Thursday 27 November 2014

Sappho, a Leaf Taken out of an Old Book?

Roberta Mazza ('Provenance issues: Information with thoughts to follow', Faces and Voices November 26, 2014) has some interesting information on the acquisition history of the newly-surfaced fragment of a Sappho manuscript
Full information on the acquisition history of the new Sappho fragments will be given by Dirk Obbink in a forthcoming article in ZPE. An entire session at the American Philological Association/Archaeological Institute of America annual meeting in New Orleans (Session 5, 9th January 2015) will be devoted to the new Sappho poems: the first paper by Obbink will address, among others, issues of provenance, as you can read from the program.  The fragments do not come from mummy cartonnage, as previously written by Obbink in his TLS article, but from book binding cartonnage; their provenance is documented, and proofs that they were out of Egypt before 1972. The book binding was dismounted before the papyri were studied and then published respectively by Dirk Obbink (P.Sapph. Obbink) and by S. Burris, D. Obbink, and J. Fish (P.GC. 105).
This new information, if confirmed, is pretty astounding. Obbink had actually used the origin from within a cartonnage panel as proof of the papyrus' authenticity and it was the object from which the papyrus had been extracted that had - according to the scholar - documented legal origins ("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"). So, now instead of a legally exported mummy cartonnage with documents - personally verified no doubt by the scholar before he wrote about it, it turns out he'd been mistaken. It was not an anthropoid form piece of papyrus and plaster coffin he'd been looking at but the flat cover of a codex. Why could he not tell the difference, as Justin Walsh asks "Is it normal to mistake book binding cartonnage for mummy cartonnage"? Above I reproduce the didactic aid we had in my '101 recognizing artefacts' class back at the University when I was a student. I well recall the old professor sternly lecturing us to note the difference in colour and shape of the objects and take care not to muddle them in future. Some students were naturally gifted and managed to do it (I passed the "telling mummy cases from other objects" class test first go), others were slower to learn, they mostly found their avocation in numismatists (no problem there in recognizing what a coin looks like - round and flat).

Books are not normally bound in cartonnage, and this new information is just as shocking as the "callously dissolving mummy masks" scenario. Preserved ancient (Ptolemaic/Roman?) book covers are not two-a-penny. In what circumstances was a rare survival dismembered and the broken pieces then getting into the hands of private collectors? Which dealer did this to maximise profits? [see 'Dismembering History: The Shady Online Trade in Ancient Texts', PACHI Sunday, 23 November 2014]. Where did this book come from, from which library? Where did the book go from which this ripped-apart cover came? Can we see documentation of the dismemberment of the book, showing this fragment in position and in relationship to the other pieces removed from the same binding - where are they now?

Why is there this sudden change in the story? From a "definitely legal old collection" mummy cartonnage fragment to a "definitely legal old library" bookbinding? The explanation is, I feel, going to have to be a really good one. We await it with anticipation.


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