Thursday, 25 March 2021

Belated Brill Retraction

The archaeological publishers Brill are finding out the hard way about why collecting history matters. They've just decided to publish a 'retraction notice' about their involvement in the publication of the controversial 'Sappho' papyri. I'd say that this is a goodly while too late, as the ever-shifting stories of where the thing came from only added to the uncertainty that had existed about the origins of this piece right from the beginning.

The editors Anton Bierl and André Lardinois suggest that "serious doubts" about where this came from appeared "In the years following the first publication of this book" (in other words, after they themselves agreed to be involved in its handling and publication). As readers of this blog know, that is simply untrue. Even when setting the record straight, these scholars cannot honestly set the record straight. They further write that:
The repatriation of the Green Sappho fragments has restored these papyri to its [sic] rightful owner. We hope that they will be made available to the scholarly community in their new location both directly and through online digital reproductions, so they can be studied further. The status of P. Sapph. Obbink remains problematic, however, not only because its provenance is tainted, but also because the papyrus, which is the main testimony of the Brothers and the Kypris poems, is inaccessible. We sincerely hope that it will also be made available to the academic community soon and its acquisition circumstances will be fully explained.
That's totally colonialist. The papyrus fragments entered the western market by 2012 and were subject to a whole load of behind-the-doors dealings (including by auction house Christie's) and sequestering in private collections since then. By no means were they fully available to scholars (least of all those from the country from which they were stolen) in that entire time. At no time in those nine years was the collecting history of those fragments presented honestly by those in whose possession they were. Now two Professors of ancient Greek from Basel and Nijmegen urge the Egyptian authorities and institutions onto whom the Green Collection/MoB have just offloaded 50000 loose manuscript fragments almost overnight to "hurry up and make these particular fragments available to us". What a shameful attitude of entitlement! Profs Bierl and Lardenois should take to task all those involved in the matter of these illicit manuscripts, but don't. Pathetic.

The Guardian has a new piece summarising the bare bones of the shifting story over the years:  Charlotte Higgins. 'Doubts cast over provenance of unearthed Sappho poems' Guardian 25 Mar 2021. It does not mention that Dirk Obbink has promised "that he is working on an academic article in which he disputes [sic] the findings of Sampson, but he has not mentioned a timeline". Could it be that she doubts that this will ever appear?

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