Monday, 3 February 2014

Freshly-Surfaced Sappho Papyrus: Where did it come from?

Where did the anonymous London collector obtain the ripped up papyri fondled by Oxford academic Dirk Obbink on which he found the new poem by Sappho ('No-Questions-Asking UK Academic Reads a Fresly-Uncovered Ripped-up Papyrus from Unknown Source', Wednesday, 29 January 2014)? In a draft article (now removed from the Internet) he mentions its close similarity to a papyrus coyly referred to as "pap. GC inv. No. 105". He does not explain what that reference means - but it's a fair guess that it refers to a papyrus in the so-called 'Green Collection ', assembled beginning in November 2009 because not only has this collector been obtaining Greek papyri (including from Oxyrhynchus modern el-Bahnasa in Egypt) but also Dirk Obbink happens to be one of the editors of the forthcoming catalogue in the "Green Scholars Initiative" Series published by Brill. So it seems that the newly surfaced fragment comes from the same manuscript as a papyrus which came on the market for Mr Green to buy after November 2009.

It seems that in recent years a big cache of material has been found containing Greek papyri (and possibly is also the source of a whole wadge of Coptic textile fragments coming onto the market at the same time).  Readers might remember a whole series of posts on this and the PhDiva blogs about an eBay seller based in Turkey who it seems (and by his own account) had access to a new stash of Oxyrhyncus papyri. My posts on this subject include: 
Thursday, 1 November 2012: 'Turkish Seller Offers Erdfrisch papyri on EBay'.
Sunday, 4 November 2012: 'Istanbul Papyrus Seller Again Changes Identity'.
Friday, 14 December 2012: 'Would You Buy Kiswa From this Man?'.

Friday, 4 October 2013: 'Crumpled and Mangled papyrus Fragments on Sale'. Several things are worthy of note here in connection with the "collector from London" who has the freshly-surfaced item. First the seller in question had a number of Greek papyri which aroused interest in the papyrological/Bible studies blogosphere for their intrinsic interest, and the feedback indicates that this seller was supplying other dealers (Tim Haines bought something from him for example). In his later incarnation this supplier was claiming that he's based in London (and in fact reportedly offered to meet Dorothy King there). This is of note as not infrequently the phrase "a London [or any other city] collection" in fact refers to the stock of a dealer in that city. Is the Obbink Sappho papyrus in an actual collection or in the hands of a dealer looking for a buyer? Is Dr Obbink and Christ Church College facilitating a sale by publishing it?  

What is the association between the context of deposition of this new papyrus and the coptic textiles currently coming onto the market?
2012 EBay sale of Turkish dealer with papyrii

This seller realises that there is a profit to be made by tearing the pieces up into regular shaped fragments, just right for people to frame 'tastefully', to give their man-cave cum 'study' the air of culture-erudishun, maybe imply an Indiana-Jones far-off-lands adventurism-in-search-of-lost treasures (from your armchair). Obviously scattering the disparate fragments from any find like this will make it impossible to join them and study the whole document. (The world awaits the publication of the photo of the newly surfaced Sappho fragment, to see what artistic shape it has been ripped into by the looters and dealers.)

riday, 11 October 2013, 'Exposing More Untruths in Dark Parts of the Antiquities Trade' (see also Lootbusters 'So I Bought A Papyrus on eBay ..' Friday, October 11, 2013). Note the reply. Asked for an export licence, the 'London-based' seller suggests none was needed because this fragment was part of a collection that had been used in university research. (Question: when did Dr Obbink start his work on this freshly-surfaced Sappho fragment?) The followup is here: ACHI Sunday, 20 October 2013, ' SOLD, to that bloke over there'. How can we know that the anonymous collector who Dr Obbink is "partnering" in publishing his collectables was not one of the purchasers of items from this new stash of papyri if Dr Obbink does not say?

There is only one detail of the current condition of the papyrus which Dr Obbink obtained from the collector which might give a clue as to its original burial environment (context of deposition). In the description, the Oxford scholar mentions almost in passing that there was foreign material adhering to the parchment:

Ancient Egyptian gesso is not generally "light brown", unless it has been stained post-deposition. Light brown silt sounds more likely. The way this information is presented can be interpreted (in the absence of other information from the publication) as perhaps the results of being deposited loose in a layer of rubbish dump, perhaps among silt (mud brick?), was there brown wall-plaster there too?What else was recovered from this layer? Dating material?

I find it inconceivable that somebody embedded in the papyrus world as much as Dr Obbink would not know of this flow of new material onto the market (and conceivably other parts of the same find may be reaching the market by other routes). Obviously therefore, before even agreeing to touch the newly surfaced fragment, the good Doctor would have checked the collecting history of the object, the details confirming its legal excavation, sale and removal from the source country, and also learnt the very convincing reasons why - even though many collectors can indeed read ancient Greek and Latin, and there has been a great and long-standing interest in Sappho, nobody realised before him what this "old [no doubt] find" actually was. I am sure I am not the only person eager to learn what they are.

 For David Gill's comments: 'The Sappho Papyrus', Looting Matters Monday, February 3, 2014

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