The EES and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri “Card” System

One of the issues emerging from the letter and documents released by Mike Holmes regarding the sale of Oxyrhynchus manuscripts has to do with the “card catalog” system for organizing the unpublished Oxyrhynchus papyri, which was mentioned in the statement by the Egypt Exploration Society last year. As a refresher, here is what the statement said:

“EES records include a photograph and brief record card for each papyrus awaiting publication, which were prepared to assist the General Editors in selecting papyri for future volumes. The cards were created without detailed study of the texts and without access to today’s online search tools. The record card for 5345, created by Dr Coles in the early 1980s, is marked ‘I/II’, suggesting a late first- or early second-century date. He did not identify it as Mark.”

What is odd about this is that if, as alleged, Professor Obbink sold the Mark papyrus and others and promised to deliver them to the representatives of Hobby Lobby, the papyri would be traceable back to the Oxyrhynchus collection by way of the photographs on these cards. So, why would someone think they could get away with this? It would be helpful to know more about this “card” inventory system: What is on these cards besides photographs and dates? Where are they kept, and who has access to them? It would be great if someone with knowledge of the matter at the Egypt Exploration Society would shed some light on that. Another issue that lingers for me is: When was this card inventory completed?

Oxyrhynchus Papyri in a tin box; image source: Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project

The sorting of the Oxyrhynchus papyri is a question that has puzzled me for some time. I’ve written a number of posts (and a portion of a chapter in my book) trying to clarify what is publicly known about the sorting process. To briefly recap the content of those posts: Most of the papyri that were gathered by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt from the garbage mounds of the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus from 1896 to 1907 were stored in tin boxes made at the site and shipped in large wooden crates back to Oxford (some select pieces they excavated were turned over to authorities in Cairo, where they still remain).

In the early days, it seems that the papyri were kept in the homes and offices of Grenfell and Hunt. In his edition of the astronomical papyri from Oxyrhynchus, Alexander Jones given an account of the initial sorting of the papyri at Oxford:

“Because of the great pace of discovery of papyri, there can have been little time for examination or sorting before they were placed in tin boxes for shipment. Later, but still in Grenfell and Hunt’s time in the early decades of this century, fragments that appeared to be substantial and well enough preserved to merit further work were extracted from the original boxes, flattened, and filed in packets in a new series of boxes, each packet apparently corresponding to one of the former boxes, and each new box therefore containing the ‘best’ pieces from several. This partition of the fragments into two series of boxes, a main series containing larger pieces (but also numerous small bits, perhaps found intermingled with the others) and a series of ‘scrap’ boxes, survives still, and matters to us here (1) because most records of the correspondences between the new and old boxes are lost, and (2) because the main series is the more thoroughly inventoried and therefore the source of most of the papyri published here. It is therefore possible that small fragments of astronomical texts and tables, including bits that join papyri edited in these volumes, remain undetected and (for the time being) practically untraceable in the scrap boxes” (Jones, Astronomical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus, 1999, p. 56).

So that division of the material (“best pieces” and “other”) seems to have been established during the lifetime of Grenfell and Hunt. After Hunt died in 1934,

“Edgar Lobel, also in The Queen’s College, first took over the care of the collection, storing the hundred choicest boxes in his far-from-fireproof college room over the war years, and adding to them twenty even choicer boxes that he retrieved from Hunt’s private house in north Oxford” (Revel Coles, Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts [Egypt Exploration Society, 2007], p. 7).

This situation seems to have changed in the 1960s, when a more systematic sorting of the papyri is said to have begun. The preface to volume 33 of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri gives an overview:

“In 1966 the British Academy accepted as one of its major research projects the task of cataloguing and preparing for publication the unedited Greek and Latin papyri in the Oxyrhynchus collection. Its generous support, and the prospect of continuation of that support over a period of years, has made it possible to set additional technicians and staff to work on the physical preparation of the material, on the compilation of an inventory of the damped-out papyri, and the formation of a corpus of photographs of them. This work is being done under the supervision of a committee of the British Academy, which has made it its business to combine effectively the resources of the Academy and the very considerable technical help and facilities offered in London by University College and in Oxford by the Ashmolean Museum (through the Grenfell and Hunt library) and the Faculty Board of Literae Humaniores. The Egypt Exploration Society will continue to bear the cost of and take scholarly responsibility for publication. Its general editors hope to be able to recruit additional scholars for the exacting task of editing papyri, a burden which Mr. Lobel has borne too long alone.”

One of the people involved in that early effort (and still involved in the publication of the papyri) is Peter Parsons. In his excellent book, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish (2007), he discusses the early days of the project:

“When I returned to Oxford in 1960 I found myself teaching documentary papyrology and deciphering unpublished papyri from the Oxyrhynchos collection. This research was by then (as it remains) a team effort, under the direction of Eric Turner, Professor of Papyrology at University College London, whose organising genius gave the enterprise a more formal shape, along with institutional premises (in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and the funds (from the British Academy) to appoint a curator of the rehoused collection and to carry through the first systematic cataloguing. In Oxford I had the privilege of working along-side two colleagues of extraordinary accomplishment, John Rea and Revel Coles. The Egypt Exploration Society, which had funded the original excavation, continued (and continues) to publish our results in yearly volumes of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri.”

