The discipline of Classics, as the study of the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and neighbouring regions, is characterised at its best by a remarkable methodological breadth. Archaeologists, philologists, and historians (each a heterogenous group in its own right) are able to ask complex questions of rich datasets, with especially exciting opportunities when they overlap. Nowhere is this overlap more literal than when texts are themselves preserved on ancient artefacts—inscriptions, ostraca, and especially papyri. As the study of written artefacts, papyrology exists at the juncture of philology, history, and archaeology. It has, however, proven to ‘belong’ rather more to the first two, which value the documents primarily for the text they bear. Some of this depends on the fact that the physical artefact itself is rarely as informative as that text, which requires a great deal of expertise to decipher even in the best-preserved cases. Moreover, most papyri were excavated (if not looted) in the late 19th and early 20th century, when scientific archaeology was still very much embryonic, and many were excavated at any rate from secondary contexts (a midden, notably, at Oxyrhynchus); not the most promising material for archaeologists.
Because, in part, the excavation of the material in major western study collections had largely finished by the 1930s, experience in excavation has not been (if it ever was) a pre-requisite for the professional papyrologist, as it remains for the study of other excavated material. In recent years, however, the publication of certain high-profile papyri, such as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, and P.Sapph.Obbink, has foregrounded issues relating to the texts as artefacts. How these ancient documents, found (when authentic) invariably in Egypt, made their way to major western research institutions, raised eyebrows, and the archaeological concepts of provenance and provenience became primary avenues of investigation.
These terms, often confused or used indiscriminately, have related but distinct meanings. Provenience refers simply to where an object was found, and can be as vague as the report that it was looted from a specific site, or as precise as a specific context within an archaeologist’s trench. Provenance, in contrast, refers to its post-excavation history, especially as it relates to previous owners or collections of which it was part (in legalistic terms, its chain of custody). Both can be supported by a variety of documents, offering more or less specific details, and much depends on an understanding of their significance: only when taken together can it be ascertained that an object is neither fake nor recently looted. But it is much easier to forge some paperwork than a gospel fragment, and provenance and provenience should be subject to no less scrutiny than the artefact itself.
Provenance and Provenience
A secure provenience, as a record of where an artefact was excavated, is the sole guarantor of authenticity. Only knowing an artefact was removed from an appropriate archaeological context can guarantee it is, in fact, ancient. Because looters are naturally reticent to document their crime, provenience is much better recorded when an artefact was responsibly excavated by archaeologists. The connection with authenticity has forced the market into a complex relationship with provenience. On the one hand, anyone selling an artefact is quite concerned to guarantee its authenticity—few collectors are interested in the products of a forger’s workshop. But when it came out of the ground is more delicate: in 1970 UNESCO passed a major convention against the illicit trafficking of cultural property. Artefacts which left their source country after this date are no longer considered ethical for sale or purchase. While it had been illegal to remove antiquities from most source countries well before 1970, and different countries ratified the convention at different times, this has become the useful, if arbitrary, line in the sand.
While provenience plays its role in guaranteeing the authenticity of an artefact, provenance (its post-excavation history) is key for establishing when an antiquity left its source country, and so therefore whether it meets this standard or not. Dealers and the looters who supply them, however, are rarely forthcoming about artefacts’ history, and it should never be assumed that they are telling the truth. The fundamental problem is that, 50 years after the UNESCO Convention was passed, the number of artefacts that demonstrably meet its standards is not nearly enough to satiate collectors. So: people lie. Of course this came from Greece well before 1970; it’s been in my Swiss uncle’s attic since the 40s. For many, this lie (near enough to those often used) is enough. Arthur Houghton, a curator at the Getty in the 1980s, developed the Museum’s policy of ‘optical due diligence’, and this approach—asking for but accepting uncritically any given provenance—remains a standard modus operandi. If provenance were subject to even basic scrutiny, the market would not be able to function the way it does. And, since those implicated in the market are interested in its continuing function, tighter controls will never be willingly applied. As it is, those with more money than integrity are quite able to buy antiquities, illicit and unethical though they may be, and get away with it.
The importance of provenance, and the flimsy scrutiny it tends to receive, means that a great number of antiquities now on the market are bought and sold with only the most feeble accounts of their history. In the case of looted antiquities, it is not in the buyer’s best interests to ask too many questions. But it is important to remember that not all ‘licit’ antiquities have a secure provenance either: if nothing more than oral family history serves to remove the object from its source country before 1970, then the provenance is no more secure than those constructed for recently looted artefacts. Fake artefacts must also (necessarily) be sold with falsified histories. All three categories of artefact—looted, faked, and poorly documented—will have either unverified or fabricated provenances, and appear for this reason functionally identical on the market. Because they are shared across categories of artefacts, problems with provenance are not in and of themselves evidence of anything other than the need for further investigation.
