CfP: Panel on Forgeries at SBL Annual Meeting

Papers are invited for a panel on forgeries to be held at this year’s Society of Biblical Literature Meeting in Boston in November as part  of the ‘Papyrology and Early Christian Backgrounds’ program unit. The panel will feature papers by members of two international projects on forged ancient manuscripts, ‘The Lying Pen of Scribes’, and ‘Forging Antiquity’, and further papers are invited on topics related to the theme: these could be examinations of forged ancient manuscripts or narratives of forgery, discussions of the relationship between provenance and authenticity, or other related topics. The call for papers closes on 8th March 2017. To propose a paper in the panel, head to the SBL site; questions about the panel may be directed to Malcolm Choat.

2016: The year in Authenticity and Provenance

2016 was a big year for issues of the authenticity and provenance of antiquities. Below are some of the highlights as they seemed to us. There were many others of course, such as many reports of art forgeries and deauthentication; or Matt Sheedy’s leveraging of his reading of Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity into reflections on ‘Trump and the Tyranny of Authenticity’. There were also many other excellent commentaries on the events we discussed below in addition to what we link.

Locally, our Markers of Authenticity seminar series had an excellent year – you can read a summary here. Watch out for the new book by one of our 2016 presenters Margie Borschke, This is not a Remix: Piracy, Authenticity and Popular Music, in 2017. Elsewhere, the ‘Lying Pen of Scribes’ project based at the University of Agder in Norway held two outstanding conferences, on ‘Manuscript Forgeries and Counterfeiting Scripture in the Twenty-First Century’ in April and ‘Fragments of an Unbelievable Past? Constructions of Provenance, Narratives of Forgery’ in September (read Roberta Mazza’s report on the latter here). As well as the Macquarie-Heidelberg project ‘Forging Antiquity’ (funded by the Australian Research Council 2017–2019) and the Norwegian ‘Lying Pen of Scribes’ project, other concentrations of research of the forgery of antiquities became apparent, such as the Rice University Seminar program for 2017–2018 on Forgery and the Ancient: Art, Agency, Authorship. Alongside Christopher Rollston’s forthcoming book Forging History in the Ancient World of the Bible & the Modern World of Biblical Studies, the study of forgeries is progressing very well in many places.

Isis, the antiquities trade, and digital replicas

The trade in looted antiquities, the destruction of cultural heritage, and the replication of destroyed heritage, was kept in the news by ISIS’s occupation of Palmyra until March, when they were driven out by the Syrian and Russian armies (as they were by the Iraqi army from Nimrud, which also suffered heavy damage); yet by December, ISIS had regained control of the city. Much of the media coverage reproduced the hyperbolic assessments of the financial scale of ISIS’s trade in antiquities, (see the discussions by Chris Jones and Fiona Rose-Greenland), and occasioned debate over whether the West cared more about ancient ruins than living people (see e.g. Michael D. Press here and here). Alongside the trade in looted antiquities (often attributed to ISIS regardless of whether that was chronologically plausible or not), a large upsurge in the production of forgeries coming from Syria was also reported.

In response to the destruction of iconic Palymyrene artefacts such as the monumental arch, a replica, created by the Institute for Digital Archaeology, was displayed in London and New York. While many praised the potential of such replicas to restore destroyed cultural heritage (for another initiative see here), others questioned the ethics of the industry of recreating lost heritage (see the article by Sarah Bond here). Earlier in the year, digital replicas had been in the news when two artist released a 3D scan of the head of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum Berlin which the artists involved, Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, claimed had been ‘scanned … clandestinely … without permission of the Museum’. Yet it soon became clear that what had been distributed was the Museum’s own high resolution scan, raising issues about the ownership of such digital reproductions.

Here too, in the realm of looting and the antiquities trade, dedicated academic interest is heartening, such as the Past for Sale and MANTIS projects at Chicago.

