Provenance and the papyri

At the 2015 Society of Biblical Literature Annual meeting in Atlanta, I took part in a panel entitled “Provenance in an eBay World: Does the Provenance of Ancient Artifacts Matter?”, organised by the SBL Student Advisory Board. The other panelists were Christine Thomas, Bob Kraft, and Sofia Torallos Tovar. The audience contained many people with different sorts of stakes in this debate, and there was an extremely interesting discussion after the four panelists had spoken. As I’m not going to publish my remarks on that day formally, I thought I’d put them here. I’ve edited the remarks below for style and clarity, in particular clarifying some aspects in response to questions and comments which made me realise I hadn’t been as clear as I might have been about what I believe, expanding a few points which I mentioned very briefly, and including some elements which I did not get the opportunity to address at all. But this is basically what I said:

As most people will know, I’ve worked on papyri with virtually every type of provenance: papyri excavated in archaeological context; in collections formed before and after 1972; and on papyri with disputed collection histories. So I think I have a broad range of perspectives to bring to bear on this discussion.

I am very pleased to see this forum at this meeting; I am pleased it is the student advisory board which is sponsoring it, which shows that the academy of the future is taking this issues seriously. I’ve noticed the same thing in the graduate Historiography seminar that I teach with Rachel Yuen-Collingridge at Macquarie, in which we teach a three week block on ethics, authenticity, archaeology, and the antiquities trade: students five years ago thought these issues were irrelevant; now they are taking them very seriously. You can also see the new prominence of the issue in abstracts and calls for papers for the annual meeting. In her remarks in this session, Christine Thomas stated that authenticity is the key issue, and I fully agree: the interrelated issues raised by questions of ethics and authenticity in the way we interact with antiquity, and the ancient material record are the key issues we have to deal with as scholars in the discipline.

The organisers of the Panel asked us: “Does provenance matter”? If this is reduced to a binary set of answers, then that answer must be yes. It always helps to know the precise context from which something comes; if things are to be taken from their original context it is always preferable by far that they be found in a controlled excavation rather than by looting or in an amateur treasure hunt. To turn that around, it is highly unsatisfactory to remove an item from its archaeological context in anything other than a proper excavation.

So, yes, provenance matters. However, there are some qualifications which should be made:

Firstly: what does “provenance” mean? In papyrology, the term commonly does not refer to where we know something was found, but where we think it must or might have been found, or where it might have been written. Content, prosopography, dialect, and collection history all provide clues which in many cases allow the assignment of secure, or relatively secure, provenance in papyrological terms. Many different sorts of examples could be provided of this: sometimes a term, name, or internal reference can show that a text must have been written in a certain location. Of course, they may not have been found there. At times, we can reasonably deduce where papyri were found, but some uncertainly remains: the fourth-century Melitian monastic archives of Paieous and Apa Nepheros were probably found in or near the monastery of Hathor, which the texts tell us was in the south of the Heracleopolite nome, near the village of Hipponon (modern Qarara); but the exact location of the monastery is unknown. Other archives were clearly found in certain locations, but they were not removed in controlled excavations: rather, they were found by locals, and sold on the antiquities market, such as the archives of Zenon (Philadelpheia / Gharabet el-Gerza), Heroninos (Theadelpheia / Batn el-Harit), Dioskoros (Aphrodito / Kom Ishgau). Some texts were found in what might be loosely called an “excavation”, but no records were kept of exactly where they were found: an example of this is the Coptic ostraca from the monastery of Phoibamon at Thebes (the so-called Deir el-Bahri, “northern monastery”, on the upper terraces of the mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in the Theban necropolis) whose provenance was so poorly recorded (or, indeed, not recorded) by Edouard Naville that Crum, who first published many of them, had to deduce the fact that they came from there. In other cases, basic records were kept of the excavation of papyri, but no proper stratigraphy is known, such as with the Oxyrhynchus papyri, and relating papyri to each other in terms of exactly where they were found is very difficult.

So we can talk of these texts having a provenance in papyrological terms. But not in other terms, of course. What level of controlled excavation is necessary to talk about an artefact having “provenance”? I ask this genuinely.

Another qualification: Unprovenanced artefacts (in the “core” sense, that their find spot is not certainly known) can sometimes provide valuable information about the ancient world. The discourse that they tell us nothing, which has escaped from academic thought bubbles into popular culture, is both false and unfortunate. We know more about many sites in Egypt and the ancient near east from unprovenanced texts than we can ever know from archaeology, and it is faintly ridiculous to suggest otherwise.

