Dirk Obbink, Scott Carroll, and Sappho

When I was pulling together material illustrating the long and close association of Dirk Obbink with the Green Collection / Museum of the Bible organizations, and especially the connection between Professor Obbink and Scott Carroll from 2010-2012, it occurred to me that we should probably revisit some aspects of the story of the infamous Sappho papyri in the possession of “an anonymous owner” and the Green Collection. There has been some excellent reporting on the Sappho papyrus fragments by Roberta Mazza, from the time of their public debut in 2014 with several follow-up posts. David Meadows of rougeclassicism provided a thorough round-up of recent developments in July of 2017.

But working through all the details can be highly confusing because, as Mazza and others have noted, key elements of the story change with each retelling. A particular locus for the changing of the story is an interview Professor Obbink gave to Live Science in January of 2015. I want to revisit some elements of that interview with the close relationship between Scott Carroll and Dirk Obbink in mind.

In order to get a clear view of the problems, it’s necessary to fill in some of the back story. There seems to be no ideal way to present this information, so I am simply going to adopt the chronological list format. As you read through the items, keep in mind the following questions:

  • Who is the “anonymous owner”?
  • Who dismantled the cartonnage from which the Sappho fragments allegedly came?
  • When and how did the Green Collection get their fragments of Sappho?

2012 February 7: Holding a glass frame containing the Green Collection Sappho fragments in his hand during a lecture in Atlanta, Scott Carroll stated, “There are 26 fragments of this text in Greek on papyrus. And, um, it came out of a mummy mask I dismantled a few weeks ago.”

This is actually the first public announcement of the existence of any of the Sappho fragments, as far as I know. Scott Carroll periodically mentions them in other talks in 2012 and 2013 and repeats the claim that he extracted them from mummy cartonnage. All of this took place before Dirk Obbink made any announcement of “the new Sappho.”

2014 February 2: An article in The Times by Bettany Hughes announced that an anonymous owner “had material from an ancient Egyptian burial in his possession. He’d noticed that scraps of the cartonnage (the Egyptian equivalent of papier-mâché, made of recycled papyrus) bore the ghostly imprint of writing.” The owner contacted Oxford professor Dirk Obbink, who “prised the layers of shredded papyrus apart” to reveal large fragments of papyrus containing lines of Sappho. According to this article, “The elderly owner of our new Sappho papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, and its provenance is obscure (it was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer), but he was determined its secrets should not die with him.”

2014 February 5: Dirk Obbink himself wrote a piece in The Times Literary Supplement making the following claims: “The authenticity of the ancient mummy cartonnage panel, from which the papyrus was extracted, having been recycled in antiquity to accompany a burial, has been established through its documented legal provenance. The owner of the papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, but has submitted the papyrus to autopsy and multi-spectral photography, as well as Carbon 14 testing of an uninscribed portion of the papyrus sheet itself by an American laboratory, that returned a date of around 201 AD, with a plus-minus range of a hundred years.”

So, in 2014, the story was that the Sappho fragments came from an anonymous owner and that they were extracted from mummy cartonnage ultimately deriving from a “high-ranking German officer.” A sample of the papyrus underwent radiocarbon analysis in the USA (Why not closer to home at the radiocarbon lab in Oxford? More on this in a later post).

2015 January 9: Dirk Obbink delivered a paper via skype during the Society for Classical Studies Meeting in New Orleans in which he claimed that the Sappho fragments came from the Robinson Papyri in a 2011 Christies auction and stated that “The layers of the cartonnage fragment, a thin flat compressed mass of papyrus fragments, were separated by the owner and his staff by dissolving in a warm-water solution. The owner originally believed that he had dissolved a piece of ‘mummy’ cartonnage, as I reported in TLS. But this turned out upon closer inspection of the original papyri not to be the case: none of the fragments showed any trace of gesso or paint prior to dissolving or after.”

So, there are several changes to the story here. No mention is made of the “high-ranking German officer.” Instead, the cartonnage is said to have come from the Robinson Papyri via a Christies auction of November 2011. Rather than Obbink himself “prising the layers of shredded papyrus apart” as Hughes’ article had described, the cartonnage is now said to have been dismantled by the owner and his staff and to have been mis-identified (by the owner) as a mummy. Yet, Professor Obbink reports that none of the fragments showed any trace of gesso either before or after the cartonnage was dismantled, which suggests that Professor Obbink saw the cartonnage before it was taken apart.

2015 January 23: Live Science ran an article by Megan Gannon that contains an extended interview with Dirk Obbink that provided a chronology of events, a discussion of some of the early contradictory details of the story, and an accusation that Bettany Hughes had fabricated part of her article: “Obbink said the anonymous buyer called to ask for advice a couple of months after the auction, in January 2012. The new owner wanted to know if some of the compressed bits of papyri could be identified without peeling the layers apart. Obbink said he went to see the packets for himself later that month. One small chunk of cartonnage appeared to contain multiple layers of papyrus, with fragments peeling off from the outside, Obbink said. The anonymous owner — who is a businessman, not a professional collector or academic — had his staff dissolve the tiny stack in warm water. From that pile, they found a folded-up, postcard-size manuscript with lines of text in ancient Greek. When Obbink later read the text, he said he knew he was looking at poems by Sappho. . . Some time between the 2011 Christie’s sale and Obbink’s identification of the poems as Sappho’s, the anonymous owner had traded about 20 smaller fragments from the same piece of cartonnage where the Sappho papyrus was pulled from. These fragments, which the owner deemed insignificant, made their way through the London market into the Green Collection in Oklahoma City.” . . . [Some scholars have questioned why the] “German officer” has disappeared now from every other account of the papyrus’ provenance. But Obbink characterized Hughes’ story as a ‘fictionalization’ and an ‘imaginative fantasy.’ ‘Bettany Hughes never saw the papyrus,’ Obbink said. ‘I never discussed the ownership with her. She published the story without consulting me.’ (Hughes did not respond to a request for comment.) . . . But Obbink shot down any theories that the Green Collection was somehow linked to the anonymous collector in London. He said the London collector does not know the Greens, and the fragments were traded through at least one intermediary dealer.”

