Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bettany Hughes on the Sappho Papyrus

I have been returning to the case of the Sappho Papyrus as I have been working on the authentification of collecting histories. It is claimed that there is "documented legal provenance" for the papyrus. So what does this paperwork comprise?

Bettany Hughes has made some interesting comments on its collecting history ("Lover, poet, muse and a ghost made real: A find in a mummy's head has brought the Greek writer Sappho to life", Sunday Times February 2, 2014).

There are several pieces of information:
a. 'find in a mummy's head'. This indicates the papyrus had been repurposed as part of a mummy cartonnage. What is the date of the cartonnage? Where was it found? Who had owned it in recent years? How was the papyrus removed?
b. 'The elderly gentleman on the end of the line had material from an ancient Egyptian burial in his possession. He'd noticed that scraps of the cartonnage (the Egyptian equivalent of papier-mache, made of recycled papyrus) bore the ghostly imprint of writing.' So we learn that the individual telephoning Dirk Obbink in Oxford was 'elderly' and male.
c. 'The elderly owner of our new Sappho papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, and its provenance is obscure (it was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer), but he was determined its secrets should not die with him.' If the "provenance" (i.e. the collecting history) is 'obscure', how can it also be claimed to be both "documented" and "legal"? Who was the "high-ranking German officer"? When did this "German officer" acquire the papyrus and under what circumstances? What due diligence search did Obbink undertake to ensure that this papyrus had not been "confiscated" during the 1930s or early 1940s?

I presume that Obbink will release the "documented legal provenance" so that the paperwork can be authenticated.

[Paul Barford commented on this article back in February.]

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