A New Article on Palaeographic Dating of Codices

Variant Readings

The latest issue of Journal for the Study of the New Testament contains a group of articles that emerged from an SBL session in 2015 arranged by Roberta Mazza on problems of dating ancient manuscripts. In addition to Roberta’s introductory essay, which discusses some of her work on the Rylands collection, there are articles by Malcolm Choat (“Dating Papyri: Familiarity, Instinct and Guesswork”) and by the Ancient Ink Laboratory at Columbia University and New York University (“Dating Ancient Egyptian Papyri through Raman Spectroscopy: Concept and Application to the Fragments of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and the Gospel of John”).

My own contribution is “Palaeographic Analysis of Codices from the Early Christian Period: A Point of Method.” Here is the abstract:

It is often said that palaeographic analysis of Greek literary manuscripts from the Roman era has progressed from an aesthetic judgment to more of a science, thanks largely to…

View original post 148 more words

Carroll&McDowell circus has gone to Russia


Image freely available to access and download at http://spbcu.ru/en/scripctoriom-with-scott-carroll/optimized-img_1235/

My favourite duo, Scott Carroll and Josh McDowell, is still around; this time, they went to Russia pretending as usual to be manuscript experts. Incredible as it may seem, there are people happy to join their show. The Larsons are still gifting Torah scrolls to Christian colleges, in Russia too, in order to save money on their tax-returns, etc. etc. In short, the circus is flourishing, despite the fiasco with the Green family and their Museum.

I do not understand how it is possible for the duo to be free to deliver their performances after what we have learnt. Perhaps I just have to accept that culture, integrity and  world cultural heritage protection are not political or police enforcement priorities, unless terrorism and war are openly involved, as in that case they produce good cash in terms of media exposure and electoral votes. But the circle of exploitation, looting and violence in order to obtain papyri, cartonnage and other Egyptian antiquities starts with irresponsible collectors, including these two tricksters, buying unprovenanced and possibly/probably illegal and forged material.

Please do not pay the ticket for the Carroll&McDowell circus and do not expose your students to it.

Seminar: Correspondence, Provenance, and the Ethics of Collecting, 6 March 2019

Come along, next week at the University of Manchester!

Lives of Letters

Please join us for our second seminar of the semester, featuring two twenty-minute presentations and discussion. All welcome!

Correspondence, Provenance, and the Ethics of Collecting
Wednesday 6th March 2019, 3-4:30pm
A112 Samuel Alexander Building

Ethical challenges in early Twentieth Century Samaritan Manuscript Collecting
Dr Katharina E Keim (Centre for Religions and Theology, Lund University, and Centre for Jewish Studies, Manchester)

Historically, the collecting of Samaritan manuscripts was a challenging endeavour. The Samaritans, who regard themselves to be descendants of ancient Biblical Israelites, were for centuries a relatively insular group that closely guarded their traditions from outsiders. Western scholars and orientalists began acquiring Samaritan manuscripts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Samaritan Pentateuch played an important role in debates between Protestant and Catholic biblical textual critics. Samaritan manuscripts arrived in Europe in fits and starts until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when the trickle became a flood…

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Open letter to Brill: Fake and unprovenanced manuscripts

For the attention of Brill.


On 22 October 2018, the Museum of the Bible issued a press release informing the public that five of their recently acquired fragments that were claimed to come from the Dead Sea Scrolls are modern forgeries. These five forgeries are included in the first volume of the series ‘Publications of Museum of the Bible’ which was published by Brill in 2016.

This volume has received sustained criticism from members of the academic community because it failed to provide information about the acquisition circumstances and collection history of the thirteen fragments it presented. In the introduction, the editor in chief stated only that they were acquired “on behalf of Mister Steven Green in four lots from four private collectors” adding the dates of purchase (November 2009, February 2010, May 2010, October 2014). Questions about the authenticity of all thirteen fragments were raised by many specialists, including one of the co-authors of the volume, and are still waiting to be fully answered.