Unprovenanced and forged papyri

Roberta Mazza continued her focus on papyrological provenance, including a presentation at the International Congress of Papyrology in Barcelona. There were also some excellent contributions on the post-2002 ‘Dead Seas Scrolls’ by Eibert Tigchelaar, Kipp Davis, and Årstein Justnes. By far the biggest splash in the year was Ariel Sabar masterful unmasking of the owner of the “Gospel of Jesus’ wife”. Sabar focused his investigations not on the authenticity of the papyrus itself, but on the provenance, demonstrating that – as a number of people had suspected – at least one of the documents attesting to the acquisition history of the papyrus appeared to be itself a forgery. Much more remains to be told of this story (see our thoughts on the implications here), and we were pleased to learn Sabar is working on a book about the whole affair.

In October, a sensational papyrus was publicised, which purported to be ‘the earliest extra-biblical source to mention Jerusalem in Hebrew writing’, dated by the editors, by palaeography and C14, to the 7th century BCE. No sooner had it been made public, then its authenticity was questioned. The papyrus provided scholars with many of the elements which not uncommonly (but not always) point to forgery: an obscure and contradictory provenance story (which was promptly problematised further), sensationalist claims in the media (including its immediate use in controversy over the UNESCO resolution on Occupied Palestine, illustrating the continued and troubling use of antiquity in modern debates), language which was at points unexpected, and oddities in the layout of the text on the papyrus. These suggested to a number of commentators, notably Christopher Rollston (here, with follow-up here), that it could be a forgery.

Late in the year we saw the return of the ‘Jordanian Lead codices’, who most academic commentators had assumed were forgeries when they were first publicised in 2011. They certainly seemed to have many of the same hallmarks of forgery pointed to on the ‘Jerusalem’ papyrus, though here, the relationship with previously known text and images seemed even more clear. Yet the reemergence of these texts in the media drew forth comment from those who had been studying the codices at the Centre for the Study of the Jordanian Lead Books, in particular a statement by Samuel Zinner which accused David Elkington (the source of the media coverage) of both sensationalism and plagiarism, and set forth a case for authenticity for at least some of the codices (the statement was posted on, but has now been removed; a cached version may be viewed here). Notwithstanding the new testing of the lead, it’s fair to say some remained to be convinced (including us), but we should await (hopefully not for too long) the outcome of the proper investigation of the material.


In policy terms, the big news was the signing by the US and Egypt of a Memorandum of Understanding on cultural property protection in late November, which placed limitations on the import of a large range of antiquities (listed here) dating from the Predynastic to the incorporation of Egypt into the Ottoman Empire (1517 CE). While it was (predictably) decried by antiquities trade advocates, the MOU constituted an important limit on the trade in illicit antiquities, and those who advocated for it deserve thanks. This overshadowed the passing of a new German law on the protection of cultural property, which had implications for the trade in antiquities.

Over the last three years, Malcolm has had the privilege of sitting on the Society of Biblical Literature’s Task Force on Unprovenanced Artifacts, which had considered how the SBL should respond to this issue: in September, the SBL announced that it was endorsing and adopting the American Schools of Oriental Research Policy on Professional Conduct, which includes sections on the stewardship of archaeological material and unprovenanced artifacts. The statement distributed by the SBL focused on moveable artifacts, and noted that section III, parts D and E were to be applied to SBL’s Programs and Publications in the future: yet sections III.B and C, on Stewardship and Discovery, also contain very important principles which it is hoped members of the SBL will follow in the future. The SBL policy will be reviewed in two years, and there are many aspects to ponder in that time, including the degree to which the Stewardship and Discovery sections of the ASOR policy will observed by members of the SBL, and whether or not anything like the ‘cuneiform exception’ in the ASOR policy would be considered for textual artefacts commonly discussed at the SBL, especially papyri: without wanting to telegraph our position or pre-empt the debate, we are not clear on what grounds such an exception could be credibly argued. As Michael D. Press noted in two excellent posts on the SBL policy (here and here), it is unlikely that the SBL community will move quickly (if indeed at all) to totally restrict the presentation of unprovenanced artifacts in SBL venues: but if the policy helps (as it seems to be doing already) to promote awareness of the problems associated with the use of such artefacts (especially those which have appeared on the market recently) then that will have been a very useful outcome.

