Making the Mummies Talk (without Palmolive soap!)

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

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

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

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

Sorting out cartonnage samples at the Petrie Museum

Sorting out cartonnage samples at the Petrie Museum

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

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

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

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

 

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Provenance issues: Information with thoughts to follow

The Galatians 2 Coptic fragment when advertised on eBay, screen shot from  Quaternion blog post

The Galatians 2 Coptic fragment when advertised on eBay in 2012, screen shot from The Quaternion blog post

As many of my readers already know, there was an entire session devoted to issues of provenance at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego. Three papers were presented, followed by respondents, and then we had a lively general discussion. I have enjoyed the session, and what has been said has made me re-thinking about many of the issues at stake. But before I’ll write at length about this, I feel necessary to give important updates on the acquisition history of the Sappho papyrus fragments and the Coptic Galatians 2 papyrus on which I have written in the past. I was given the details which follow right before the SBL session, they were swiftly included in my paper, and I think it is my duty now to report them in the blog.

Full information on the acquisition history of the new Sappho fragments will be given by Dirk Obbink in a forthcoming article in ZPE. An entire session at the American Philological Association/Archaeological Institute of America annual meeting in New Orleans (Session 5, 9th January 2015) will be devoted to the new Sappho poems: the first paper by Obbink will address, among others, issues of provenance, as you can read from the program.
The fragments do not come from mummy cartonnage, as previously written by Obbink in his TLS article, but from book binding cartonnage; their provenance is documented, and proofs that they were out of Egypt before 1972. The book binding was dismounted before the papyri were studied and then published respectively by Dirk Obbink (P.Sapph. Obbink) and by S. Burris, D. Obbink, and J. Fish (P.GC. 105).

The Galatians 2 Coptic fragment (GC.MS.000462) was purchased in 2013 by Steven Green from a trusted dealer; the Museum of the Bible/Green Collection archives do have files attesting that the papyrus was part of the David Robinson papyrus lot sold at a Christie’s auction in London in November 2011. The files do not explain what happened to the manuscript between November 2011 and October 2012, when it was on sale on eBay, and how it went from eBay to the dealer who sold it to Green. The only person who would be able to explain how a papyrus legally acquired at a Christie’s auction in London went on sale on an eBay account located in Turkey at this point would be the above mentioned trusted dealer, whose identity remains undisclosed.

I am confident that some form of public access to the acquisition data and hopefully documents of the objects belonging to the Green Collection/Museum of the Bible will be provided in the near future.

Update on the new Sappho fragments and the Green Collection

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

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

The director of the Museum of the Bible/Green Collection, David Trobisch, has kindly informed me via email that the collection is going towards full digitisation and open access. As it happens in many other collections, “in some cases items are put on reserve and not accessible until the research has been done.” He writes that information on the acquisition circumstances of the Green Sappho fragments and their relation with the London Sappho will be provided in a forthcoming publication by Dirk Obbink.

As for the acquisition circumstances of Galatians 2 (GC 462), the Green collection has purchased it “through a trusted dealer that we have done business with over many years”.

I thank David Trobisch for the answers he is constantly providing; it is clear that his arrival is a dramatic step forward for the Green Collection. My only comment is that this dealer must not be so trustworthy since the papyrus was on sale from e-Bay Turkish seller MixAntik in 2012.