This is merely the latest in a series of cases in which academics’ concerns about the provenance and authenticity of manuscripts have been ignored, despite the fact that most scholarly associations (e.g. ASOR, SBL, SCS, AIA and ASP) have policies and guidelines on these matters. It is clear that there were sustained serious flaws not only in terms of ethical collecting standards and museum best-practice, as the owners of the fragments have acknowledged, but also in publication good practices. As a group of specialists involved in the study of ancient manuscripts we ask Brill to clarify their position. Why did Brill allow the fragments to be published without proper discussion of their provenance, when one co-author had doubts about their authenticity?

This episode again demonstrates the urgent need for publishers as well as academics to exercise due diligence, through their peer reviewers, in checking that publications of antiquities, including ancient texts, acquired recently on the market give a full and annotated discussion of the acquisition and provenance history. We strongly suggest that Brill and other publishers treat this as seriously as they do copyright, and in their instructions to authors and contracts include a clause requiring the author or authors to be responsible for providing a full and proper explanation of the provenance and legitimacy of such recent acquisitions.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Roberta Mazza (University of Manchester), Roger Bagnall (ISAW, New York University), Dominic Rathbone (King’s College London), Christopher Rollston (George Washington University), Årstein Justnes (University of Agder), Paul Schubert (University of Geneva), Andrea Jördens (University of Heidelberg), Rodney Ast (University of Heidelberg), Amin Benaissa (University of Oxford), Todd Hickey (University of California, Berkeley), Bernhard Palme (University of Vienna), Jennifer Knust (Duke University), Brent Nongbri (Macquarie University), Malcolm Choat (Macquarie University), Caroline Schroeder (University of the Pacific), Philip Alexander (University of Manchester), Luigi Prada (University of Oxford), Jennifer Cromwell (Manchester Metropolitan University), Sofia Torallas Tovar (University of Chicago), Michael Langlois (University of Strasbourg), Nikolaos Gonis (University College London), Graham Claytor (Hunter College, CUNY)


  1. This open letter has been now endorsed by The Board of Directors of the Society for Classical Studies besides colleagues listed below.
  2. This morning Jasmine Lange (Chief Publishing Officer, Brill) sent us the following answer:

In response to your Open Letter, Brill would like to express that we are aware of the ongoing discussion about forged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as announced by the Museum of the Bible in its press release on 22 October 2018.

The forged fragments were included in the first volume of the Publications of Museum of the Bible (Brill 2016). The issue of the authenticity of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls was recently addressed by Kipp Davis, one of the editors of this volume, in Brill’s academic journal, Dead Sea Discoveries (‘Nine Dubious ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’, fragments from the Twenty-First Century.’, https://doi.org/10.1163/15685179-12341428).

The role of Brill, as with all other academic publishers, is to facilitate the peer review process in order to ensure that publications meet the required academic criteria. In order to safeguard the originality and quality of our publications, each and every work is subject to peer review. In addition, we receive advice from multiple senior scholars in the appropriate field. As a member of Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), we take our responsibility as academic publisher very seriously.

Brill and its editorial boards work in good faith and with integrity to further the advancement of scholarship. Given the highly specialized nature of many of our publications, Brill relies upon the judgment and expert advice of its editorial boards. Provenance has always been and remains a difficult and contentious issue with museum collections around the world, both public and private. We always aim at improving our processes and policies and we welcome you to have a discussion about formulating additional policies related to provenance and associated topics that promote integrity and strengthen the interests of the academic community.

List of signatures to the Open Letter:

  1. Tim Whitmarsh (University of Cambridge)
  2. Sabine R. Huebner (University of Basel)
  3. Jodi Magness (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
  4. AnneMarie Luijendijk (Princeton University)
  5. Arthur Verhoogt (University of Michigan)
  6. Jennifer Sheridan Moss (Wayne State University)
  7. Ann Ellis Hanson (Yale University)
  8. Dorothy J. Thompson (University of Cambridge)
  9. Serafina Cuomo (Durham University)
  10. Glenn W. Most (Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa and University of Chicago)
  11. Jean-Michel Carrié (EHESS Paris)
  12. Marco Fressura (Roma Tre University)
  13. Candida Moss (University of Birmingham)
  14. Chris Mowatt (University of Sheffield)
  15. Peter J. Miller (University of Winnipeg)
  16. Antonia Sarri (University of Manchester)
  17. Maria Pretzler (Swansea University)
  18. Jeffrey Henderson (Boston University)
  19. Elton Barker (Open University)
  20. Brendan Haug (University of Michigan)
  21. Andrea Rodighiero (University of Verona)
  22. Usama Gad (Ain Shams University)
  23. Livia Capponi (University of Pavia)
  24. Arietta Papaconstantinou (University of Reading)
  25. James J. O’Donnell (Arizona State University)
  26. David J. Thomas (Durham University)
  27. James Keenan (Loyola University, Chicago)
  28. Andrew Connor   (Monash University)
  29. Martina Astrid Rodda (University of Oxford)
  30. André Hurst (University of Geneva)
  31. Stefanie Schmidt (University of Basel)
  32. Silvia Strassi (University of Padua)
  33. Marek Dospěl (Independent Scholar)
  34. Robert Parker (University of Oxford)
  35. Benjamin Overcash (Macquarie University)
  36. Thomas A. Wayment (Brigham Young University)
  37. Benjamin Fortson (University of Michigan)
  38. Malcolm Heath (University of Leeds)
  39. Elsa Garcia Novo (Complutense University of Madrid)
  40. José Luis Alonso (University of Zurich)
  41. Jennifer A. Baird (Birkbeck College, University of London)
  42. Paola Davoli (University of Salento, Lecce)
  43. Dimitri Nakassis (University of Colorado Boulder)
  44. Mike Simpson (University of Manitoba)
  45. Melissa Harl Sellew (University of Minnesota)
  46. Jim West (Ming Hua Theological College)
  47. Deborah Chatr Aryamontri (Montclair State University)
  48. Alba de Frutos García (Complutense University of Madrid)
  49. Mark de Kreij (University of Oxford and Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen)
  50. Myrto Malouta (Ionian University, Corfu)
  51. Irene Soto Marín (University of Basel)
  52. Jakub Urbanik (University of Warsaw)
  53. Franziska Naether (Leipzig University/Stellenbosch University)
  54. Paul McKenna (Independent Scholar)
  55. Jennifer E. Gates-Foster (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
  56. Matt Gibbs (University of Winnipeg)
  57. Joseph D. Reed (Brown University)
  58. Judith Peller Hallett (University of Maryland)
  59. Paul Kelly (University College London)
  60. Jonathan Davies (Maynooth University)
  61. Jona Lendering (Independent Scholar)
  62. Csaba La’da (University of Kent)
  63. Monica Tsuneishi (University of Michigan)
  64. Katherine Blouin (University of Toronto)
  65. Marie Legendre (University of Edinburgh)
  66. Alberto Nodar Domínguez (Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona)
  67. Annette Yoshiko Reed (New York University)
  68. Micaela Langellotti (University of Newcastle)
  69. Rebecca Krawiec (Canisius College, Buffalo NY)
  70. Thomas Bolin (St. Norbert College)
  71. Francesca Gazzano (University of Genova)
  72. Christine Luckritz Marquis (Union Presbyterian Seminary)
  73. Tim Luckritz Marquis (Moravian Theological Seminary)
  74. Samuel J. Huskey (University of Oklahoma)
  75. Rick Bonnie (University of Helsinki)
  76. Massimo Giuseppetti (Roma Tre University)