The adoption of this policy by the SBL means that most professional associations and societies for the study of ancient world have some form of statement which regulates their members’ interaction with antiquities. An exception has been the International Association for Coptic Studies, but at the July meeting of IACS, Malcolm and Paola Buzi were charged with developing such a policy for future considering by the membership.

It’s been a big year of developments in discussions around authenticity, forgery, provenance, and the antiquities trade, and we look forward to seeing what emerges in the New Year. See you all in 2017!

Malcolm, Rachel, and Lauren.

The Year That Was

Our inaugural year of Marker’s of Authenticity is coming to an end and so it seems timely to reflect on the discussions stimulated and developed throughout our new seminar series.

The first two seminars were presented by our two co-founders, Rachel Yuen-Collingridge and Malcolm Choat. Rachel’s paper started the series off with a confronting yet productive discussion of how different disciplinary stances identify and police authenticity. In doing so, Rachel raised questions of the re-enactment, restoration and the recollection of the past within an interdisciplinary framework. These questions stayed with us for the entirety of the series and were re-addressed in Rachel’s timely discussion of cultural appropriation in our final seminar of the year.
 In our second seminar, Malcolm introduced our audience to Constantine Simonides, the 19th century master forger and his creation of a series of fake papyri which validated his own theories about the translation of hieroglyphs. Setting his research within a discussion of the legal definition of forgery, Malcolm provoked questions about our relationship with authenticity and the tools used to generate distinctions between “fakes” and “copies.”
Associate Professor Malcolm Choat (Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University)
These legal themes followed through in the next seminar, presented by Lucas Lixinski, from the Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales. Lucas’ provided a fascinating challenge to existing legal definitions of tangible and intangible cultural heritage by identifying how the vocabulary of “authenticity” has negatively impacted on the experiences of local communities and other traditional owners of heritage. Ultimately, he concluded that the only real solution to these ethical issues would involve abandoning this existing vocabulary and moving forward with more collaborative strategies involving the perspectives of the typically neglected stakeholders.
Our next seminar saw the discussion move to a very different, albeit fascinating, context: authorship and the drafting process. Marcelle Freiman (Department of English, Macquarie University) located her analysis of drafting and revision within the problematizing of concepts of authenticity, authorship, and authority in 20th century literary studies, using her work on cognitive processes and the extended mind to reinstate the writer in the creative process, focusing on the drafting visible in manuscript copies of 19th century literature.
Dr Marcelle Freiman (Department of English, Macquarie University)

Our final seminar for semester one saw the return to ancient world studies and was presented by Javier Alverz-Mon (Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University). Javier highlighted the damage done to our understanding of history by the trade in looted antiquities, the problematic response to the issue in some academic quarters, and the duty of academics studying the ancient world to speak ethically on its behalf, and on behalf of the nations on and in which we conduct research.

Semester two started with a panel titled “The Authenticity of the Museum Experience”, featuring representatives from local museum institutions. The discussion started with Arul Baskaran, Digital Studio Manager at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, asking if we were trading off realism vs the authentic in the context of the production and display of digital reproductions of objects. As the objects themselves are a critical part of the stories museums tell, how much do we take away from the story by removing the object itself? Next, Craig Barker, from the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney, discussed the value of replicas within a museum context, if labeled as such. He noted changing perspectives in this regard by discussing the extensive (and now lost) plaster cast collection the Nicholson had up to the 1960’s, which are themselves artifacts of the view of antiquities in the Victorian era. Finally, Andrew Simpson, who teaches Museum Studies at Macquarie University, dealt with the privileging of the original within museum culture, and the multiple layers of authenticity, some dependent on context, which objects possess.

