Friday, 7 February 2014

Brown Gunk and Documenting the Context of Discovery of the Sappho Papyrus

For the past few days there have been some - perfectly justifiable - questions about the background to an Oxford academic's work with material from a private collection, questions which go back at least to Colin Refrew's seminal "Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership" (Duckworth Debates in Archaeology, 2000). The academic recently wrote a TLS article about the freshly surfaced Sappho papyrus fragment, and I assume that his intention was that three bald words “documented legal provenance” would be enough to quell the intellectual curiosity of the questioners (some of his supporters dismiss them as "idiotic"). After all for several generations now, whole chunks of the broad field of studying old things from the past when dealing with addressed sources (ones intended to carry information) have been carried out without, on the whole, asking such questions. In the past decade and a half however, despite stubborn resistance from some quarters, there has been a sea change in opinion on the acceptability of such attitudes. So, for example, we see David Meadows ~ rogueclassicist () noting wryly:
That there is “documented legal provenance” and that provenance is not being revealed despite repeated requests for same from various sources casts strong suspicions on it. It genuinely appears that the folks dealing with this don’t want provenance to be known -and probably questioned - before publication.
Basically, those three words are not enough. The Oxford scholar took a conscious (one assumes) decision to at a certain time go public with his findings. In taking that decision, he surely would have ascertained beforehand that he was ready for the questions that inevitably would be asked. One set of questions without any doubt would concern where this freshly surfaced object had come from. The problem here was that the owner is oddly coy about admitting it is his, obviously he's a very modest and retiring man, perhaps a bit embarrassed to find he'd bought a big and attention-attracting chunk of lesbian poetry (perhaps the owner is a clergyman?). All the more reason then for the scholar about to announce his find to prepare a clever strategy to offset any anticipated questions once and for all, but in a way that does not compromise the identity of the owner.

 Dr Obbink is a clever man, so thinking up a way of dealing with this problem surely is not beyond him. After all, for the object to be proven to be wholly legal, it would have to be documentable as having left the source country (we assume Egypt) a long time ago. Since "old collection" artefacts move between collectors relatively discretely, the present owner's anonymity would not be compromised in any way, one may safely assume, by giving in a single sentence that provenance and grounds for determination of (pre-1983?) legality. But for some reason those who have been expressing concern do not get even such basic and non-specific information. Unfortunately it seems the publisher of this fragment decided instead dismissively to simply brazen it out by fobbing the world off with half answers, which is hardly likely to resolve the issue.

It should be noted that in the TLS article, Dr Obbink actually addresses anyway only the issue of the issue of the authenticity of the text:
The authenticity of the ancient mummy cartonnage panel, from which the papyrus was extracted, having been recycled in antiquity to accompany a burial, has been established through its documented legal provenance.
Of course we are all aware, Dr Obbink too, that there are very few collectors in London who'd go to a scholar for some help and say that the items he has are illegally obtained. After all, if they were and he did, the academic may shop him, and there would he be? So how did Dr Obbink ascertain that in this particular case, the representations of the collector could be verified?

A variant of the same story appears in the Sunday Times as reported by Bettany Hughes which introduces information which is puzzling:
The elderly gentleman on the end of the line had material from an ancient Egyptian burial in his possession. He’d noticed that scraps of the cartonnage [...]  bore the ghostly imprint of writing. Might these words, the stranger wondered, be of any interest? Professor Obbink, one of the world’s leading papyrologists, thought they might. Prising the layers of shredded papyrus apart, he had to hold his breath. Because here — pretty much instantly recognisable — were delicate, fragmentary lines of the elusive ancient Greek poet Sappho. 
Now the papyrus we are talking about is a single piece 18 x 11 cm, hardly "scraps" and hardly "shredded". A chunk of cartonnage 18x11 or more in dimensions is a sizeable piece to destroy on the off-chance that "something of interest" might pop up in the debris. There is probably not a lot of cartonnage around on the private collectors' market that actually has documented legal provenance, not enough to wantonly destroy out of sheer curiosity (or rather if a collector has such stuff and wants to destroy it just for fun, to see what's inside, perhaps it'd be better in the hands of another collector who'd look after it). Anyway, if Dr Obbink himself was indeed "prising the layers of papyrus apart" and documenting the activity properly (as one assumes he would), it will be interesting to see from the photos how he got the one piece out intact, and what such a large piece was doing within the structure of the cartonnage.

But my puzzlement concerns something else. If Dr Obbink was the person who dissected the structure of the object, documenting it  properly, why does he write so vaguely about the brown stains on both sides? The ones he says could be EITHER ('light brown' gesso) OR silt. If he'd himself extracted that sheet from the midst of others, he would know exactly what it was he'd carefully 'prised' the papyrus from. In any case, cartonnage is not stuck with "silt". What does Dr Obbink think silt would be doing on both sides of a piece of papyrus 'prized out' (if Hughes is to be given credit for accurate reporting) by Obbink himself from between other sheets of papyrus within a piece of cartonnage?

In addition, I would have thought that if you were destroying an archaeological object, you'd not only be documenting it thoroughly, but conducting analyses of the materials encountered. A quick check under a microscope would be enough to differentiate the structure of silt and gesso, or identify the brown stuff as something else (residue of adhesive for example) which could lead to further analyses to understand the structure of the dissected artefact.

I really do think that to be a complete account of this discovery, the future ZPE article needs to contain the documentation of the extraction of the fragment from the collector's cartonnage.

Vignette: Big bucket of brown gunk, not 'gesso' OR 'silt'


Unknown said...

What is this brown gunk? Is that an archaeological term?

Paul Barford said...

not officially. It's difficult to say what it could be from Dr Obbink's rather terse description.

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.