  77. Tommy Wassermann (Örebro School of Theology)
  78. Peter Head (Wycliffe Hall, Oxford)
  79. Andrew T. Wilburn (Oberlin College)
  80. Iain Gardner (University of Sydney)
  81. Rachel Yuen-Collingridge (Macquarie University)
  82. Pauline Ripat (University of Winnipeg)
  83. Christos Tsirogiannis (University of Aarhus)
  84. Cavan Concannon (University of Southern California)
  85. Jill Hicks-Keeton(University of Oklahoma)
  86. Paola Ceccarelli (University College London)
  87. John Prag (University of Manchester)
  88. April Pudsey (Manchester Metropolitan University)
  89. Gregory Given (Harvard University)
  90. Chance Bonar (Harvard University)
  91. Monica Park (Vanderbilt University)
  92. Federico Morelli (University of Vienna)
  93. John Bodel (Brown University)
  94. Yvette Hunt (The University of Queensland)
  95. John Marincola (Florida State University)
  96. Charles E. Hill (Reformed Theological Seminar)
  97. Olga Budaragina (St Petersburg State University)
  98. Richard Adam (City Lit London)
  99. Charles E. Jones (Penn State University).
  100. Shani Tzoref (University of Potsdam)
  101. Christelle Fischer-Bovet (UCS, Los Angeles)
  102. Adrian Kelly (University of Oxford)
  103. Renate Dekker (University of Leiden)
  104. Joel Baden (Yale University)
  105. Sarah E. Bond (University of Iowa)
  106. Jutta Jokiranta (University of Helsinki)
  107. Matthew Goff (Florida State University)
  108. David Langslow (University of Manchester)
  109. Elvira Martín-Contreras (CSIC, Spain)
  110. Laura Gawlinski (Loyola University Chicago)
  111. Luke Drake (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
  112. Mario Capasso (University of Salento, Lecce)
  113. Natascia Pellé (University of Salento, Lecce)
  114. Rachel Mairs (University of Reading)
  115. Annalisa Marzano (University of Reading)
  116. Ulrike Roth (University of Edinburgh)
  117. Daniel Delattre (CNRS-IRHT, Paris)
  118. Aleksander Engeskaug (SOAS, London)
  119. Yannis Tzifopoulos (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki)
  120. Melissa Funke (University of Winnipeg)
  121. Daniel L. Schwartz (Texas A&M University)
  122. John S. Kloppenborg (University of Toronto)
  123. Jorunn Økland (University of Oslo and The Norwegian Institute at Athens)
  124. Donald Mastronarde (University of California, Berkeley)
  125. John Serrati (University of Ottawa)
  126. Anna S. Uhlig (University of California, Davis)
  127. Antonio Stramaglia (Università di Bari)
  128. John Serrati (University of Ottawa)
  129. Giuseppe Ucciardello (University of Messina)
  130. Terry G. Wilfong (University of Michigan)
  131. Joseph Manning (Yale University)
  132. Rafael Moreno González (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú)
  133. Matthias Stern (University of Basel)
  134. Mohamed Gaber Elmaghrabi (Alexandria University)
  135. Robert Kraft (University of Pennsylvania)
  136. Terry G. Wilfong (University of Michigan)
  137. Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra (EPHE, PSL)
  138. Georgia Xekalaki (Archaeology & Arts / Egyptian Cultural Center Athens)
  139. Jonathan Stökl (King’s College London)
  140. Katharina Keim, Lund University & University of Manchester
  141. Regine May (University of Leeds)
  142. Dan Batovici (University of Leuven)
  143. Ada Nifosi (University of Kent)
  144. Juan Chapa (University of Navarra)
  145. Margriet Haagsma (University of Alberta)
  146. Uri Yiftach (Tel Aviv University)
  147. Kim Ryholt (University of Copenhagen)
  148. Nahum Cohen (Achva Academic College, Israel)
  149. C.J. Hinke (Thammasat University, Bangkok)
  150. Elena Esposito (Università degli Studi della Basilicata)
  151. So Miyagawa (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)



