Monday, 3 March 2014

Papyrus, Provenance and Looting

Douglas Boin is an archaeologist and professor of history at Saint Louis University. From 2010 to 2013 he was a professor of classics at Georgetown University. Here's his op-ed piece for the New York Times, 2nd March 2014 on "Papyrus, Provenance and Looting". It is of course about the new Sappho find:
Archaeologists and papyrologists, on heightened alert given widespread looting in Arab Spring countries, expressed concern that no information had been provided about the papyrus’s provenance. In eagerness to add lines of Sappho to the canon, they noted, the community had sidestepped potentially uncomfortable questions about their acquisition. Even if the Sappho papyrus has a perfectly legal history, indifference to the provenance of a cultural treasure has sent tacit and dangerous encouragement to traffickers of looted artifacts. [...] Regarding provenance, however, Mr. Obbink was oblique; he said only that he had “documented legal provenance” for the original mummy casing, but that the collector wished to remain anonymous. Mr. Obbink’s official article is slated for publication in a German papyrology journal later this year, but thus far no further details have been forthcoming (Mr. Obbink also ignored requests for comment ahead of publication of this piece). The secrecy is disturbingly tone deaf to the legal and ethical issues pertaining to ancient finds [...] in February 2012 the International Council of Museums launched an Emergency Red List of Egyptian objects at risk of theft. Items to look out for? Mummies, mummy casings, and papyrus fragments. [...] Unnamed “private collectors” are often the link between looters and artifacts brought to market or given to museums. They stand to win big when their objects appear in scholarly publications or exhibitions, as exposure bestows a valuable aura of authenticity.

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