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.

 

Thinking about Buying a Papyrus Online? Think Twice!

Best real shopping? Bologna's city centre, no doubt...

Best real shopping? Bologna’s city centre, no doubt! Leave the computer at home and join me this summer…

I have been doing some experiments with online shopping for antiquities recently. I must admit I do not like buying online. I love real, solid, heavy shopping in a selected number of places, where I like to go in person for the ritual and the chatting with retailers and customers. I dislike Amazon and co. cardboard; I prefer nice, handmade packaging. Yes, I am one of those women you see happily carrying shopping bags on the street: old fashioned, I know.

Anyway, I had to try the online thrill in order to understand how it works for a paper I am giving at the annual ARCA conference in Amelia soon. I thought I would give you some ideas about what I found, and a taste of the paper, in case you are not lucky enough to be in Amelia in June, which is a pity for you, I must say, because that is one of the loveliest towns in Umbria.

About one month ago Alin Suciu (Göttingen) sent Jenny Cromwell (Copenhagen) and me a link to the online catalogue for the sale of a Coptic papyrus by Auctionata, one of the many auction houses now operating on the web. Basically Auctionata works like traditional auction houses, but bidding takes place exclusively online. The firm seems big, and covers many types of objects, from antiquities to watches, paintings and other collectibles. They have two main offices, one in Berlin the other in New York, but also agents in other countries.

So on the one hand I asked Jenny Cromwell to give me a quick opinion on the fragment versus the online catalogue description due to her expertise on the monastic material, and on the other I started a conversation via email with the auction house.

I reproduce here the image and the catalogue description both still available through the sale result webpage (the piece was sold for € 1,200 on 20 April):

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“The present piece is a letter, written on papyrus, originating from Western Thebes, ancient Egypt, dating to the 6th century AD. The papyrus letter is written in Coptic, the latest native form of the language of Egypt. Four lines can be read in contiguous writing in Sahidic, a dialect of the Coptic. On the edges further text lines remain. Therefore, it can be assumed that there used to be at least one more line above and below the present text. The text mentions Phoibamon (sic), a monk and founder of a monastery, who used to live in the monastery above the ruins of the Hatshepsut Temple in Deir el-Bahari (Western Thebes).

The letter is in a very well-preserved condition, considering its age. The main parts of the letter are missing, however, the parts that do remain are very well preserved. The papyrus displays frayed parts and it is partially folded. The corners are strongly frayed. Little fragments within the centre piece of the papyrus are missing. The original edge is only preserved on the left rim, however, strongly frayed. The letter is laid down on a beige textile matte in a dark green wooden frame with gold painted inner frame. The dimensions of the letter are 11.6 x 3 cm (width x height). The total dimensions, including the frame, are 15.3 x 20.8 cm.”

 These are Jenny’s quick notes and comments:

“Beginning of four lines of text, with trace of another line at the top. End of last line preserves epistolary formulae (‘do the [love’ > ‘please’), suggesting this is a letter, which is preceded by at least four lines of text (only a trace of the first survives), including, e.g. the date to the beginning of the month Paremhotep, mention ‘of God on behalf of (?) Mena .[…]’.

The name Phoibammon survives at the beginning of line 4. However, there is nothing to support this as the monastery of Apa Phoibammon at Deir el-Bahri – there is too much lost text between this name and Mena at the end of the previous line. These could be two men.

Also, the description is erroneous in stating that Phoibammon was a monk and founder of a monastery: the monastery of Apa Phoibammon was founded by Apa Abraham, bishop of Hermonthis, at the end of the 6th century / beginning of the 7th. As such, a 6th century date is unlikely, if connected with Thebes. There is nothing here to support a Theban provenance (unless it was actually found there) — the tenuous mention of Phoibammon is insufficient.”

To sum up: the auction house’s expertise is based on a correct grasp on the contents of the fragment, but overstates the interpretation of the name Phoibammon, adding also incorrect information on the founding of the Monastery of Deir el-Bahri. Phoibammon and Menas are in fact two of the commonest male personal name in late antique Egypt. The dating is shaky at best: if it was based on a supposed provenance from the monastery in question, it is misleading because the monastery has a later foundation, as we have seen. As for palaeographical dating, this is a notoriously problematic field, especially for Coptic texts, and not a word is spent in the catalogue to clarify the basis for a supposed 6th century date. As Jenny has pointed out in a following conversation, the handwriting is elementary because the letter was written by an unskilled writer, and this makes it even more difficult to date.

Auctionata’s condition description is carefully crafted; it starts with a bold “The letter is in a very well-preserved condition, considering its age” but as curators and papyrologists know this is just a tiny scrappy fragment (11 x 3 cm); we have thousands and thousands of them stored in collections all over the world. Certainly this is an important piece of our past that must be preserved with care, but there is nothing special about it at all.