Christmas Papyri Bonanza at Bonhams

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Christmas is approaching so London auction houses are getting ready to provide the wealthy with adequate opportunities to buy gifts. At the end of this month Bonhams is auctioning a number of papyri. There are two of them that are particularly dear to me. They are listed as Lot 205: in case you are a responsible collector, please buy and gift them to a public (in the sense of State funded and controlled) museum or university, or at least provide a contact to access the texts to the papyrology community.

The lot looks exactly the same as one sold by Sotheby’s New York in 2003 (lot 94, as recalled in the catalogue): it gathers P.Oxy. 10 1256 and 1265. These two papyri were part of a small papyrus collection which ended up in the United States as a result of the Egypt Exploration Fund/Egypt Exploration Society distribution policy of the early 20th century (they come from Grenfell and Hunt campaigns at Oxyrhynchus). They were given to Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, but were later dispersed through a Sotheby’s sale in 2003. The sale in question ignored academic and museum guidelines about responsible de-accessioning of antiquities and manuscripts. The School also disregarded the aims and spirit of the Egypt Exploration Society’s distributions that were a means to provide institutions with ancient objects for teaching, exhibit and education activities, and not a means to make up budgets.

Three years ago I wrote an article about this interesting but disturbing story, which involves also a papyrus now in the Museum of the Bible (P.Oxy. 15 1780 = P39, fragment of the Gospel of John), arguing that any change of ownership is a threat to the preservation and availability of antiquities for future study and research.

From 2003 to 2018 these two papyri went lost to both the academic community and the public because nobody knew the identity of the buyer, covered by auction house sale agreements and laws; they have now re-emerged to be most probably gone again in the dark at the end of the month. It is time to revise how antiquities are sold on the legal market, in particular through auctions.

A similar history  is also shared by the other two Oxyrhynchus papyri on sale as lot 207, held in the British Charterhouse collection until when they were auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2002. One of the two papyri is a piece everyone of us use for teaching: P. Oxy. 3 475, a report on the death of an eight-years-old slave boy who fell out of a window during a public festival.

Dove comprare papiri antichi in greco e demotico? Al Museo del Papiro di Siracusa

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Avviso di vendita dei papiri postato nel sito del Museo, screenshot

Questa mattina mi sono alzata e ho avuto notizie dall’Italia. Il Museo del Papiro di Siracusa ha messo in vendita venti papiri della sua collezione, apparentemente tutti inediti, greci e demotici. La notizia e’ apparsa in forma di pubblicita’ sulla pagina Facebook del mio collega Luigi Prada. Abbiamo pensato a uno scherzo, ma sia la pagina Facebook che il sito del museo riportano la stessa notizia.

La direttrice del museo, Anna Di Natale, ha risposto in questi termini a una mia richiesta di informazioni mandata attraverso la PAPY-list (la mailing list dei papirologi): “Il Museo del Papiro ha deciso di mettere in vendita alcuni papiri della propria collezione per reperire risorse per realizzare altri progetti.”

Quali siano questi progetti non e’ per ora dato a sapere. La provenienza della collezione viene definita “accertata” (senza altri dettagli) e l’acquisto risalente a dieci anni fa.

Come si legge nel sito, il museo del papiro di Siracusa e’ un’istituzione privata fondata e gestita dall’Istituto Internazionale del Papiro, nato nel 1987 per opera di Corrado Basile e Anna Di Natale, attuale direttrice. Una grande importanza e’ riservata alla didattica rivolta agli studenti: mi chiedo che tipo di messaggio il museo pensi di trasmettere alle nuove generazioni, vendendo manoscritti antichi di cui il museo medesimo dovrebbe infatti essere custode. Il museo e’ spesso sede di convegni scientifici di Egittologia e Papirologia organizzati dall’Istituto Italiano per la Civiltà Egizia. Mi domando cosa pensino i membri di questo istituto della vendita.

L’episodio non e’ certo isolato; tra gli ultimi casi, ricordo la vendita di alcuni papiri della collezione Bodmer al collezionista americano Steve Green (Museum of the Bible), e la vendita ad almeno tre collezionisti privati di alcuni papiri da Ossirinco da parte del Bade’ Museum of Archaeology di Berkeley (in questo caso un paradosso visto che uno dei papiri in questione era un famoso testimone del Vangelo di Giovanni…).

Certo un museo del papiro che vende i suoi papiri rende la vicenda particolarmente surreale.