For many academics, it is increasingly a matter of professional ethics that they not interact with artefacts offered for sale on the market. If presented with one, a secure provenance placing it outside its source country before 1970 is the bare minimum they should acquire before discussing it in print. This is well demonstrated by the Archaeological Institute of America’s evolving code of ethics, which has become stronger and more explicit over the years. Originally it only prohibited members from ‘participat[ing] in the illegal trade in antiquities’ (1990) but was soon adjusted to include ‘refrain[ing] from activities that enhance the commercial value of such objects’ (1997). The 2016 (and current) version is the most comprehensive, and worth quoting in full:
[Society members of the AIA should:] Refuse to participate in the trade in undocumented antiquities and refrain from activities that give sanction, directly or indirectly, to that trade, and to the valuation of such artifacts through authentication, acquisition, publication, or exhibition. Undocumented antiquities are those that are not documented as belonging to a public or private collection before December 30, 1970, when the AIA Council endorsed the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
It is not just archaeologists who have considered the ethical implications of interacting with the antiquities market: in 2007 the American Society of Papyrologists passed a resolution condemning the illicit trade of papyri, including similar language prohibiting the purchase of post-1970 materials by members of the Society. Publication of such material is not allowed under the Society’s auspices (in its Bulletin or at its Annual Meeting), ‘unless the author, speaker, or curator includes a frank and thorough discussion of the provenance of every item’.
In addition to preventing the publication of looted artefacts, these restrictions (in principle) make impossible the publication of a fake artefact as though it were authentic. Since scholars must satisfy themselves that the provenance, and therefore provenience, is secure before publication, they should not be deceived by even the most compelling fake, as its provenance will be contrived and it will lack an archaeological provenience. But, as in the case of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, if provenance is not subject to the same level of scrutiny as the artefact itself, things can still slip through the cracks. The investigation of the given account of an object’s history is, far from a formality, a professional obligation and sine qua non for publication.
Despite the advantages of such policies, there are still publishers and journals that place no such requirements on their contributors. Dirk Obbink’s editio princeps of P. Sapph.Obbink (which does not mention the word provenance once) was published in the German periodical Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, which offers no ethics statement on its website. But as the rapid demands for further information demonstrated, this approach is increasingly difficult to defend. A review of an edited volume discussing P.Sapph.Obbink alongside the Green Collection Sappho fragments was prefaced by a note from the editors that ‘the provenance of the new Sappho papyri published and discussed in this volume is contested’. Whether a formal requirement or not, it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye to issues of provenance when discussing new discoveries.
A secure provenience is the sole guarantor of authenticity; a secure provenance is the guarantor of that provenience. If, therefore, the provenance does not seem secure, then provenience and authenticity can come into question. There is no better way to ensure an artefact’s authenticity than to trace a secure line from its current owner to the site where it was excavated. Indeed, the market’s uncritical acceptance of flimsy provenance in the case of looted antiquities makes it uniquely susceptible to infiltration by fakes (as my friend Richard Bott demonstrated in his excellent Macquarie MRes thesis).
Both looted and fake artefacts are often sold with fake provenances, and only by investigating these can their true nature be determined. Because the necessity of constructing a fake history for both types of artefacts is essentially the same, evidence that the provenance may be false does not, in and of itself, suggest that an artefact is fake, only that it could be. At this point, internal evidence will often be adduced one way or another, the conclusions of which will often dictate the tenor of further investigation.
This is well illustrated by the recent case of the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’, a Coptic papyrus published by Professor Karen King at Harvard in 2012. Questions of authenticity emerged almost immediately, and the editio princeps was in fact delayed to incorporate and be published alongside the results of scientific testing which supported the case for authenticity. In that same issue of the Harvard Theological Review, however, the case was made from internal evidence that the text of the papyrus could not be genuine. The tension between philological approaches, which consistently suggested against authenticity, and scientific tests, which showed the ink was appropriate and the papyrus itself ancient, meant the case could not be closed. That it is now considered a fake is the result of research into its provenance by Ariel Sabar in an Atlantic article that dismantled the given account (a book will be published in August). Faced with his results, even King conceded it was unlikely to be real with the remarkable statement that ‘Your article has helped me see that provenance can be investigated.’