It would seem that this is the process that generated the “card” system described in the Egypt Exploration Society’s statement regarding the Mark papyrus. Now, a couple things stand out. First, as I noted last year, it is surprising bordering on shocking that this item, which is pretty obviously a leaf from a codex and not a roll, should be dated to the late first century. Regardless of its contents, such a date would have made this papyrus potentially the earliest surviving example of the codex format. And nobody took notice. Astounding.

Next, this process seems to have gotten underway in the 1960s, and, according to the EES statement, it was ongoing in the 1980s. I do wonder when it was completed. By the late 1990s, Martin West was able to consult an apparently full inventory of unpublished papyri of the Iliad from Oxyrhynchus (see West, Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad, 2001). Also in the 1990s, Alexander Jones was able to state that he had “examined all papyri that were inventoried as astronomical texts, tables, and horoscopes, as well as many items classified tentatively as mathematics, calculations, or astrology” (see Jones, Astronomical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus, 1999, p. 57). So it seems like there was a decent working inventory of things in the 1990s.

There are a couple weird things about this. The first I’ve already mentioned here: If there were a relatively complete photographic archive of the papyri that included records of the papyri that Professor Obbink allegedly sold, how on earth would he have thought the papyri couldn’t be traced back to the Oxyrhynchus collection? And second, something I’ve also been puzzled about before: What was going on with the “Ancient Lives” project launched in 2011, supposedly to “crowd source” the identification of Oxyrhynchus papyri? Why would such a project be needed? The publicity for it was was over the top. In this video (at about the 5 minute mark), Dirk Obbink claims that “Almost every year we do find a new gospel that was previously unattested but offers a completely new account.” An interesting claim in light of the Egypt Exploration Society’s recent announcement that the unpublished Christian material from Oxyrhynchus consists of “some twenty New Testament” pieces “some ten patristic texts” and “over eighty Septuagint and related texts.” The numbers literally don’t add up.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Dirk Obbink, Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The EES and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri “Card” System

    • spiker says:

      Interesting, Patty. It must be the scandal sitting in the back of my mind that makes the last sentence concerning Obbink’s role look at bit odd: We note that Professor Obbink has not been a General Editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri since August 2016.
      Does this mean he is no longer a general editor, but is/was still involved at some level?
      You’d think they would say something a bit more definitive Like Obbink is no longer involved with EES

    • John Thomas says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Patty. Good to hear it from the perspective of EES.

  1. Timothy Bagley says:

    Brent, have you had any discussions with AnneMarie Luijendijk about these issues surrounding the Oxyrhynchus Papyri and Obbink? I am curious, given her labor in these texts (I liked her 2008 study on Early Christians and the OP), what her take is on these matters.

  2. Sili says:

    I thought “Ancient Lives” was dealing with the ‘non-choice’ fragments, trying to match them up in part by having users measure letter size and distance between lines.

    • That is possible, although that is not how the project characterized in 2011, and in the time I spent exploring the site in 2011, I found mostly images of pieces that were already published and photographs of blank pieces of papyrus or even just images of cardboard.

      • Sili says:

        Thanks. That’s disappointing.
        It does make sense for *some* known pieces to be in there, though. It can serve as a check on the reliability of amateur transcribers.

  3. Pingback: The Egypt Exploration Society Statement on Alleged Sales of Papyri to Hobby Lobby | Variant Readings

  4. Aractus says:

    How is it “pretty obviously a leaf from a codex and not a roll”? Could it not be (without knowledge of contents) a scroll written on both sides?

    • Well, if you’ve got the same literary handwriting on both sides and evidence of an even bottom margin, the default assumption would be codex leaf. It could be a roll written on both sides (a relatively rarer phenomenon), but in my experience, rolls inscribed on both sides are generally written in different hands on each side, and more often than not, the writing on written lines on the two sides of such rolls are upside down relative to one another.

  5. Is Revel A. Coles (1938- ) available to consult?

  6. “Regardless of its contents, such a date would have made this papyrus potentially the earliest surviving example of the codex format. And nobody took notice. Astounding.”
    Just to restate explicitly something, Brent, you already noticed. The Agreement Exhibit A, though including in item 2) parchment the further specification (or speculative commentary) “…’cow,’ ranch raised, in Egypt…,” the item 3) Mark 1 papyrus–for whatever reason–lacks any mention of it being from a codex.

  7. Pingback: One of the “Other” Oxyrhynchus Gospels for Sale and a Pattern in the Green Collection | Variant Readings

  8. Pingback: Public-Facing Papyrology: from the News to the Classroom – Everyday Orientalism

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