A New Origin Story for the New Sappho

[[Update 9 December 2019: Transcribed more of the video clip below for greater context.]]

The Sappho papyrus published by Professor Dirk Obbink has obscure origins, as many have noted and as I’ve discussed here before. Professor Obbink has provided two quite different accounts of how he came to publish the papyrus. Each of these two accounts actually have a few variations, but we need not go into that here (if you’re interested, see the recent Eidolon article for a good overview of the state of affairs). And this is to say nothing of the complications caused by Scott Carroll’s claims regarding the Green Collection Sappho fragments. But I digress…

To recap: According to Professor Obbink’s first version of the story, presented in an interview with Bettany Hughes for an article in The Times published on 2 February 2014, 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 Professor 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.”

Professor Obbink’s second version of the story was presented in an interview with Megan Gannon for an article in Live Science  that ran just under a year later on 23 January 2015. The “high-ranking German officer” is gone, and the papyrus was said to have been part of a lot purchased from Christie’s in November 2011. “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 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.)”

Now we have a third version of the story. In this video from 2016 (at about the 12:55 mark), Professor Obbink puts forth an entirely new account.

According to this version, it was “Ancient Lives,” an Arts & Humanities Research Council funded project run by Professor Obbink, that led the anonymous owner to reveal the papyrus:

“One of the major beneficiaries of the system has been ironically the poetess Sappho, the most famous female poet, uh, perhaps of all time. We put all kinds of papyri fragments into the system, not just from the Oxyrhynchus collection here at Oxford but also from other collections, uh, like the Tebtunis papyri who contributed images to go into it, uh, and even private collections of papyri. And we’ve had people come forth and want their papyri put into the system. And one of these was a private collector in London who brought this papyrus in wanting it to be put into the system to have it included in the database and hopefully identified. Uh, and even before we put it into the database, we immediately recognized it, uh, from the meter and the language and the content. It has a name in the first line: Charaxos, which is only known as the name of Sappho’s brother in antiquity…”

So, in this account, there is no cartonnage at all–just an anonymous collector in London owner who wanted a privately owned papyrus to be studied in a publicly funded project. It will be interesting to see which (if any) of these versions of the story is actually accurate.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Dirk Obbink, Mummy cartonnage, P.Sapph. Obbink. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A New Origin Story for the New Sappho

  1. Melissa Harl Sellew says:

    The technical description of the transcription process is taken more or less directly from the grant proposal written by our team at Minnesota, but the statements about the Sappho poems and the Tebtunis papyri are news to me (if accurate).

  2. Henk Verdru says:

    You can hear D. Obbink talk about the fragment in this podcast about Sappho (9 april 2015) from the “In Our Time” programme (BBC Radio 4). The passage starts at 16:03 with a question by the presenter, Melvyn Bragg. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b05pqsk4

  3. D. Bradnick says:

    Oxford University’s 2014 Faculty of Classics newsletter also gives the impression that the Sappho papyrus came to light as part of the Ancient Lives program (p. 13).


    Obbink’s abstract for his paper at The Society for Classical Studies is also curious. It states, “In this paper I wish to . . . show how the detailed tracing of the provenance of one of the groups of new fragments was instrumental in leading to the discovery and identification of the other.” This doesn’t make sense if Obbink was approached by the owner of Sappho, who also sold the other fragments (presumably) to the Greens. Why would he need to conduct a “detailed tracing of the provenance”?


  4. Pingback: Sapfo opnieuw – Mainzer Beobachter

  5. Candida Moss says:

    Just reading this again because I’m about to do an interview with German Radio about First Century Mark. It strikes me that the connection between the Sappho and the Ancient Lives project would have counted as an “Impact Case Study” for the REF in the UK. Impact Cases are the most financially valuable part of each university department’s REF submission as they gather 4x the amount of money for the department. The beneficiaries would have been Oxford Classics not Obbink (I am in no way suggesting that anyone in Oxford Classics knew about this) but there is a real financial motivation to claiming a connection between those things.

    • Interesting. I would like to learn more about the concrete outcomes of the Ancient Lives project. I’ve seen a couple published papers talking about the technologies used, but given what we now know about the card catalog of Oxyrhynchus pieces, the whole premise of the Ancient Lives project (“We need to crowdsource the identification of all these papyri”) seems bogus. It would be interesting to read the REF submissions that refer to this project.

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