Friday 16 January 2015

Sappho and the Peripatetic Papyri (1) Introduction

The 'Obbink' Sappho
I've been a bit busy over the past few days, and not had time to comment on several important developments on the Sappho papyrus front. As readers may remember, a while ago Prof Dirk Obbink of Oxford published a 'new' fragment with the text of Sappho poems including little bits that had not previously been known. he was immediately criticised (and I think rightly) for having skated right over the question of where the thing came from. Eventually a few pieces of information on this emerged. I have already given a roundup of my previous posts on this subject ('The Sappho Scandal', PACHI Monday, 18 August 2014) to which we can add now 'Sappho, a Leaf Taken out of an Old Book?', PACHI Thursday, 27 November 2014.

Now Prof. Obbink has published a fuller account ('Provenance, Authenticity, and Text of the New Sappho Papyri'  Paper read at the ‘Society for Classical Studies’ Panel: ‘New Fragments of Sappho’, New Orleans, 9 January 2015). Worryingly, there are now several discrepancies and information gaps in the various forms of the story which have aroused interest. Not only mine, it seems. Dr Dorothy King of Lootbusters examines the story, puts it in the context of other facts and as a result is rather sceptical of what we are now being told ('Lobel Calls "bull" on Christie's Sappho "provenance"....' PhDiva 14th Jan 2015). Roberta Mazza is gentler in her 'The new Sappho fragments acquisition history: what we have learnt so far', Faces and Voices January 15, 2015, but nevertheless the feeling is the matter of the origin of these new fragments is not at all as clear as the publisher would like us to accept.

There is a lot to think about there, the whole matter is still rather foggy, Professor Obboink has left a couple of things totally unclear in his account. I thought I'd take another approach, splitting the reported collecting history of the Sappho papyrus and other bits mentioned into chunks. I think that allows the difference between what is clear and what is fog to be more visible. It also draws attention to the existence of several shadowy figures in the collecting history that have tended to drop out of the simple linear narrative we have recieved.  I'll post my texts in reverse order so they can be read from top down...

The whole story focuses on a sale held by Christie's on 28th November 2011, in their London Salesrooms [Sale 3013: 'Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts including a selection from the Malcolm S. Forbes Jr. Churchill Collection and Photobooks from the Calle Collection'] Lot 1 was however not related to these other collections. It was 'a Collection of Greek and Coptic Papyri Fragments [Egypt, 2nd to 4th century]' which went to an unnamed buyer for £7,500 ($11,610). The estimate had been somewhat lower (and that could be significant in the current discussion). The catalogue description tells us that the lot consisted of
59 packets of papyri fragments, approximately 20 x 45mm to 300 x 100mm, the majority in Greek, from various manuscripts containing texts in a variety of hands and including documentary, petitionary and literary excerpts, receipts, contracts and accounts. [...] The handwriting of the papyri, often cursive, ranges from the 2nd to the 4th century AD and some texts indicate a probable localisation in the Heptanomis region of Ancient Egypt.
This is rather an uncomfortable commodity to be selling so soon after the January 2011 'Revolution' which precipitated a wave of thefts from museum stores and sites all over Egypt. So Christie's tell prospective buyers not to worry:
A number of fragments belonged to the collection of David M. Robinson, a large part of which was subsequently bequeathed to the Library of the University of Mississippi. The collection is briefly described by William H. Willis in 'The New Collections of Papyri at the University of Mississippi', Proceedings of the IX International Congress of Papyrology, 1961, pp.381-82. Two of the packets were part of the collection of P. Deaton.
Well, that's OK then, if "a number of them" are from an old collection, they must all be! Right? (OK, I'll be coming back to that assumption). Christie's seem to have looked through some of the packages:
P.Rob.inv.22, for example, seems to be a fragment from a receipt for a wheat transaction [...]  in the small town of Bakchias, meris of Herakleides in Arsinoites nome [...], on the western bank of the Nile, southwest of Memphis. Another fragment, from the second half of the second century, is a month's report of the Ksitologoik of Theadelphia, also in Arsinoite nome.
Fast forward to Prof Obbink.
As reported and documented by the London owner of the ‘Brothers’ and ‘Kypris Poems’ fragment [the main new piece of Sappho he is writing about], all of the fragments were recovered from a fragment of papyrus cartonnage [fn4] formerly in the collection of David M. Robinson and subsequently bequeathed to the Library of the University of Mississippi. The Library later de - accessed it in order to purchase Faulkner materials. It was one of two pieces flat inside a sub - folder (folder ‘E3’) inside a main folder (labelled ‘Papyri Fragments; Gk.’), one of 59 packets of papyri fragments sold at auction at Christies in London in November 2011 . They contained texts ranging from the 2nd to the 4th century AD , probably originally from the Arsinoite nome where many of Robinson’s other papyri were purchased or originated.
That last bit has been lifted from the catalogue description. Footnote 4 reads:
"The collection contained other papyri derived from mummy cartonnage, and the fragments were simultaneously dissolved with a painted fragment of an earlier mummy cartonnage panel".
We are thus being told that the new Sappho papyrus was part of the Robinson collection, just nobody had spotted it. That in itself is of note. But there are a number of issues and mysteries to deal with before we can accept this simple linear nattrrative at face value (obviously the papyrus publisher's intention).  Let's take a closer look at this and starting with David M. Robinson and his bequeathal to the Library of the University of Mississippi.

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