Sunday 18 January 2015

Destroying the Past For Private Collections

Nicely-combed hair and best
Christian smile of Craig Evans
The Islamist extremists  in Syria and Iraq are busy trying to destroy the "edifices of polytheism" but over in North America, Christian extremists are up to it too. Craig Evans, a professor of New Testament studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia has been talking to Owen Jarus of Live Science about mummy mask destruction (Owen Jarus, 'Mummy Mask May Reveal Oldest Known Gospel', Live Science January 18, 2015
"We're recovering ancient documents from the first, second and third centuries. Not just Christian documents, not just biblical documents, but classical Greek texts, business papers, various mundane papers, personal letters," [...]   by using this technique of ungluing the masks. [...] We're going to end up with many hundreds of papyri when the work [sic] is done, if not thousands."
It is nice to see that Mr Jarus has been reading this blog (such as this text about Prof. Evans: PACHI Monday, 24 November 2014, 'Dr. Craig Evans on First Century Fragment of Mark') and noticed that several folk take a rather dim view of destroying artefacts for trophy papyri - because that seems to me from the way they present it to be exactly what the mummy-mask crumblers are doing and why. Professor Evans seems aware that there are critics and imagines he is going to assuage our doubts like this:
"Evans emphasized that the masks that are being destroyed to reveal the new texts are not high quality ones that would be displayed in a museum [...] "We're not talking about the destruction of any museum-quality piece."
Which basically tells us he's not the foggiest idea what the problem is. The article is about the by now infamous this scrap of the Gospel of Mark reportedly dated to the 90s. This was supposed to be published in 2013, then 2014... and we are still waiting.
Evans says that the text was dated through a combination of carbon-14 dating, studying the handwriting on the fragment and studying the other documents found along with the gospel. These considerations led the researchers to conclude that the fragment was written before the year 90. With the nondisclosure agreement in place, Evans said that he can't say much more about the text's date until the papyrus is published.
Mask formerly in private collection
This is from somebody's grave.
Uh-huh... Carbon 14 dating is going to date when the papyrus reed grew, nothing else and not very accurately anyway (I assume the papyrologists are going to give us a full presentation of the details of sample size and measurements, standard deviation and calibration algorithm used).* It cannot date when somebody took a sheet or roll off a shelf and used it. Knowing nothing about palaeography, I remain to be convinced that you can date my or anyone else's handwriting to a decade. (I know my handwriting is more or less as it was when I left high school - several decades ago).  The other documents in a piece of cartonnage may have come from the top or bottom of a pile of old sheets lying in a cupboard since somebody's grandpa died and they cleaned out his house and the bloke came round collecting scrap paper. What would give you a better date was that of the burial the cartonnage came from. In Egypt, dead bodies tend not to be left lying around in the sun too long - determine the date of the burial and you have a better TAQ for the bits in the mask. Do they have that information?

I think we may all be a bit wary of what these people are claiming bearing in mind the caption to the picture of the worried-looking mask over on the right (I'd be worried too if I'd known my mortal remains would be getting into the hands of this crowd of wreckers). The caption reads: "This mummy mask was one of the masks that the researchers took apart to reveal ancient papyri. This mummy mask is similar to the one that contained the first century gospel fragment. Credit: Courtesy of Prof. Craig Evans". First of all, I would not agree that this mask  is not of museum quality. I think there are many museums that would gladly augment their research collections, if not display with this object. It is really rather a nice displayable thing, isn't it? Who on earth would sacrifice something like this in the search for "first century papyri", especially as, typologically, this is quite clearly a type which is  Ptolemaic. I think part of the reason for their value assessment being somewhat kilter is a lack of knowledge. We are told these people think: "Although the mummies of Egyptian pharaohs wore masks made of gold, ordinary people had to settle for masks made out of papyrus (or linen), paint and glue". Ptoleomaic, Prof Evans. Look at a book or two about the archaeology of Ptolemaic Egypt - it's not really the same as the Eighteenth Dynasty... duh. The fact this mask is not made of gold does not mean it has no significance, cultural, archaeological or any other. The Egyptians would like it back, especially if its foreign owner does not like it and is not going to treat it with respect. Trashing something to see what is inside is not responsible curation.

Now, frankly I do not care if Mr Green has a bit of papyrus which his paid team of academics tells him is thirty years older than its rival. I bet they both say exactly the same as the other older versions - which is basically, isn't it, what we have today printed in our Bibles. That, after all, IS the point that the apologists are using these "earliest known texts" for. What I do care about, and I think we all should, is these self-absorbed people buying up artefacts and trashing them to fulfil some perverse desire to have something nobody else has got. Destroying these "edifices of polytheism" in the pursuit of their own interpretation of the early Christian writings, they are no better than the Islamist grave desecrators I wrote about a few hours ago.

[UPDATE * Roger Smith has doubts "random thought: would washing a papyrus in dish soap have an effect on later C14 dating of same?". It depends what was in the soap, and what cleaning methods were used on the sample. Any hydrocarbons from fossil fuel will be more or less C14 'free', but other organic compounds added to 'Palmolive' not].


Brian Curtiss said...

What if something significant could be learned from deconstructing the mask? How is that different from deconstructing a dig site, peeling back the geologic layers of the site itself in the interest of learning more about history? Are you saying that the object has greater value as an object than what could be learned by breaking it down to its component parts that could potentially reveal additional insights? Once it's out of the ground, and that aspect of the opportunity to learn learning lost, what is there lose versus what could be gained by the deconstruction? I don't have a defined opinion on this so I welcome your perspective.

Paul Barford said...

Since they have not indicated how they choose the subject of their investigations and their research design, one is entitled to ask "What if nothing significant could be learned from DESTROYING the mask?"

" How is that different from deconstructing a dig site, peeling back the geologic layers of the site itself" Because that is NOT what they are doing. They are dumping it in a bowl of water and ripping it apart. That's like taking a pressure hose to an archaeological site and using a sluice gate to collect the heavier artefacts. What is shown in the videos is artefact hunting, not laboratory analysis or archaeology.

We also are developing means to read documents without unwrapping them (charred scrolls from Herculaneum). In a decade or so, the texts could be recovered without touching a fibre of cartonnage - why not wait for the technology to come and not engage in crude destruction because of glory-seeking impatience?

Brian Curtiss said...

Very good last point. If the technologies are coming to discover the writings without destruction of the object it seems the only thing stopping people from waiting is wanting to advance careers and reputations with a significant "find."

Unknown said...

This is shocking.

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