Database of cases: http://traffickingculture.org/data/tracking-illicit-antiquities/)

1st December update: The Art Crime blog reports that expert C. Tsirogiannis has just identified four potentially-tainted antiquities scheduled to be auctioned by Gorny & Mosch in Munich, Germany on December 14, 2016. These objects have been circulating on the market through prestigious auction houses and dealers, but closely resembles objects documented through the Becchina archive, i.e. the photographic archive of Gianfranco Becchina a convicted Italian antiquities dealer. One more reason to be very careful.

So you are advised: caveat emptor!

“New” Judean desert papyrus sold by an anonymous antiquities dealer?

Yesterday, Israel News Online and The Jewish Press have reported that a new papyrus “discovered recently in the Judean desert and purchased from an antique dealer” will be presented “next week at a conference on Innovations in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Environs, at the Rabin Jewish Studies Building on the Mount Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University.” The source seems to be another online journal, Makor Rishon (I’ve been unable to retrieve it).

The article, entitled “Discovery: ‘Jerusalem’ on Hebrew Papyrus”, written by journalist David Israel and published in both websites, explains that the papyrus “was examined by the Israel Antiquities Authority’s labs, and carbon dated. The results showed with certainty that the papyrus dates back to the 8th century BCE […]”

It seems that Professor Shmuel Ahituv (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) is involved in the study of the manuscript and more details will be unfolded after the conference and the publication of the proceedings. Hopefully, whoever will present the text next week is going to be clearer about its provenance than the online report: from where the “antique dealer” retrieved the papyrus, which is said to have been discovered recently (!), remains unexplained so far.

I am not going to comment on technical aspects, since this is not my research field: I recommend reading Jim Davila’s blog on this. Rather I wish to draw attention on the constant flux of ancient written fragments said to come from the Judean desert brought to us by anonymous antiquities dealers who are still feeding relatively new collections (e.g. Martin Schøyen, the Museum of the Bible, and the Southwestern  Baptist Theological Seminary, Forth Worth Texas, collections). Some of these recently surfaced manuscripts are now suspected to be forgeries. (Cf. lately Nina Burleigh’s article on Newsweek, Owen Jarus on Live Science, and my blog post on a conference at University of Agder, which dealt with the problem in question from an academic perspective.) It should be brought in mind, since the article mentions it, that carbon dating in isolation does not prove unequivocal authenticity and secure dating of a papyrus manuscript.

Ironically, to illustrate the article the online newspapers seem to have used the picture of a Hebrew documentary papyrus, probably coming from a Judean desert cave and dating to the 2nd century CE, seized during a Israeli police operation in May 2006, according to a NBC news report of the time.

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Image of “document dated to the 2nd century A.D. seen a day after it was seized by Israeli police officers, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, May 6, 2009” appended to M. Friedman, “Israeli police bust Palestinians with ancient texts” http://www.nbcnews.com/id/30605650/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/israeli-police-bust-palestinians-ancient-text/

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Screen shot of the papyrus used by Israel News online to illustrate yesterday article, D. Israel, “Discovery: ‘Jerusalem’ on Hebrew papyrus http://israelnewsonline.org/discovery-jerusalem-on-hebrew-papyrus/

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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