In a previous post on C. Michael Sampson’s article in the most recent issue of the Bulletin of the American Association of Papyrologists, I mentioned that Sampson’s essay contained a number of interesting but somewhat complicated revelations about questions surrounding the Sappho papyrus.
One seemingly intractable mystery that Sampson has (to my mind, anyway) solved involves one of the first provenance stories associated with the Sappho papyrus. Early on, it was claimed that the papyrus had originated in mummy cartonnage that had once been owned by “a high-ranking German officer.” This provenance story quickly evaporated and was never explained. A little background will help to illuminate Sampson’s discovery.
In an article in the Times (2 February 2014) that announced Professor Dirk Obbink’s forthcoming publication of the Sappho papyrus, Bettany Hughes noted that the owner of the papyrus, an “elderly gentleman,” had engaged professor Obbink to examine “material from an ancient Egyptian burial.” Professor Obbink, after “prising the layers of shredded papyrus apart,” recognized the text on the papyrus as poems of Sappho. At the conclusion of the article, Hughes had hinted at the provenance of the cartonnage from which the Sappho papyrus had allegedly been extracted:
“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.”
In his own article published a few days later (7 February 2014) in the Times Literary Supplement, Professor Obbink also referred to the “ancient mummy cartonnage panel” that was the alleged source of the Sappho papyrus.
The difficulty with this story, as Roberta Mazza pointed out a few months later in May 2014, was that the Sappho papyrus, which Professor Obbink assigned to the “late second/early third centuries” CE, was very unlikely to come from mummy cartonnage. The practice of using inscribed papyrus to make mummy casings seems to have died out two-hundred years earlier:
“According to standard papyrology manuals, the practice of fabricating cartonnage for mummy masks and panels went on throughout the entire Ptolemaic period, and ended towards the end of the Augustan era, so at the beginning of the first century AD.”
Thus, when Professor Obbink revisited the question of the provenance of the papyrus in 2015, there was no mention of the “German officer.” The story was now that the cartonnage did not come from a mummy casing after all, but rather was “domestic or industrial cartonnage” purchased at auction in a lot derived from the Robinson Papyri, the somewhat murky collection of an American academic. In a story in Live Science published on 23 January 2015, Megan Gannon asked Professor Obbink what had happened to the “German officer” mentioned in the article by Hughes. Professor Obbink responded that Hughes had simply fabricated the story.
“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.)”
The “German officer” did not appear again in any discussions of the possible source of the papyrus. So, the matter rested there for five years.
But now the Christie’s brochure analyzed by Sampson brings the “German officer” back into view. The Christie’s brochure includes a photograph of a Ptolemaic-era panel of mummy cartonnage sitting next to another clump of “plain” cartonnage. The caption beneath the photograph states that “The Sappho fragment was initially thought to derive from a painted mummy cartonnage panel (left), with which it was simultaneously dissolved, but this was discovered to be a confusion of processing.” This is quite similar to the explanation that Professor Obbink had presented in his paper on the provenance of the papyrus in January 2015: “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.”
Charlotte Higgins had interviewed Sampson and mentioned the panel of mummy cartonnage in her article in the Guardian back in January 2020:
“In the brochure, there are, at last, images that purport to show how the two different types of cartonnage – mummy cartonnage and industrial cartonnage – were confused. One picture shows a brightly painted blue-and-red piece of mummy cartonnage lying in a ceramic basin beside a brown mass of what appears to be flattened papyrus, described as ‘cartonnage’. The caption recaps the final story reported by Obbink – that the two items were muddled up in a ‘confusion of processing’. However, in the opinion of Sampson, it ‘defies belief’ that the entirely different objects could have been confused.”
What is new in Sampson’s article is the identification of this Ptolemaic-era cartonnage. With some impressive sleuthing, Sampson was able to identify this panel as (the lower half of) one that was purchased through Sotheby’s in 2008:
What was especially intruiging was the alleged provenance of the panel:
The person listed as the previous owner of the panel was Rainer Kriebel, “military attaché to the German Federal Republic’s embassy to Egypt in Cairo.” It’s hard to believe that there would be two pieces of cartonnage connected to both the Sappho papyrus and a German military official. It seems that Sampson has found our “German officer.”
Sampson’s reconstruction of events is sensible: As mentioned in my previous post, Sampson’s analysis of the metadata associated with the pdf file of the Christie’s brochure indicated that there were likely two attempted sales of the papyrus, one in 2013 and one in 2015. For the 2013 sale, the images of Kriebel’s mummy cartonnage panel very probably served to reflect the “Original Provenance Fiction,” as Sampson calls it: the idea that the Sappho papyrus had come from a Ptolemaic-era panel of mummy cartonnage. The sale in in the summer of 2015 continued to use the same images (likely in an effort to preserve some aspects of the story, namely extraction from cartonnage of some sort), but the text of the brochure reflected the “Revised Provenance Fiction,” that the Sappho papyrus had come from “domestic or industrial cartonnage” and had only been associated with the mummy material through a mistake of the owner.
While there are still many questions about the ultimate origins of the Sappho papyrus, it is satisfying that Sampson’s research has explained the mysterious “German officer.”