Those of you who follow news in classical studies are already well aware of this story: two previously unknown fragments of poems by Sappho have been recently discovered and are being published in a German journal for papyrology by Oxford University scholar Dr. Dirk Obbink.
A draft of Obbink’s article for the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik was available at the end of last week in PDF form, but the link is now dead.
Those of us who saw the draft noted that no provenance was given for the newly-discovered fragments, just that they come from a private collector in London.
The lack of provenance is troubling for issues of authentication, but also in terms of the papyrus fragments’ status as ancient artifacts, objects of material culture.
It is important that Dr. Obbink, the editors at the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, and even the private collector consider publicizing the source of the fragments to clear up any questions regarding the illict trade in antiquities and archaeological looting.
Dr. Obbink’s final publication should include the archaeological provenance for the fragments, if this can be determined. Any questions regarding ownership and export permits should be clarified as well.
Many Greek papyri come from Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt. Given the continued political turmoil there, looting has spiked in the past three years. The publication of these newly-discovered fragments has a troubling, yet circumstantial, timing.
Contextual information regarding the origins of these fragments could only shed more light on the poems themselves and the culture in which they were enjoyed in the centuries after Sappho’s composition of them.
I am not the only one raising these questions about the provenance of the fragments. Conversations on Facebook and Twitter are continuing.
If you share these concerns about the provenance of the Sappho fragments, add them to this Wordpress site set up by the journal for discussion of the new poems.
See also these following blog posts for more opinion on the problems of provenance:
Paul Barford, Portable Antiquity Collecting
Jona Lendering (in Dutch)
David Gill, Looting Matters
There is, in fact, a code of ethics for the study of ancient papyri, taking into special account cultural heritage issues in Egypt: Association Internationale de Papyrologues Working Party on the Commerce in Papyri (PDF)