Silencing the Naiads: Why the Manchester Art Gallery’s performance is not making a favour to women


Hylas and the Nymphs, Waterhouse (1896), Manchester Art Gallery Public Domain

In Greek and Roman mythology, the Naiads are interesting, unsettling characters. They presided over water and lived in proximity of ponds, fountains and rivers. Similarly to the element they controlled, their nature was fluid and sometimes overwhelming. Naiads could be very dangerous maidens, as some ancient young men learnt. Take for instance the nymph Salmacis. As we read in Ovid, she fell in love with Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite: the boy tried to resist her, but ended up raped in the water. As a result of Salmacis’ prayers, the two were transformed into one intersexual being. And what about the fate of Hylas who, mesmerised by the Naiads, disappeared and never went back to his companions, the Argonauts?

As it has often happened to powerful and unsettling women in the course of history, the Naiads have been silenced in the occasion of a performance, which took place about one week ago here in Manchester. As part of a forthcoming exhibit of Sonia Boyce, the artist and the exhibit’s curator, Clare Gannaway, have decided to remove the painting Hylas and the Nymphs of J.W. Waterhouse from the Gallery, and asked visitors to intervene on “tricky issues about gender, race and representation” by posting opinions on the empty wall .

Unsurprisingly, the event has sparked polemics, since the painting is a very loved ones (even postcards were taken away from the Gallery’s shop), and the topic is hot after the #metoo campaign and the appalling facts that injected it. So yesterday I visited the City Art Gallery, as many other times since I moved to Manchester. As required (I am a good and engaged citizen), I left my message, which you can download: Art Gallery Comment. In front of that wall I felt uncomfortable and sad, as a classicist and as a feminist woman. (There is a lot to be said about race too, but I will leave this to another post.)


Before starting explaining why I am uncomfortable, allow me to comment briefly on the installation’s lack of aesthetics, considering the mess and the poorly written intention sign displayed on the wall. I do not know what is wrong with curators’ tastes these days, it must have to do with government’s cuts I guess (?): professionals in art galleries seem unable to use decent materials, fonts, etc. This is not the first time I have noticed the trend. Anyway, never mind.

Let us move to discussing the uncomfortable classicist. The study of Classics is under attack in this as other countries: to those in charge of education policies, it seems an irrelevant subject, useless in terms of job skills and employability. While statistics actually contradict this view – but numbers are tricky and I don’t want to go there – there are good reasons for criticizing the way Classics has developed as a discipline deeply rooted in colonialism and cultural elitism, especially in the context of the very classist British society and its education system. Nonetheless, as recent studies have brought to light and some new ways of practicing Classics show, it is a discipline that nowadays gives space, sometimes with hesitation, to multiple voices in terms of identities, methodologies and topics. Our contemporary culture is deeply entangled with antiquity and eventually the problem is not the content of Classics, but rather the way that content has been used, misused and manipulated in the course of centuries.

In fact this performance is a great example of how Classics has been misconceived, erased and neglected to the point that the curator and the artist seem completely unaware of the semiotic of the painting, otherwise I am sure they would have chosen another one among the many others displaying eroticised young female bodies in that room.

A Guardian’s commentator has defined the painting as ‘semi-pornographic’. But what does ‘pornographic’ even mean, considering how female, male and intersex bodies have been reproduced and objectified in the course of art history? One can only view this painting as pornography if completely unaware of the semiotics of displaying beautiful naked body in art history. Moreover, isn’t it the role of art to make the viewers uncomfortable, having unexpected reactions, and thinking about them? Curatorial tastes and practices as those behind this installation seem to me more Victorian than those of the Victorians they pretend to criticise. How can you have a meaningful and informed debate on displaying gender without knowing the historical development of producing and displaying gender in art?

I am moving now to the woman who feels offended by this superficial cultural operation. Women have been oppressed, beaten, raped, unpaid or underpaid for their work, and discriminated in other various manners. In the course of history, women have also found different modalities to negotiate their way through family, work, basically life survival: they have played the game according to rules which were imposed by men, and I believe that some inversion myths like the one of Hylas and the Naiads, in which females are controlling if not raping men, tell us a lot about the violent terms of that negotiation. Men felt uncomfortable in front of women’s body and beauty, and interpreted these problematic, threatening feelings as the result of a female power that if unleashed could lead men to lose their minds (very contemporary, I know: that’s why Classics matters). Should women forget all this past just because we now want to be appreciated as persons with many more skills than just beautiful and powerful bodies? I do not think so: I do want that story to be remembered and understood for its multiple meanings and for the oppressive social structures it has contributed to produce and reproduce.