The way the auction house attempts to connect it with a famous Christian religious figure highlights how important the Christian manuscript market has become; not a new phenomenon, but certainly one that is increasing as the major enterprise of the Green family’s Museum of the Bible, and the new book and other enterprises of the Christian preacher Josh McDowell in the field of manuscript collecting (and mummy cartonnage dissolving…) demonstrate.

Let’s move on to report on my email conversation about provenance with Auctionata’s helpful and very kind personnel. The first answer to a direct question on the point was simply as follows:

“Lot 146 was part of the collection Bruno Wertz, a high class German private collection. All items of this collection have superb museum quality.”

I thanked them, and explained that what I was asking for was more precise information on documents proving that the papyrus left Egypt legally, or at least before 1972 (that a piece left Egypt before that date does not necessarily mean that it was legally exported, a point people tend easily to forget…). This was the prompt answer:

“We had the possibility to talk with our consignor regarding the documents and the provenance. Unfortunately I have to inform you that we do not have any documents. The Coptic Letter comes from the private collection of Bruno Wertz, who confirmed that the object was bought in the 1960s. Please be aware that we provide every single buyer with our Auctionata Guarantee for all items purchased through Auctionata. The Auctionata Guarantee will apply for a period of 25 years from time to (sic) handover of the purchased item.”

So I checked the guarantee available online; it covers the abovementioned period but provenance is not mentioned anywhere in the terms, or at least I was unable to find it. From the email it seemed that Mr Wertz had confirmed somewhere that he acquired the piece in the 1960s; therefore I asked for an affidavit from him or the present owner stating when and where the pieces were purchased. In fact it could be absolutely plausible that Mr Wertz legally bought a papyrus and other Egyptian antiquities (other pieces were in fact auctioned online recently) in the 1960s without taking care about provenance documents. I have talked with collectors and dealers in these months; as many academics, dealers and collectors too have started paying attention to provenance documents only recently, in most cases in absolute good faith, as a result of the increasing public awareness of the issues at stake, especially after the Unesco convention enforcement in 1972. Auctionata’s answer, however, was brief and depressing:

“We’ve contacted the consignor again, but unfortunately we won’t receive any documents about the provenance.”

The fact that no affidavit would be provided, and the only guarantee is that of Auctionata, which totally ignores the provenance aspect, does not look positive for a potential purchaser.

To conclude: Are you the one who bought the papyrus? Well I am sorry for you, but this was certainly not a good choice and investment.

You have a tiny and scrappy papyrus, written in a very bad handwriting, without a date, without the monk you thought to have and what is worse without documented provenance! If someone will claim the papyrus back one day or Egypt will ask for repatriation, the Auctionata guarantee will probably count for nothing, because provenance seems not to be mentioned among its clauses.

Honestly, far better to have invested those 1,200 euros in a holiday, a decent coat or bag, or – why not? – in a donation to a museum or a library, or else in finding a better papyrus in terms of conservation, contents and provenance, if you really wanted to hang one on the wall – which by the way you cannot do unless the glass is ultraviolet filtered and the room under constant humidity and temperature control. So why not go for a contemporary painting for your empty wall instead? I have a couple of names: nice stuff and a good investment too. Next time you have the impulse, just join me on my Saturday shopping trip and I’ll take control of the money; you won’t be disappointed…

From Egypt to London: looting in Antinoupolis (el Sheikh ‘Abadah)

The glass tessera recovered from Bonhams

The glass inlay recovered from Bonhams

The last issue of the Italian academic journal Analecta Papyrologica publishes an interesting report on episodes of illegal excavations and looting in the area of Antinoupolis (“Latrones: furti e recuperi da Antinoupolis”, Analecta Papyrologica XXVI 2014 pp. 359-402). Rosario Pintaudi, director of a long-running archaeological mission on the site, and his collaborators document robberies and plundering, but also some recoveries of objects, in the area since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011. Some papyri, inscriptions and other pieces were recovered locally, but the most significant event reported is the recovery of an early Roman glass inlay stolen from the excavation site and later found on sale in an auction catalogue. This little and beautiful piece traveled from Egypt to the showrooms of Bonhams in London, where the sale was stopped by the police, after the object sold for about £ 5,000.