There are some unfortunate consequences of the canonisation of the 1972 date of the entry into force of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. One is that the phrase “publishing unprovenanced artefacts” is now commonly taken to mean “publishing unprovenanced artefacts (which were acquired after 1972)”: objects acquired before 1972 are assumed to have a “provenance” for legal purposes. It is not uncommon to see phrases like “a secure pre-1972 provenance”, which can simply mean that the object was looted before 1972. Here there is more than the faint smell of the forgiveness of the terrible destruction and disruption of cultural heritage and traditions that colonialism engendered in many parts of the world. We are never well-served by white-washing the past, and with the best intentions in the world, this is what the fixation on 1972 as a border forms. Whatever one thinks about this larger issue (and in my own country at least there is a considerable body of public opinion which refuses to see any negative impact of colonialism), many artefacts acquired before 1972 have no sort of provenance at all, and thus the discourse which suggests they do merely helps to degrade a proper understanding of what “provenance” actually means.

There are thus two essential questions: what to do now, and what to do about the thousands (and probably hundreds of thousands) of unprovenanced post-1972 artefacts in public and private collections world wide. To take the second issue first: I support the upholding of the UNESCO convention, and the drawing of a line in the sand after which we should not acquire unprovenanced artefacts, or legitimate them by working on them. I do remain concerned that this consigns everything purchased by collecting institutions after 1972 to a limbo in which nothing is allowed to be published or discussed. This leaves these orphaned objects to languish in limbo: artefactual ghosts whose name dare not be spoken, acquired after a date which is arbitrary in that it does not relate to any event except the convention itself. In many senses, this line seems too distant, and the objects behind its curtain too many, to be profitable. But what is the alternative?

Within papyrology, this issue first came strongly to the fore in a special panel at the 2007 International congress of Papyrology at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. Shortly thereafter the American Society of Papyrologists published a Resolution Concerning the Illicit Trade in Papyri, and the International association of Papyrologists formed a Working Party on the Commerce in Papyri which published recommendations. At Macquarie, we put an indefinite moratorium on the purchase of any papyri or related textual material. 2007 is probably too recent a line, is of course itself totally arbitrary, and can be easily suggested to be self-serving. But the point is that acquisitions of papyri over the past decade took place in a context in which these issues were well known in the field (unlike, say, in the 1970’s, when there was limited recognition of these issues with academia) and no one acquiring papyri at this time can claim otherwise. Nevertheless, there is no date beyond 1972 which makes any sense, and is any less arbitrary, than the date of the UN convention. We must have a date to enforce a system, and there is no other date which makes much if any sense.

In terms of the present and the future: What we certainly must do now as a guild is not trade in, publish, evaluate, or authenticate, antiquities which we suspect have come from source countries recently. So this directly effects scholarly participation in the antiquities trade, at any remove, be it working directly for a dealer to evaluate an artefact, or working on something a collector provides. In my view, the problem is not the trade of “post-1972 antiquities”: the problem is the antiquities trade. The dates of the various conventions have encouraged the proliferation of a flourishing industry forging pre-1972 provenance documents. Those who want the antiquities trade to continue must make positive arguments for its value to humanity, not just fall back either on its inevitability, or the attraction of owning antiquities; much less that it is a human right to possess them. Just because people like owning antiquities is no reason to continue the trade in them: people liked owning slaves, and ivory objects; at times in human history both seemed either inevitable consequences of the human condition or cherished rights, or indeed both. But both were swept away as humanity realised that neither were necessary, beneficial, or ethical. Please let no one make the simplistic reduction that I am comparing antiquities dealers or collectors to slave traders or ivory poachers: I am just pointing out that things can change, and inviting you to consider whether this one should too. It is all well and good to say that we need to train collectors to purchase only “provenanced” antiquities (which can mean as little as that they were looted before 1972) but so long as it is simple to forge a pre-1972 provenance, this does not seem a sustainable solution.

The ASOR  Policy on Professional conduct dispenses with a date with regard to one class of textual object, cuneiform tablets. The “cuneiform exception” is justified in the guidelines on three grounds.