In the following seminar, Louise D’Arcens (Department of English, Macquarie University) spoke about the ‘marketplace of Authenticity’ produced by the commercialisation and commodification of cultural heritage and heritage tourism, examining this through the lens of Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. After the paper, we discussed whether the idea of an authentic past can co-exist with the demands of heritage tourism for an authentic experience of the past.

Professor Louise D’Arcens (Department of English, Macquarie University)
Then, in a special seminar co-sponsored with the research seminar series of the Department of International Studies, Meg Mumford (School of the Arts and Media, UNSW), and Ulrike Garde (Dept. of International Studies, Macquarie University) presented the examination of the Berlin theatre movement discussed in their book Theatre of Real People: Diverse Encounters at Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer and BeyondTheir discussion introduced us to Knaller & Muller’s argument that authenticity is ‘constituted by performative act and observation.’ Through this framework, authenticity is not given, fixed nor static but rather the product of agreement that needs to be renewed with each authenticating act.

In the same week we hosted Margie Borschke from the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies (Macquarie University). Margie discussedthe aesthetics of circulation, asserting that an understanding of what it means to be a ‘copy’ was crucial to a proper understanding of the internet. She problematized various descriptions of ‘copy’ in the digital age, locating her discussion within both theoretical work on authenticity by Walter Benjamin and Charles Taylor, and consideration of notions of the authentic and genuine in popular music and music communities, drawing on material from her forthcoming book This is not a Remix: Piracy, Authenticity and Popular Music (Bloomsbury, 2017). Please check out her Storify presentation here.

The 2016 series ended with a roundtable forum on ‘Markers of Authenticity across the disciplines’, in which the 2016 speakers, as well as Dr Natalie Seiz (Curator, Asian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales) addressed two questions provided by the convenors: “What use do you make of the concept of authenticity in your research and/or practice?”, and “How can this concept be ethically applied to the rules and practice of your discipline?”

(L-R) Louise D’Arcens, Ulrike Grande, Meg Mumford, Marcelle Freiman, Natalie Seiz, Malcolm Choat, Javier Alverz-Mon, Andrew Simpson, Margie Borsche, Lauren Dundler and Rachel-Yuen Collingridge
Over the ten seminar sessions we hosted, we found ourselves constantly redefining our understanding of authenticity in the context of an array of interdisciplinary frameworks. For some presenters, authenticity was a legal tool used to shape discussions around ownership. Others drew attention to the malleable nature of authenticity, which is reliant on the negotiation of social contracts for its identity. What we were left with was an understanding of our narrow our previous focus had been and a glimpse into an exciting future of interdisciplinary collaboration around these ideas of authenticity, authorship, forgery and identity.
We’d like to end this reflection with a note of appreciation to our presenters and faithful audience and also with a call for papers. We intend on continuing these discussions in 2017 and if you would like to be a part, reach out to the team with your proposal.
All the best for the festive season,
from Malcolm, Rachel and Lauren

Semester 2 Seminars

Our interdisciplinary seminar series continues in semester 2 and we have a dynamic program on offer designed to extend the discussions we have shared so far in Markers of Authenticity.

Have a look at the upcoming series and come join us for an afternoon of interdisciplinary conversation and refreshments. Also, if you are interested in attending the workshop on ‘Scripture, Reception, and Authenticity,’ held on the 9th of September, please get in contact with us.

All are welcome! We look forward to seeing you and hearing your thoughts once more!


Ethical Buying Checklist

The great team at the Antiquities Coalition have just released this helpful infographic, designed to guide casual buyers of cultural heritage (and perhaps the not-so-casual) into making ethical, responsible purchasing decisions.


Education is one of our greatest resources in the battle against antiquities looting and trafficking, so make sure to consult this checklist and the other informative tools provided by the AC!


– Lauren & Rachel

Lessons from the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Affair

This post is not about the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus Wife: it’s been fairly clear for some time, even leaving aside the multiple issues that have been raised about the GJW itself (especially, though not only, through Andrew Bernhard’s tireless efforts), that the accompanying Gospel of John fragment has multiple contraindications of authenticity; given that they appear to be in the same handwriting, it is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to construct a narrative in which the GJW is not also a modern forgery.