I do not want the Naiads to be silenced. I want a society inhabited by citizens of any gender able to deconstruct the long history of a myth and its representation in art that enlighten the strained, violent relationship between women and men in the course of centuries, including our very present. In particular, I want strong women, proud to have survived that past (yes: we are all survivors as recent horrible facts constantly remind us) and ready for our turn to be in power, and hopefully change the way power has been exercised so far. In fact new Naiads are here, they are taking over, and nobody will be able to silence them again.

The Gospel of Judas on Sale?

In their new book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton University Press) Moss and Baden report that in 2010 there were negotiations for the acquisition of the Gospel of Judas by the Green family that never went through (p. 86). This apocryphal Gospel is preserved together with other texts in a famous and much debated papyrus codex, which passed from one owner to another, was in part dismembered, and ended up in the ownership of Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos. This dealer, who has had many vicissitudes in her professional life, entrusted a foundation (the Maecenas Foundation, directed by her lawyer, Mario Roberty) to sell the copyrights of the codex to the National Geographic in order for the codex to be studied and become accessible to the public (besides producing a substantial income for a number of people, including the self-defined modern Maecenates). According to the National Geographic and other sources, the codex is meant to be restituted to Egypt (precisely to the Coptic Museum in Cairo) after its study and publication.

So I wonder how can it be possible that this manuscript which belongs to Egypt was offered for sale to Steve Green?


A page from the Gospel of Judas

The eBay experience

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It is a while that I am chasing my Turkish friend Mixantik-Ebuyerrrr, who is selling his papyrus fragments and other merchandise via eBay since 2008. Although he likes to call himself Robert, we actually know that this is not his real name; soon or later we will delve into his interesting story. But never mind, today I’d like to talk about the e-commerce platform through which Robert and others can freely and easily offer their manuscripts and other antiquities for sale in a very convenient way. Convenient for buyers, sellers and above all for those who own the platform in question: eBay is listed 310 in the 2017 Fortune list of the 500 world leading companies. It is hard to quantify the overall amount of antiquities (licit and illicit, genuine and fake) which are exchanged through the platform, but to give you an idea of the size and profit margins, today there are 1,531 Egyptian antiquities and 3,974 antique (sic) manuscripts on sale through the UK platform, only to mention objects at the centre of my interest.

So let us consider the case of a responsible collector looking for papyri on eBay. Among the fragments recently on sale there have been two offered by luck_button, a user active since 26 September 2003 and based, as my friend Robert, in Turkey. As you can see from the screenshot above and checking the link (papyrus 1, papyrus 2), the seller specifies with a bizarre sense of pride that there is no provenance or document on any of the two. I do not want to give my expertise on the scraps, so I am afraid but I won’t tell you anything about their date, writing, if they are genuine, etc. I am just concentrating on matters of legality and ethics, which should come first.

Turkey has ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970 in 1981 and as a consequence has put very strict legislation in place for the protection of its cultural heritage. The main law for the protection of antiquities was issued in 1983; antiquities are ownership of the State, their commerce is illegal and penalties are harsh. It is fresh news that a British tourist trying to bring back ancient coins, which he found while snorkelling, is now detained in Turkey. In our case, however, the papyrus fragments are not from Turkey, but are originally from Egypt; their legal status could seem ambiguous. Nevertheless, since Mr luck_button is openly stating that they are unprovenanced and there are no documents on the acquisition history of the fragments, what is happening has high probability to be illegal and the fragments look like illicit fragments in transit through Turkey. Moreover, the seller candidly explains that he sends the merchandise through the standard Turkish post, as he has clearly done so far on the basis of his trade-history: what about customs duties? In a world where nations seem to have the less and less resources to control borders, it has become quite simple to send things around without any systematic check on the contents of packages. Never mind issues of conservation etc.