It is fair to say that not everyone has the time and resources to conduct the type of research that Sabar did, but it is striking that the papyrus itself received such intense scrutiny while the story of its history was allowed to stand without investigation. Indeed, I wonder whether Sabar’s research was actually any more costly than the many tests performed on the papyrus. In either case, it was ultimately more conclusive. And, of course, if false provenance could be offered for a fake artefact, the exact same could have been offered for a looted one. All the scientific tests and grammatical infelicities in the world will fail to identify an artefact’s modern history. And yet there was never any concern by those who believed in its authenticity, to my knowledge, that she may have published a looted artefact, though this was of course not an issue for those who thought it was fake.
The publication of a fake, if done knowingly, is almost inevitably malicious; even if unwitting, it is still an act of profound scholarly irresponsibility. When undetected, fake artefacts can enter the canon and distort the corpus. Interpretations that seek to account for them can only be misguided, and even if the authenticity is doubted, fakes will necessarily alter scholarly narratives, which (at best) sucks oxygen away from more interesting debates, or (at worst) encourages the wrong questions and guides us to the wrong answers. Without discounting these difficulties, however, it is fair to say that their significance is generally limited to the pages of academic periodicals and monographs.
The problems with publishing looted antiquities are somewhat less obvious, but much broader. The scholar who does so can, after all, make the claim that they are performing a service to scholarship—if they didn’t publish it, the argument goes, it would disappear into a private collection, and the world would be (e.g.) one poem of Sappho the poorer. And it is not hard to sympathize with this perspective. The looting of archaeological sites destroys knowledge and robs countries of their cultural patrimony in order to provide wealthy collectors with conversation pieces. The goal of countermanding this, and saving some knowledge from obscurity, is an easy one to understand. But there are broader implications that cannot be ignored. The scholarship on looting and the black market in antiquities is now extensive, but the simple fact is that, beyond the inevitable damage to archaeological sites, it is a brutal form of transnational crime that leads to death, murder, and the exploitation of war-torn countries. Scholarly interaction with objects still on the market, in the form of authentication or publication, is often used by the seller to increase the value of the artefact, thereby perpetuating the processes of looting and trafficking. The publication of a looted piece has implications far beyond the preservation of knowledge.
All of the difficulties of this situation are amply demonstrated by P.Sapph.Obbink, the papyrus containing parts of two new poems of Sappho published by Dirk Obbink in 2014. This surfaced alongside various other fragments of Sappho in the same hand and from the same papyrus (and so necessarily the same source) acquired by the Green Collection. The variants and permutations of the provenance given for these fragments given at different stages defy the possibility that the full story is known. I can hardly improve on the account given by Bettany Hughes in a recent Guardian article, which ultimately shows that the cartonnage from which the poem was supposedly removed was still unsold after the Green Collection fragments had been waved around by its then-director, Scott Carroll.
So much for that, then—but the real provenance remains unclear. The most recent overview, and newest information, can be found in an(other) Atlantic article by Ariel Sabar, though earlier posts by Brent Nongbri [1, 2] and Roberta Mazza [1, 2] offered a more detailed look at various aspects. As reported by Sabar, the owner of both P.Sapph.Obbink and the fragments purchased by the Green Collection was the Turkish antiquities dealer Yakup Eskioglu. The article further demonstrates that no significant Green Collection papyri were actually extracted from mummy cartonnage, as was famously claimed, but rather purchased from Obbink or Eksioglu. The destruction of mummy masks was, it seems, both literal and figurative papyrus laundering. In light of this, it seems likeliest to me that the same happened with P.Sapph.Obbink, and the convoluted cartonnage narrative was simply a red herring to legitimise a recently looted papyrus. Paul Barford offers a good overview.
While such difficulties with provenance do present the possibility that these fragments are fake, this remains the less likely option. It is not my intention to make a full case for authenticity, but the lack of internal evidence to indicate a forgery in the Brothers Poem on P.Sapph.Obbink, and the new light cast on known poems by the Green Collection fragments, would necessitate a forger more clever than is easy to credit. Those further interested should read Obbink’s own account (open access), though the provenance section must necessarily be ignored. On the other hand, what we do know about its provenance points to the eminent possibility that it was looted. A connection with Yakub Eksioglu is nearly guaranteed, given that he was the one who sold the related fragments to the Green Collection, and it’s fairly clear that had access to material looted from Egypt. That P.Sapph.Obbink is an illicit, looted document is the most economical explanation.