There are several things to note here. First, notice the tightness of the chronology. According to the timeframe laid out here, Dirk Obbink examined the cartonnage in January 2012 before it was dismantled. Then “the anonymous owner” had “his staff” dismantle the cartonnage. Then Professor Obbink saw the dismantled fragments and recognized their contents as lines of Sappho. When did this identification take place? Other accounts seem to indicate that Professor Obbink “immediately” recognized the papyrus as Sappho upon first sight, and at least one account indicates, like the Bettany Hughes’ article, that Professor Obbink was himself present when the cartonnage was dismantled. Consider the following two sources:

2015 April 9: In an interview on BBC Radio’s In Our Time, Professor Obbink had the following to say about the “A year before last, ah, I was, ah, shown a papyrus fragment that had been salvaged, ah, by a collector from the, from a collection formed in the 1950s; he was actually quite open about where the fragment, ah, came from . . . I immediately recognized, ah, from the, ah, layout of the lines . . . from the diction, from the language and the names in the fragment that it was a previously unknown poem by Sappho.”

2015 May 6: In a BBC special, Sappho: Love and Life on Lesbos, Professor Obbink says the following about the identification of the papyrus: “It was reused to make a kind of cardboard out of the pieces of it. [Narrator: This manuscript dates back to around 200 A.D. An anonymous collector landed it on the desk of papyrologist Dirk Obbink in 2012, unaware of what it contained.] When the small pieces were humidified, they immediately started to peel off, and the first thing that you could see underneath were the ends of the first three lines.

Now, Scott Carroll already had the Green Collection Sappho fragments identified and framed on 7 February 2012 from a mummy mask he claims to have dismantled “a few weeks ago.” If, as the Live Science article indicates, the cartonnage was still intact in January 2012, then there was very little time for the Green Collection fragments to “make their way through the London market into the Green Collection in Oklahoma City” and to be”traded through at least one intermediary dealer.” And in fact it is fascinating that Professor Obbink had such detailed knowledge of the Green fragments’ journey on the antiquities market, because the Green Collection and Hobby Lobby have been unwilling to say anything at all about when and from whom they obtained their Sappho papyri in spite of multiple queries by Roberta Mazza over the years.

Professor Obbink’s accusations against Bettany Hughes are also noteworthy in light of the established working relationship the two had. Professor Obbink had been featured in her television specials before, and she even had a chance to visit the famous pool table in his Christ Church office in 2010:

It is surprising that, if Professor Obbink’s allegations are true, she would have so badly misrepresented the story. One would think The Times would have fact checkers for that sort of thing. In any event, the constantly shifting stories leave several things unresolved:

  • Did Professor Obbink participate in the dismantling of the cartonnage himself (recall that this is an activity in which Professor Obbink is known to have engaged)? Or was it dismantled by the “anonymous owner and his staff”?
  • Did Professor Obbink see the cartonnage before it was dismantled? If not, then how did he know that the cartonnage showed no signs of gesso before it was dismantled? If so, then why did he change his identification from mummy cartonnage to “domestic” cartonnage?
  • Did the Green Collection buy fragments already dismantled by the “anonymous owner and his staff,” or did they buy cartonnage that Scott Carroll later dismantled himself?

Finally, I’ll close with a few more lines from that Live Science interview, in which Professor Obbink claimed, in 2015, that more detailed documentation about the provenance of the Sappho would be forthcoming:

“Obbink said he knew the Sappho papyrus had a legal, documented provenance all along. ‘There’s no question in my mind about where the piece came from,’ Obbink told Live Science. ‘I can absolutely guarantee that there’s no question about that.’ . . .In the coming months, Obbink said the plan is to make the collecting documents and related photographs of the London Sappho papyrus available online, including letters, transcripts and other papers from people, including Robinson, who worked on this collection early on.

So, again, that Live Science article was published early 2015. The additional “collecting documents” have yet to appear. I realize Professor Obbink is probably otherwise occupied at the moment, but it would be great if he could make those documents relating to the collection history of the Sappho papyrus public sometime soon.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Dirk Obbink, Green Collection, Green Collection Sappho, P.Sapph. Obbink, Scott Carroll. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Dirk Obbink, Scott Carroll, and Sappho

  1. S Walch says:

    Would it be possible to know whether a mummy mask cartonnage had signs of gesso from a photograph, or is that something that could only be determined in person?

    If possible from a photograph, then that could be a way Prof. Obbinik was able to do what he said. Nevertheless, still wouldn’t answer the question of the change from mummy to domestic cartonnage.

    • Yes, pictures are certainly a possibility, but I would have thought any pictures of the fragments in cartonnage form would have been produced much earlier in this process, given the scrutiny that Obbink was under from the beginning.

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  4. As you know, the Feb. 5, 2014 TLS publication by Dirk Obbink begins as follows:
    “An ‘Oxford secret’ is supposed to be a secret you tell one person at a time. Add social media and it’s across the world within hours, often in garbled form. In this case the ‘secret’ was the discovery of a fragment of papyrus….”
    Though it may be of little import here, I wondered about the origin of the collocation “Oxford secret.”
    Provisionally, it *may* have been coined, or popularized, by Oliver Franks, Oxford philosopher, and Secretary of Supply during WWII, and Ambassador to the US, and diplomat involved in birth of the Marshall Plan, and also of NATO, among other things. Remarkable man.

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