So in the light of this far from reassuring picture, a responsible collector would certainly avoid buying the fragments and would try, instead, to contact eBay in order to alert them on the situation. Here problems start. Any item on sale could be reported through a form that you should fill according to some pre-existent, standard criteria. In fact, none of them really fit to antiquities. Anyway, I made an experiment filling the form as best as I could few days ago. Nothing has happened and in the meanwhile the fragments have been sold to two anonymous irresponsible collectors: one for 512 and the other for 141 dollars.

e-Bay policies on the sale of antiquities varies from one country to another, in view of the different legislation regulating the market and approaches towards cultural heritage protection. For instance, eBay Germany policy openly forbids the selling of antiquities without accompanying documents regarding their acquisition history . The policy of eBay US seems less restrictive, or at least not so explicit, and gives some specific guidelines only regarding Native American cultural heritage. As for the UK, to my knowledge the only attempt made to regulate the nature of the antiquities sold on eBay concerns exclusively UK archaeological finds. This seems a narrow minded, nation-focussed approach for a country with a rich legal (and illegal) patrimony of antiquities originating from other countries on its territory, as a result of its imperial past, and a thriving antiquities market more in general.

As an academic who feels responsible of the objects I study, I had been able in the past to get in contact directly with the eBay policy office and they usually act quickly when some bids are flagged as potentially illegal. But it is clear that more proactive and structural measures should be put in place to tackle the problem.

The reality is that everything seems allowed because too many collectors/dealers, as the two who purchased the papyri at the centre of this post, do not respect the laws and ethics underpinning such exchanges (before you even start with a pointless counter-argument, I am afraid to say that no, darling, eventual ignorance of the laws does not excuse them). Moreover, eBay policies enforcement seems inefficient at best, and police active control is also low, even more so in the UK where the Art and Antiques Unit seems to be under threat of closure. Despite all the rhetoric on heritage preservation, and the amount of public money put in various programs, the truth is that this kind of everyday unregulated and unethical (when not illegal) market is slowly killing our cultural heritage in the open and apparently with the consent of everyone implied in the transactions.

Bibliography note:

I learnt a lot from reading J. Anglim Kreder, J. Nintrup, “Antiquity meets the modern age: eBay’s potential criminal liability for counterfeit and stolen international antiquity sale” Journal of Law, Technology & the Internet 5 (2014) 143–178 and N. Brodie, “The Internet Market in Antiquities” in F. Desmarais ed. Countering Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods: The Global Challenge of Protecting the World’s Heritage Paris: ICOM 2015.


Green papyri: Egypt steps in

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The Galatians Coptic fragment when advertised on eBay, screen shot from Brice Jones’ blog post

An article published today on the Times reports that “Egypt is investigating the possible illegal acquisition of national artefacts by an American craft store company, including a 5th-century fragment of the Bible that was displayed at the Vatican.” The craft store company is Hobby Lobby.

Readers of the blog know about my doubts on the provenance of that papyrus; at present the only documented information on it is that it was put on sale on eBay in October 2012, and later surfaced in the Green collection.

According to the article, David Trobisch, director of collections of the Museum of the Bible, “said the fragment came from the David Robinson collection sold through Christie’s in 2011 and then acquired by the museum through a trusted dealer. There was no photographic record of the 2011 sale, he said. ‘We are sharing what was told to us.’.” So the papyrus is one of the items which Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Green family, gifted to the Museum.

From the statement we may infer that papyri are sold by Christie’s without any precise record (I wonder how collectors might be able to exercise due diligence without such basic documentation…). The trusted dealer that might be able to clarify how a papyrus went from a Christie’s auction of 2011 to a Turkish dealer (mixantik aka ebuyerrrr) operating from Turkey in 2012 is still hiding somewhere. Why a trusted dealer cannot be named at this point is one more mystery of the amazing world of the antiquities market I will never be able to decipher.

The provenance for the ca. 1,000 papyrus fragments and the other Egyptian objects in the collection is an information we have asked for since 2014. Unsuccessfully, since I am still blogging about it…