Friday 26 February 2021

The Missing Oxford Papyri Saga Continues

Twenty one more papyri allegedly stolen from Oxford University have turned up in the collections of the Museum of the Bible, the Egypt Exploration Society said today (EES 'Museum of the Bible and missing EES papyri'). They had been "acquired by Hobby Lobby and its agents from a number of third parties". The MOB is "making arrangements for their return" and reportedly the UK police probe into the whole matter is still dragging on. Part of the background is described by Ariel Sabar ('A Biblical Mystery at Oxford', The Atlantic June 2020 issue). His account states: "the EES said it has so far identified 120 papyri that “appear to be missing, almost all from a limited number of folders”. So, if 13 turned up with the MOB ex Green Collection earlier, and anoter 21 have been spotted (also with the MOB), there are still 86 to be found. These third parties complicate matters of course. How many people were removing items from the EES collections? Who had such access not only to the objects but also the catalogues, so they could remove records? What kind of security was in place?

Two disturbing elements of the EES statement:"The research on two of these texts by scholars under MOTB auspices will receive appropriate recognition when the EES publishes the texts". The question is who would be doing any kind of research on archaeological material that was lacking elementary paperwork showing its licit provenance? For a number of years now, it has been crystal clear that merely being in the MOB was not enough to guaranteee licit origins, or even legality.
Another element indicates that the EES is now resuigning from its duty of care of the objects taken from Egypt:
"The MOTB has informed the EES that it has repatriated all remaining unprovenanced texts in its collection to the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. The EES Trustees accept that these may contain some unrecognised small scraps from the EES collection, but because this cannot now be proven, they have agreed that the MOTB is free of any further claims by the EES, and they welcome the transfer".
Except, the problem is that, as part of the EES collection, the papyri while in the EES collection (I will not say "safe in the EES collection"), had a known provenance and associations. In a jumbled mass of several thousand equally unprovenanced scraps of papyrius dumped on Egypt (what are they going to do with them?) those associations are next-to irretrivable. The EES should have made more of an effort to identify the papyri from the assemblage they were curating in a timely manner while they were with the documentation of their acquisition, because now these items and their contexts are as much lost as if they'd gone into some private collection. And the MOB to make amends for the mistakes that made should have done more to make sure those fragments ended up back in the assemblages from which they had been taken.

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