Papyrus, clay, and the market

Two articles about the publication of ancient texts of unknown provenance have got me thinking about the ethical issues of publication. The first is Doug Boin’s op-ed in the New York Times about the forthcoming publication of two new fragments of Sappho, the second is Jerry Cooper’s argument on the ASOR blog for publishing cuneiform tablets that do not have a provenance.

Let’s begin with the Sappho. The announcement that two new poems of Sappho had been found and that publication was imminent created a sensation both in Classics circles and in the popular press, but some people (including myself) were worried that in the preliminary draft of the publication (posted online but now taken down), we were just told that the papyrus was “now in a private collection” of an anonymous person in London. As Boin points out in his op-ed:

Looting has become particularly catastrophic in Egypt in recent years. Sites have been pillaged, including those in military zones, and museums have not been spared. In 2011, the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square suffered at the hands of rioters. Half of the nearly 50 objects stolen have been recovered, but the situation was deemed so grave that in February 2012 the International Council of Museums launched an Emergency Red List of Egyptian objects at risk of theft. Items to look out for? Mummies, mummy casings, and papyrus fragments.

Given that fact, it might seem a bit odd that more information about the provenance of the papyrus wasn’t provided. But actually, it’s not too surprising when you realize that most people just don’t care. Even if the papyrus were illegal, does anyone really believe that scholars would uniformly, or even as a majority, refuse to publish two new fragments of Sappho?

This is not to accuse papyrologists of being unethical. They’re not. But there is, it seems to me, a sense that different rules apply to texts. As Doug Boin tweeted,

Clearly the answer is “no.” But texts are different. Why?

Here we can turn to Jerry Cooper’s thoughtful piece on the ASOR blog. The argument is twofold: First, unlike archaeological artifacts, textual documents contain within them contextual information. Second, unlike many archaeological artifacts, it is unknown whether publications of cuneiform texts “help create a market for cuneiform tablets and thus encourage looting and site destruction.” Cooper honestly isn’t sure what to think about this:

 I have seen no well-founded answer to this question [whether publication encourages looting], and I can’t pretend to know what motivates the small number of serious collectors of these rectangular bits of inscribed mud. I personally find working with dealers to identify and market looted tablets reprehensible. In any case, nearly all the unprovenanced tablets being published today are off the market, in large public collections, where they are well cared for. It makes no sense to ignore them, or to stigmatise scholars who have saved them from oblivion.

Cooper then goes on to say:

It is quite possible that the number of tablets illicitly excavated since the first Gulf War in 1991 is as large as the number of all the tablets that came to light in the century and a half before 1991- perhaps 200,000. Can a scholar willfully ignore half of the evidence bearing on his subject? I can’t.

Here, it seems to me, is the crux of the issue. Cooper doesn’t know whether publishing encourages looting, but it seems that he really doesn’t want to know, because first of all, it’s awful — “no cuneiformist could be unmoved by the moonscape images of looted sites” — but even if there were a direct and demonstrable link between publication, the market, and looting, he couldn’t bear to ignore half of the evidence that bears on his subject anyway. That hardly seems like a defensible position to me. It’s a rationalization of an established practice, which is to publish texts that don’t have good archaeological provenience.

(Parenthetically, it seems insane to me to write an argument in defense of publishing texts of unknown origin while claiming ignorance about whether there’s a relationship between publication and looting — not because I think that such a relationship is self-evident — but because it’s illogical. Doesn’t one need to have an answer to such a question?)

It seems to me likely that something similar is going on with the Sappho fragment. It’s too spectacular, too important, to ignore. And the omission of the provenance of the fragment wasn’t, it seems to me, intentional, but reflects the priorities of scholarly practice… unfortunately, in my view,


One thought on “Papyrus, clay, and the market

  1. Pingback: Friday Varia and Quick Hits | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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