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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