Rather, this post is about some the implications of the entire ‘Gospel of Jesus Wife affair’ which have become apparent since the public revelation that Walter Fritz was the owner of these papyri in the splendid piece by Ariel Sabar in the Atlantic.

Acquisition History, Provenance, and Ownership

This is something which Roberta Mazza has long been stressing, and which Carrie Schroeder highlighted immediately in the wake of the Atlantic article. This is a key lesson, but it’s important not to apply it only to papyri of disputed authenticity, but also to all papyri that do not have a clear archaeological provenance, especially those acquired after 1972 (the date of 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). There must be as full as possible transparency about how, and from where, papyri (and related textual artefacts) were acquired.

In her publication of the GJW in the Harvard Theological Review, Karen King provided far more information than most editors of papyri ever do: at most, editors have in the past usually only mentioned basic data, such as the date at which a papyrus entered the collection, and perhaps the dealer from whom it came. More frequently they have said nothing whatsoever about the artefact’s acquisition history. They have not usually included the text of relevant correspondence, or the descriptions of sale contracts; they certainly have not made such documents themselves available for public scrutiny. It is only in cases where the authenticity of a papyrus has been questioned, such as with the Artemidorus papyrus (which most scholars now think is genuine) that such details have been made available. In the case of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, there was consistent pressure for Karen King to release the scans of the accompanying documentation provided by Walter Fritz to authenticate the collection history of the Gospel of Jesus Wife: once they were available for checking, Ariel Sabar was able to show that, – as suspected by Christian Askeland and others – they actually raised further problems, as at least one of these documents appeared to be itself forged.

So, the lesson should be that all such material that establishes or speaks to provenance or acquisition history should be both detailed in editions, and made publicly available: maximum transparency is required. Yet not everyone is following this. The Museum of the Bible, for instance (which houses the ‘Green collection’ of textual artefacts), has consistently refused to release such documentation, claiming they are commercial-in-confidence, and that doing so would to damage their relationship with their sources. They are saying, in effect, “Trust us”: but many do not, and many will continue to not extend this trust while such information is not released. The Museum of the Bible is not alone in citing such considerations: The British Library once refused to show me an expenditures register that was over 100 years old, which showed not only the dates of acquisition (which are available in other registers on open shelves) but also the names and/or details of the sources of the papyri in it: this was withheld, I was told, because the Library does not say  how much it paid for items or to whom. Some collecting institutions now either make this information available, or provide it readily when asked: this should become standard practice.

Considerable criticism was leveled at Karen King for declining to identify the owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: yet when Geoffrey Smith presented an unpublished papyrus of the Gospel of John at the 2015 SBL Annual meeting, while rightly presenting images of the documentation which established the collection history of the papyrus, he also granted the owner anonymity, as did Dirk Obbink to the owner of the Sappho papyrus he published in 2014. Either granting an owner anonymity is OK, or it isn’t: it’s not only OK when it suits someone to argue it is, and not in other cases.

Ideally, there would be no anonymous collectors: if a collector wishes to have a papyrus published, then s/he should be prepared to be identified as its owner. Ideally too, there should be full transparency of acquisition history, with all the relevant documents available to anyone who wishes to check them. If anyone wants to collect papyri, they should be prepared to say how they acquired them, and allow people to check supporting documentation. Commercial considerations cannot be an excuse for obfuscating or refusing to release such material. And crucially, these considerations relate to all papyri, not just those of disputed authenticity, and all collections, not just private collections.

