Monday, 3 February 2014

Discussing the New Sappho Poem, but just not "That" Subject

Dr Dirk Obbink
I wrote about the freshly-surfaced papyrus published by Dr Dirk Obbink, University of Oxford and uncertainty about its origins a while back ('No-Questions-Asking UK Academic Reads a Freshly-Uncovered Ripped-up Papyrus from Unknown Source', Wednesday, 29 January 2014), but discussion about this aspect of the find was slow to get off the ground. An example of this is the "Discussing the New Sappho poems" blog devoted to discussion of the recent surfacing ("from underground" of this previously unknown papyrus. It says "a preliminary text is now available online" (but see here). They "invite further discussion, questions, and comments". For the first few days the posters were wittering on about ancient Greek grammar, but then the real questions started to surface: Professor Justin Walsh (February 3, 2014 at 8:39 pm) seconds the earlier question raised by Prof: Francesca Tronchin
Dr. Obbink has been said in one online posting to believe the fragment might be from Oxyrhynchus. Is this an accurate statement about his beliefs? If so, when was it excavated, and by whom? Does the owner possess a valid export permit for the papyrus? Given the now-common reports of looting of Egyptian sites within a context of political turmoil, the origins of the fragment must be identified and plainly stated. I wonder, too, whether Prof. Eck or other members of the ZPE editorial board ever asked any of these questions, and, if so, what answers were supplied to them which were satisfactory?
Jack Vaughan (February 4, 2014 at 2:56 am) says he feels "blessed" to have been able to take part in an online discussion of this fragment with "fine academic and citizen scholars" and suggests we should give the Oxford academic the "benefit of any doubts":
The questions of cultural property seem to me interesting generally (sic), but I trust Dr. Obbink to be doing the right things. All those questions of provenance will have been answered to his satisfaction, or we wouldn’t have seen a draft article.
So why is he unconcerned in his draft article to show how those questions of the source of his data have been answered and how not only he, the interested party, is "satisfied" but how the wider academic and non-academic world can be too? Justin Walsh () again points out:
Distinguished or not, the questions that are being asked are really pretty simple, and they actually go to the heart of the discovery’s significance. I’ve written directly to Dr Obbink twice in the last six days and received no response whatsoever; I’m hardly the only person who has asked. Check the Storify feed to see the extent of similar reactions by similarly serious and well-regarded scholars:
Dr Obbink, where did the fragment you are publishing come from and how did it arrive in a private collection?

Here is the same Dr Obbink with some mummy-masks on a stick in the background (from " Dirk Obbink and the Scanner of Secrets" [sic] Christ Church News, 30th Nov 2011). Where are the other parts of the mummies from which these masks were ripped?

Dr Dirk Obbink and remains of dismembered human burials
used here as academic stage-dressing and 'decoration'
Just what dugup antiquities does Christ Church College in Oxford have stashed away in its scholars' rooms, and where did they all come from? When is the United Kingdom going to make good its promises to get tough with the no-questions-asked trade in dugup antiquities which masks the trade and possession of dodgy and illicit antiquities? When are academics in Bonkers Britain going to take an ethical stand over unprovenanced objects in and coming from the trade like their American counterparts?


John_London said...

There was a draft of the article, linked e.g. from BBC website, including the Greek text. It was quickly pulled but can be found cached on the Internet (in Wayback machine). It has nothing about provenance and no discussion of attribution. Of course there are private doubts about this poem, but they have been excluded from public discussions (e.g. The Telegraph declined to print my comment, perhaps wishing to suppress the fact that that their journalist Tom Payne had been suckered by an article that, although no doubt published in good faith, does not remotely stack up as credible in the draft Dr Obbink provided). The interesting question is, if it turns to be a fake, who would have had the skills to write it? Not many.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks John for that comment. I must admit the possibility of it being a fake never really crossed my mind. The fact that it would only become known to science through one photo attached to an article while handling the original would require knowing where it its (lots of "anonymous collectors in London"). Also it is notable that Dr Obbink did not for some reason put the photo online with his interpretation of it. Why not? What does it look like?

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