  1. in zones of conflict since the early-1990s, most prominently in Iraq and Syria but also elsewhere, looting of cuneiform tablets has occurred on a truly massive scale;

  2. cuneiform texts may be authenticated more readily than other categories of epigraphic archaeological heritage;

  3. the content of a cuneiform text can provide information independent of archaeological provenience.

ASOR meetings and journals can consequently be the site of first publication of new cuneiform texts, subject to strict conditions, including that they be returned to their country of origin, if such is possible, after publication (the actual text is a good deal more complicated than that, as those who want to check the policy can see). If these guidelines were adopted by the SBL, could such a case be made for any other type of textual object. I guess the two main candidates would be papyri, parchment, and related material in Greek, Coptic, Hebrew and Aramaic from Egypt and the Dead Sea region, and inscriptions from the latter location. Inscriptions from Turkey and elsewhere might also be at issue. The third condition is fulfilled by virtually all textual artefacts, so is easily met. However, the fact that the authenticity of a considerable number of different types of text-bearing objects of different sorts in recent years strongly suggests that the authentication of these objects is not quite as straightforward as it is claimed to be in the case of cuneiform texts (I must admit I am not quite sure why this is a justification for the cuneiform exception, but to the extent that it prevents the publication of forgeries, it is a positive). And while there has been considerable unrest in Egypt, Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, it cannot be realistically claimed to be on the scale and level as witnessed in Syria and Iraq. So, the cuneiform exception cannot provide a model for the publication of papyri from Egypt or parchment from the Dead Sea region.

In conduction with the antiquities trade, another issue readily presents itself for discussion: is it only the illegal antiquities trade which is fuelling looting? Or do the legal antiquities trade, museum exhibitions, and archaeology itself also contribute? I am not, naturally, putting all these issues on same moral level: I am merely asking if the sale of, say, a fragment of the New Testament on papyrus for a huge price from a “legal” collection acts as any less an incentive to a potential looter (or forger) than the sale of an unprovenanced piece? It is certainly true that discouraging the sale of unprovenanced antiquities makes it less attractive to loot artefacts by making it harder to sell them: but as long as there continues to be a thriving market in pieces from “old Swiss collections” (or similar), forging “pre-1972 provenances” remains relatively simple, strategies such as inserting more recently found texts in older collections remains possible, and there are scholars ready (and indeed eager) to legitimate this materials by working on it, then the incentive will remain. And there seems every likelihood that the current bibliomania for ancient books – especially Jewish and Christian scripture, where prices have reached previously unimaginable figures in the tens of millions – is driving not only looting, but also forgery.

So let us have these discussions: are we saving antiquities from terrorists, or enabling them by sending them money? Are we making sure antiquities end up in places where they will be cared for and cherished, or further swelling museum storerooms filled with hundreds or thousands of objects no one will ever see? Are we searching for material to better understand the antecedents of modern society, or destroying unique objects on the off-chance (which lies somewhere between minuscule and delusional) that fragments of Christian scripture will be found therein?

Provenance also matters in a wider sense: issues of how and where artefacts were found do not apply only to looting. This is not just a discussion about traded antiquities: archaeology itself it is not a separate issue. The provenance of something matters if it was excavated in occupied territory; if accommodations with dictatorial regimes were made to allow its excavation; if the manner in which its excavators conduct themselves serves to carry forward and reinforce colonial mentalities and power structures. We also need to recognise that archaeological work sometimes serves to tell the looters where to look. Most of these things do not apply to most archaeological missions; but when they do, we need to consider them as part of the discussion. Too often, the discussion is configured as one between archaeologists, nobly saving the past for the future, and those who study textual or other artefacts (but especially the former), who are at times depicted as enabling the evil of the antiquities trade. To be sure, one encounters with depressing frequency comments which indicate that preserving the text for the future is all that matters, with all other consideration secondary. And most archaeologists do not take an irksome self-righteous tone or perpetuate colonialism with their attitude to current inhabitants of he lands in which they dig. But this dichotomy lies underneath the surface, and is, to say the least, unhelpful.

Papyrology, and manuscript collection in general, has been one of the problem areas in this issue, with regular purchases of papyri on the antiquities market, right down to recently, and transparently continuing. Papyrology has many issues to deal with in this regard, and I will promise to work, along with others, on dealing with them, if those in other fields promise to encourage a more self-reflexive attitude among all their members, and address some of the ethical issues which seem apparent to those of us outside. It is a discussion I look forward to participating in.

Malcolm Choat

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