Because papyri (as with all perishable materials) are preserved only under certain exceptional circumstances, P.Sapph.Obbink and the Green Collection fragments can only have come from Egypt. Looting there follows the same patterns as it does elsewhere, and was particularly bad in the disruption following the Arab Spring revolt of 2011—the Green Collection Sappho fragments were first shown publicly in 2012. Children employed by looters to dig through sites put their lives at risk, and occasionally lose them, and two guards hired to protect a site were shot and killed by looters in 2016 (see further this excellent article by Roberta Mazza). It is not even the looters, often driven to the activity by desperation, who benefit; they are paid pennies compared with the ‘Janus Figures’ (who like Janus look both ways: at the ‘dirty’ world of looters and the high-society of collectors) capable of getting objects out of the country and to the major auction houses in London and New York. The publication of a looted antiquity, therefore, cannot be framed as the simple preservation of knowledge. The sensationalised reporting of new artefacts, such as P.Sapph.Obbink, or knowledge that the Green Collection was willing to pay vast amounts for papyri, fuels and perpetuates processes of violence and exploitation.
Archaeologists are now well used to the idea that looted artefacts should not be published; the discipline has decided that whatever knowledge may be lost in this way is less important than avoiding contact with organised crime. But in this the archaeologist who turns down an artefact for publication has an advantage over the papyrologist asked to do the same. Archaeological finds offer, on their own, very limited information, and we understand much about them from the context in which they were excavated. One of the most spectacular recent finds in Classical Archaeology is the Combat Agate from Pylos. Whatever its merits as a work of art, however, analysis would be far more limited if it had appeared without context. We may place it on Crete, based on the quality, or else at Mycenae; Pylos would not be the first guess. Understood as part of its proper context—the burial goods of the so-called Griffin Warrior—it is helping us re-assess our understanding of the early Mycenaean period in Greece. In a different universe, where the tomb was looted and a scholar was offered the Combat Agate alone to publish, they would be rejecting only a(n exceptionally) pretty rock, not this entire scholarly opportunity.
The situation with papyri is obviously different. Even those that have a recorded archaeological provenience are typically assessed based on what they say, not where they came from (the first papyrological publication organised on the premise of archaeological context was published in 2018). And so it is fair, I think, to say that the papyrologist who turns down a looted find is making a greater sacrifice than the archaeologist who does the same. This is the insidious effect of looting—the scholar who seeks to ‘salvage’ a given situation by publishing an undocumented piece is instead perpetuating the underlying issue. The simple fact is that knowledge is lost at the point of looting; the only hope after this is that the artefact can be removed from the market, repatriated, and studied in its source country in a context no longer profitable to looters or the dealers who exploit them. If, as all too often, looting cannot be proven and reported, then a refusal to interact is the clear and necessary option, if not necessarily an easy one.
But if the artefact is published, what then? Archaeologists, in general, are happy to ignore looted artefacts, not least because they tend to lack the sort of contextual information that enable analysis. But it is perhaps glib to suggest the same standard for papyrologists and textual scholars. We could, I suppose, teach Sappho without the Brothers Poem, especially at the undergraduate level; but should we also ignore fr. 5 (relatively well-preserved, as things go) because one of the Green Collection papyri now records the first word? Or fr. 16, the famous ‘what one loves’ poem, which has gained words in the same way? It is not clear to me that this situation is tenable. Because these looted texts were published, all who study Sappho are now implicated in the ethical question, and must make their peace with this. When we covered Sappho in a survey class this fall, I spent much less time with the Brothers Poem than others—a strategy which worked for about a month before it appeared on the midterm. For better or for worse, the poem is here to stay.
Though generally treated separately, because looted and fake antiquities look so alike on the market, the problems are not always distinct. They are often trafficked together, with the fakes labelled as replicas, or fakes may be based on looted artefacts, or the looted artefacts can themselves be re-carved into fakes. There are now entire archaeological corpora that cannot be assessed properly because looted and fake sculptures, which cannot easily be distinguished, outnumber those recovered from sanctioned excavations. And then there are cases like the Getty Kouros, where the provenance is known to be false but the question remains open as to whether it is looted or fake, nullifying its intellectual value.
Looted or fake, all of these problems stem from the same issue. Provenance is no less important for understanding a piece than any of its physical properties, and it cannot be treated as secondary. The nature of the market is such that, while some antiquities that meet our ethical standards will lack provenance, these will be far outnumbered by fake and more recently looted pieces. Undocumented pieces cannot be given the benefit of the doubt; provenance can and must be investigated, and if evidence is wanting that must preclude publication. It is the only relevant question when dealing with an unknown artefact, and is far too important to accept at face value.
My thanks to Casey Dué Hackney for her comments and help in bringing this piece to the CHS, and to Richard Bott for proofreading and years of valuable discussion on issues of fakes and forgeries. All references to the excellence of his work are mine.
Theodore Nash earned his BA and MA at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and is currently a PhD pre-candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology at the University of Michigan.