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

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

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

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

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

I hope you’ll join us!

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Book binding cartonnage: a Rylands intermezzo

Caroline Checkley-Scott, Tim Higson and Jennifer Cromwell

Caroline Checkley-Scott, Tim Higson and Jennifer Cromwell

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

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

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

Book binding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looting: A Call for Action

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

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

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

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