Sappho, papyrology and the media

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

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

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

The basic facts so far:

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

30 January, first public comments by classicists in the media (e.g. Edith Hall on BBC 2, Tim Whitmarsh in the Huffington Post). The link to the draft article (at the address in the meanwhile has stopped working.

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

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

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

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

How and when did papyri arrive in the United Kingdom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has the value of the Sappho papyrus increased?

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

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

What do you think of the papyrus and the poems?

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

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

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


11 thoughts on “Sappho, papyrology and the media

  1. Pingback: Anonymous

  2. Thank you for this excellent post, and for its circumspection and generally moderate tone.

    There is a parallel, is there not, with the recent coming-to-light of an Old Babylonian tablet describing the ark? Again, a mysterious private owner, a vague claim of acquisition around 1945 or so, shown to an expert, lionized in the press, that has had no interest in cuneiform for a century or more. But the name of the owner and a history of ownership has since emerged and seems quite acceptable.

    Papyri in the hands of private collectors since WWII are well known, and doubtless more will come to light, esp. now. I think I told you, significant parts of the the spectacular find of patristic papyri came to light in precisely as the silent owner of the new Sappho claims: acquired during the war, only to resurface many years later in the owner’s estate.

    My (indirect, and many years ago now) experience of the antiquities market for papyri is that publication deflated the value rather than inflated it, unless an important Christian text is at issue. This should be clear by posing an opposite case: if a scholar, acting on behalf of a dealer, identifies a papyrus as a yet unknown but obviously important poem of Sappho, will the dealer let him publish it, do you think, without buying it first? Of course not. The rule of the antiquities market is that the buyer publishes.

    The implication that the present editor is doing a disservice to our field by allowing colleagues to see a pre-print (“was it worth it to circulate information about this papyrus and the poems before their final publication?”) is strange. For literary papyrologists, this would be a rhetorical question, expecting the answer yes, of course. He has done us a favor.

    The idea that the papyrus is a fake (addressed in the TLS piece, not by you, to your credit) is obviously untrue (what scholar is so skilled as to compose such a poem?), but seems ever to be the fate of fantastically unexpected finds: the last i remember was the theory, published in ZPE, that the Gallus papyri was a forgery, and of course Canfora’s lonely but persistent attack on the Geographical papyrus.

    It strains credulity to think that an editor as circumspect, accomplished, and forward thinking as this one would embark on such an important project while harboring serious suspicions about its legality or simply professional propriety. It is nowhere explicit in your post, again to your credit, that you think such an assumption is credible, but i feel it needs to be said.

  3. Thank you Gregg. I take your points but still I am not convinced that the release of information to the media before the final publication is worth. The obvious lack of details in the preliminary article left a number of important questions on the papyrus as an archaeological object and the poems open especially in the wider audience. Questions only in part answered in the TLS article, and which nobody has answered yet in the forum. While I do understand why scholars circulate draft-papers to colleagues, present them to seminars and conferences, or upload them online in a stable manner (e.g. Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics) for improving the research process, I do not see any improvement in that process or in the communication to the public in cases like this. Quite the opposite I would say.

    • I dunno. I was very interested to see the draft article, which I wouldn’t have seen until publication otherwise. And clearly we don’t really know how to react to pre-publication material like this. But I think it would be a great shame if the outcome was to dissuade scholars in the future from releasing preliminary findings. Those findings may indeed turn out to be incomplete or even wrong, but the solution I think is for us to be more mature and scientific about how we treat them, not for scholars to just sit on them until they’re ready to be revealed.

      The media will do what it always does: sensationalize and misinterpret, but I don’t see that as a reason not to say publicly what you know when you know it, even at the risk that it will “go viral”. This is a terrific post, by the way! Thanks!

      • Thank you Hugh, I fully sympathise with your points and I was very much interested in the draft-paper too. I am not contesting the circulation of information before publication in absolute terms, I am criticising the circulation of information in an ‘unstable’ way, going on the media but then not answering questions on the poems and the papyrus’ provenance in a forum opened by the author himself. In this way the entire process of communication between both academics and the wider audience goes compromised on a matter involving also delicate questions on the provenance of an archaeological object. This is why I like the sharing of pre-print papers on stable repositories (e.g. Stanford/Princeton Working papers, available to all). I believe that a critical, meaningful discussion on this papyrus necessitates of information that we have not been given yet.

  4. Thanks Greg. Nevertheless, there is one problem, and I think it’s a major one. Up until now, we haven’t heard about mummy cartonnages of Egypt made of waste papyri as late as
    from the third century A.D. As far as I know, the latest ones are from the time of Augustus. So, should we look for a fake – made by Simonidis? 😉

  5. Re: cartonnage. I think some of the Green Collection papyri that were discussed at the last SBL but one, promoted as “perhaps the earliest New Testament frr.” have dates much later than advertised. (3rd AD at least), prob. not NT at all.

    It may be so that the cartonnage now appearing are from Fackelamnn’s (Michael, not Anton, who famously unrolled the Derveni papyrus, c. 1962) collection, that had been around for some time already in 1980.

  6. Pingback: Papyri, the Bible, and the formation of the Green Collection | Faces&Voices

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