There are two important points emerging from the article. Firstly the searching of antiquities involves Egyptian local communities due to both the serious political and economic crisis, which makes life very hard for people, and the awareness that there is a flourishing and easily approachable market for these objects. It must be underlined that the core of the market is in Europe and elsewhere: as always the real money are made outside Egypt that remains a source, exploited country. Secondly, Pintaudi alerts the scholarly community on the sudden, recent appearance on the cultural scene of new big collections and a number of important, recently published papyri in the hands of anonymous collectors. Obviously there is no final proof that these two facts are directly linked to the situation in Egypt, but the Bonhams episode demonstrates that there is an absolute need for collectors and academics to be extremely careful when acquiring and publishing new texts and objects. As often happens, in the auction catalogue provenance was recorded as “English private collection, acquired in the late 1960s.” I wonder on the basis of which documents.

Bonhams catalogue entries for lot 64 and 65. The fish is remarkably similar to the glass tessera from Antinoupolis.

Bonhams catalogue entries for lot 64 and 65. The fish is remarkably similar to the glass inlay from Antinoupolis.

Destroying mummy masks: “Since we own, it’s ok”. Maybe not…

A reader of this blog, Beau Quilter, was so nice to edit the long and remarkably boring performance of Josh McDowell on papyri from mummy cartonnage and the truth of the Bible. We now have a two minutes peak that I hope all of you will watch:

I like the words Beau Quilter has added at the end as a comment to a quote of McDowell himself: “Apparently since they own it, it’s ok’.

This sentence underlines two important elements of this sad story. First, the incredible lack of any awareness about the importance of archaeological evidence that this man and others, like Scott Carroll (who apparently dismounted mummy cartonnage for the Green collection and possibly others in the past), demonstrate. The aggressive cultural discourse behind their words and actions would deserve a treatise on its own. People like Josh McDowell and Scott Carroll are a threat not only for the damages they have procured to cultural heritage patrimony, but also for their misuse of ancient manuscripts in public discourses on the Bible. Their faith must be very weak if they need scraps of papyrus in order to prove the value of the Scriptures.

The second element I wish to bring to your attention is that for once there is some truth in what McDowell is saying: from what I have gathered, according to the American and other legislations, the legal owner of an ancient object can dispose of it as he/she wishes. This opens a number of interesting considerations on responsible and irresponsible private collecting that would deserve a longer, separate post. But that ownership must be legal: if it comes out that the object was bought illegally, in this case that the mask does not have clear provenance, everything changes. In principle, the legal owner of these destroyed masks could pursue McDowell and other iconoclasts, and the dealers who sold the objects, in order to be compensate for the loss.

Why Josh McDowell and other owners of antiquities are not revealing names of the dealers they have purchased masks and other cartonnage from, and do not publicly provide documents proving that their acquisitions are legal? Do they fear that the eventual legal owner of those artefacts (e.g. the Egyptian Government) will pursue them in court one day?

Josh McDowell, Scott Carroll and the Green Collection

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 08.40.36Evangelical apologist Josh McDowell has uploaded new interesting material on his  “Discover” webpage. There is now a link for downloading an enlightening pdf booklet, Discovering a Living Treasure, in which he explains how he started his papyrology training under our Indiana Scott Carroll (I retrieved this information from Brice Jones’ blog). At page 2 of the booklet, McDowell says that his first dismounting mummy mask experience took place at Baylor and the papyri were extracted for the Green Collection by Carroll: if this is true, images and explanations of the extraction method will be certainly published in the first volume of the Brill series.

McDowell adds that he has then purchased cartonnage through Scott Carroll for starting his own collection to use for his ministry. I recognise that Scott Carroll must be a terrific teacher because McDowell has very clear ideas on cartonnage, and is able to distinguish mummy masks, panels, and book-binding (p. 4), a topic that has recently confused even well-trained people. Despite the promising cartonnage lesson, what follows are some (hilarious) out of focus images of papyrus and parchment fragments allegedly bearing lines form the Scriptures, and this I must say is not very promising in terms of credibility.

I am not a law expert, but it appears that in the United States owners of antiquities are entitled to do whatever they like with them, including dissolving mummy masks in Palmolive soap, as long as they have been legally acquired. However, in case the ownership is later discovered to be illegal the legal owner (e.g. the Egyptian government) in principle could ask for restitution and damages.

Can we see the acquisition documents of antiquities owned by Josh McDowell and other private collectors as I have already asked in my yesterday post? Would you trust people who dismount cartonnage and then refuse to explain from where the original artefacts came from?

Provenance Issues: Some Thoughts – Part 1

Gospel of Jesus wife papyrus: now believed to be a fake as its acquisition history documents.

The so-called Jesus’s wife papyrus and the acquisition history documents produced by the anonymous collector are now considered to be fake.