Disputed provenance does not = forgery

While problems with provenance documentation are a strong indicator that something is amiss, such does not automatically indicate that the item itself is a forgery. Papyrology contains many cases in which the acquisition history of a papyrus, or even of a bigger assemblage, is unclear, where multiple versions of the story exist, or where it is suspected that the story offered is not the full or even real story. The Chester Beatty, the Manichaean papyri said to be from Medinet Madi, the ‘Dishna papers’ mostly in the Bibliotheque Bodmer, and the Nag Hammadi library, all have provenance stories which are unclear, disputed, or in some cases probably or demonstrably invented. Provenance stories were routinely fabricated by dealers, looters, or middle-men to protect their source, and forgery of provenance is increasingly common – much more common, perhaps, than forgery of antiquities itself. What it usually indicates is that the item is not in accordance in some way with the 1970 UNESCO Convention. This does not mean such information should not be investigated, or that it is not important: just that it does not automatically mean that the artefact the document describes is a forgery, still less that the authenticity of every item in the collection is thereby under suspicion: nearly every papyrus collection contains forgeries.

Further Research

While the unmasking of the fragment’s owner has been widely heralded as the ‘end of the story’, it is also just the start of several much more interesting stories. Roberta Mazza’s work on provenance and the trade in papyri has been touched on above; Carrie Schroeder has discussed what the affair means for biblical studies and related fields in a forthcoming treatment (which she has kindly allowed me to read[update: now available here]) in a volume from the 2015 York Christian Apocrypha Symposium also featuring reflections by Mark Goodacre, James McGrath, and Janet Spittler, which promises to be an important contribution to the debate. Liv Ingeborg Lied has already offered valuable reflections on how online discussion affects the way these debates play out, both online, and at a recent conference at the University of Agder in Kristiansand which I had the pleasure of attending. There are many other examples of such self-reflexive research in press and online, and most of it is very valuable.

Along with these necessary discussions about the implications of this affair for the future of scholarship, one of the chief lessons of the entire affair was the necessity for further research on papyrus forgeries. None of the initial discussions of the papyrus (and here I explicitly include my own) compared it in detail to known forgeries. In part this was because the most commonly known class of papyrus forgeries discussed in the few previous treatments of the subject are nearly all nonsense scribbles, not even in real scripts or languages. Few of these treatments even mention the largest collection of forged papyri, those created by Constantine Simonides in the mid 19th century (though he has been referenced extensively in the debate over the Artemidorus papyrus, as its alleged fabricator). Research on forged papyri (including on the Simonides papyri) is now underway in several places, including work by teams from Macquarie University and the University of Agder (along with other Norwegian institutions), as well as Gregg Schwendner, Tommy Wasserman, and others. This research will not only help us understand papyrus forgeries better, but draw research onto forged papyri into alignment with research on forgery and fakes in many other disciplines.

No less than research on the palaeography, collection history, and the historiographical context of forged papyri, this case highlighted the necessity for further collaborative research with specialists in various analytical techniques, especially analysis of ink. One of the surprises for me was just how little we know about the composition of ancient ink: breezy statements such as ‘ink, the easiest thing to forge’, regularly made during discussion of these papyri, belie the fact there are significant gaps in our knowledge about how ancient inks were made. The holy grail is of course a way to date ink, but in advance of that, work from teams and scientists at Columbia University, Copenhagen, Berlin, and elsewhere, using various techniques (Ramen spectroscopy, XRF, SEM and others) promises to teach us much about a subject on which we know surprisingly less than we might have thought.


Finally, among the disquieting aspects of this affair was the tone evident in some of the discussion : language that was variously unfortunately chosen, polemical, hyperbolic, sexist, loaded, and sometimes wholly unnecessarily vicious was used on all sides of the debate. Not always, certainly, and assuredly not by everyone: but with noticeable frequency. The motives, backgrounds, affiliation (in academic, confessional, and socio-political terms) of some of the scholars involved in the debate was subject to imputation, implication, and worse. Carrie Schroder (in the in-press article I referred to above) and Eva Mroczek have highlighted some of these aspects of the debate, and the implications, but they bear further reflection. In part, this tone was a result of the debate playing out across the media and the internet, when anonymous commenting and the ability to say whatever comes into one’s head allow a far less regulated discussion (and here again the contributions of Liv Lied I mentioned above are important). Much of this democratisation of discussion is for the better; but this does not mean that the manner in which this debate was often conducted should model future such discussions.


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