What follows are the ‘following thoughts’ on issues of provenance that I promised in my last post. They are based on recent discussions that took place in Manchester and in San Diego (Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature). The point of view is that of someone particularly concerned with papyri and Egypt, but I think these are wider, more general issues on which I hope to hear reactions and comments in my blog and elsewhere. In line with the practical aim of finding ways forward, I will proceed in sections and conclude each of them with a ‘way forward rule’ that I believe those involved with ancient objects (academics, curators, dealers, collectors, etc.) should follow. This is the first of a series of posts.

1. TRUST

In presenting the results of research to peers and the public, academics use means of communication and follow rules that are centred on the values of trust and accountability. Good arguments in any scholarly discussion are based on a method that provides sources and data that not only proves the points, but is also reliable and verifiable. So, for instance, if a scholar relies on a passage from an ancient author, that passage is cited in order for others to follow the argument, to check and verify the source, and finally to agree or disagree. That is how scholarship functions.

For those who work with artefacts reliability and access to as many details as possible related to the ancient sources under scrutiny, often published for the first time, is particularly important. Images and other key-information are provided, including a clear discussion of the archaeological provenance and acquisition history of the object in question. In the case of papyrus editions, this has become the norm. A great amount of papyri arrived in European and North American collections in a period when not much attention to this information was paid. As a result, there are cases in which we do not have precise records on the finding, purchase, and following arrival of such papyrus in a certain collection: on these occasions editors discuss the situation openly, explaining the reasons why we lack records on what has happened.

Why is it important to include provenance in papyrus editions? Because information on acquisition history is at the basis of museum archaeology, i.e. a method of excavating in library and museum archives that allows scholars to reconstruct the ancient provenience of a text, and in some cases to reconstruct ancient archives. It allows fragments in different modern collections to be merged, and sometimes it helps establishing archaeological contexts otherwise lost.

The lack of discussion on provenance, including acquisition history, is bad practice, and it is usually criticised by academics because it deprives the readers of important data for verifying the reliability of the arguments made in publications. It also goes against one of the principles of our profession, the advancement of scholarship and knowledge, because it denies the possibility to open (or exclude) further research on the above-mentioned manuscript’s history and connections.

Besides all this, to avoid discussion of provenance undermines trust: would you trust someone who conceals information? Trust is an important issue that has surfaced in many of the papers, comments and conversations we have had so far. David Trobisch, director of the Green collection, for instance, in his comments at the Manchester seminar, and later in his response to my paper in San Diego, has explained to us that trust is at the basis of the relationship between antiquities dealers and purchasers. And I understand why: obviously, you must trust who is selling you objects that cost a fortune and the market circulation of which is subject to national and international strict laws. Trobisch has told us that the Green Collection has bought from European private collections – the economic crisis has pushed collectors to sell as the previous director of the collection, Scott Carroll, already explained in a 2012 very interesting video interview – and has operated on the antiquities market through trusted dealers. When I asked Trobisch why not to name these trusted dealers – in particular the one who sold them the very much debated Galatians 2 fragment – as many universities (e.g. Lecce) and private collections (e.g. Schøyen) are now doing even in their websites, he answered that he does not want to cause harm, since dealers have families and risk to lose everything. Why do they risk losing their job? This is a point I did not understand, I must confess. How can a perfectly legal transaction cause harm to dealers’ professions? Quite the opposite, I think. When the Museum of the Bible will open in 2017, I am sure trusted dealers will be proud to see their names on the labels and in catalogues: it will be a well-deserved form of advertisement.

Way Forward #1

In order to assure the advancement of knowledge and the maintenance of trust among scholars and between them and the wider audience, full discussion of the archaeological finding and acquisition history of ancient artefacts should be given in publications, exhibitions and conference papers; in cases where the information is lacking, there should be an open discussion of the reasons why it is the case.

In order to allow academics to include such basic and important information in their publications, collections and collectors should provide full access to their archive files relating to the two above-mentioned points.

Open access to acquisition records, and their discussion, can become a delicate matter in cases of recent purchases, especially when the objects belong to a private collector and even more so when the collector wishes to remain anonymous. We have had a recent example of the risks academics take when publishing manuscripts in the hands of anonymous collectors with Professor King and the so-called Wife of Jesus fragment. To complicate matters further, there is also the problem that it seems easy to fabricate fake purchase documents as this and other famous cases have shown.

I recommend S. Mackenzie, Going, Going, Gone: Regulating the Market in Illicit Antiquities (Leicester 2005): enlightening reading on the pitfalls of the antiquities market to deal with acquisition history documents among other things. Neil Brodie devoted a paper to The Role of Academics in the trade of unprovenanced antiquities at the Manchester colloquium. You can watch a video where he summarizes his arguments, or read the abstract and access other material from here.

This brings us to the topic I will discuss in my next post, LEGAL/ILLEGAL, LICIT/ILLICIT: LAWS AND ETHICS.