Last week, the news broke that Brill had retracted a chapter by Prof. Dirk Obbink that presented false information about the provenance of the Sappho papyri. A statement from the volume’s editors explains the reasoning for the retraction. Just as he denies the charges against him in relation to stolen Oxyrhynchus papyri, Prof. Obbink denies these charges and promises to produce exonerating evidence:
“Michael Sampson has published an article that also questions the provenance of the papyri as reported in chapter 2 of this book (Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 57  143-169). Dirk Obbink, the author of this chapter, was given the opportunity by Brill publishers to respond to this evidence, but so far they have not received a substantive response. He has told them that he is working on an academic article in which he disputes the findings of Sampson, but he has not mentioned a timeline.”
I think we all look forward to Prof. Obbink’s response in this matter, just as we continue to look forward to seeing the documents related to the alleged collection history of the Sappho papyrus, which Prof. Obbink reportedly committed to release back in 2015 in a Live Science article:
“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, it will be very welcome when Prof. Obbink produces this article and these documents. In the meantime, however, it’s good to know that there are people at Brill who are taking this matter seriously. To the best of my knowledge, retracted articles are rare in the field of classics, so this is a significant action.
The editors also included a statement regarding the authenticity of the papyrus:
“So far we have not seen any evidence to suggest that either P.GC inv. 105 or P.Sapph.Obbink is not authentic.”
The phrasing here gives me pause. [[Update 30 March 2021: Jona Lendering also found this sentence odd.]] On the one hand, when I look at the available images of these manuscripts, I see fragments that have the appearance of papyri that were produced in antiquity by a skilled copyist.
But on the other hand, that’s just the thing: I’m looking at images–and images that are not of very high quality. How many scholars have actually examined these papyri in person? That’s an honest question. I don’t know that the larger “London” fragment has ever been closely physically examined by anyone besides Prof. Obbink. He has reported that the London fragment has been subjected to scientific testing, but as I have argued elsewhere, those claims are dubious.
So, in the absence of the physical object, what other indications of forgery might one consider? Well, the textual contents of the poem may be a good place to begin. Prof. Obbink himself raised the issue in his TLS article announcing the papyrus in 2014 (no longer available online):
“How can we be certain…that these new fragments are genuine? After all, you might wonder, doesn’t ‘The Brothers Poem’ rather too conveniently fill a gap in what we don’t know of Sappho and her family? And doesn’t it rather suspiciously confirm Herodotus, in mentioning two names we know, and none that we don’t?”
Well, yes, now that you mention it. That is quite convenient. Prof. Obbink continues:
“Some scholars did, at first, doubt its authenticity, including one of the editors of the last ‘New Sappho’ to be discovered. But other indicators leave no room for doubt. Metre, language and dialect are all recognizably Sapphic and (more difficult for a forger to achieve) there are no contrary indications whatsoever of date or handwriting.”
In his talk at the 2015 SCS meeting, Prof. Obbink mentioned another early doubter:
“But early reactions from even some erudite scholars publicly condemned the texts as ‘a playful modern exercise’ or as ‘frigid juvenilia’. Mary Beard wrote to Martin West for confirmation before the TLS article appeared. Here is what he replied: ‘My initial impression was that it was very poor stuff, and linguistically problematic. But the more I look at it, the more OK it seems. It’s certainly not one of her best, but it has her DNA all over it.'”
It’s my impression that the majority of Sappho specialists regard the poetry as authentically ancient and not a modern exercise in Greek lyric composition. Indeed, I cannot name a single expert who is on record as thinking the poems are forgeries. But it is worth remembering that in the early days, some of the most respected of those experts had a different reaction.
I have not seen much subsequent discussion of the possibility that these papyri could be modern forgeries. The exception is a balanced and thoughtful essay by Theo Nash, who makes many salient points and settles carefully on an evaluation that the papyrus is an ancient rather than a modern production, most likely a looted antiquity. I agree with almost everything he wrote, with two reservations. First, he views the poem as “utterly dull,” whereas forgeries are more typically sensational (such as the Jesus’ Wife fragment). Here, I would simply note that, for many people, any new Sappho at all is sensational per se. Second, Nash writes that “our [hypothetical] faker may have been deeply familiar with Sappho — but the effort would be quite extraordinary.” If these fragments are modern fakes, I don’t think there is any question that the person who produced them is very familiar with Sappho. But how “extraordinary” would the effort at composition have been? The Greek composition training that I received in graduate school certainly did not impart the ability to produce something like the text on these fragments, but there are people for whom ancient language composition is a passion.
This includes both enthusiastic amateurs who produce handbooks on Sapphic composition and academics who edit texts. For his contribution to a Festschrift published in 2011, Prof. Obbink wrote a chapter entitled “Vanishing Conjecture: Lost Books and their Recovery from Aristotle to Eco.” In it, he reflected on the processes through which pieces of classical literature are lost and recovered (I note in passing that one of the prime examples in the chapter is the poetry of Sappho).
In discussing the recovery of ancient literature, Prof. Obbink introduces the competitive academic world of summoning lost texts from medieval compendia and fragmentary papyri. Prof. Obbink offers his own somewhat harsh evaluation of the efforts of other scholars (“Janko’s hypotheses have since been refuted and are now generally derided”) and defends his own compositional skills and choices:
“What constitutes a legitimate fragment, and when are we justified in reconstructing a lost original? By what criteria will recovery be judged a success? I remember being disheartened when a scholar who I thought understood editorial method told me that an edition of a papyrus I had published was, as he put it, ‘all you’, rather than the text of the ancient author in question, just because the ends of some of the lines were restored.”
In this world of filling lacunae and making conjectural emendations, scholars cultivate the ability to finish the thoughts of ancient authors, losing one’s own identity and adopting that of the ancient author (sidenote: Does anyone know who came up with the designation “P.Sapph.Obbink”?). In such a world, the charge “all you” is a solid burn. All of that to say: While most classical scholars might not be up to the task of producing Sapphic lines to order, I have no doubt that there are modern scholars who could do so with little trouble.
Finally, there’s the issue of the treatment of the Green Collection fragments. As a curator at the Museum of the Bible noticed last year, in the now (in)famous video of Scott Carroll faking extractions of literary papyri from mummy masks at Baylor University, one of the wet clumps included the Green Collection Sappho fragments, now known to have been purchased by the Greens from the Turkish dealer Yakup Eksioglu weeks before their “discovery” at Baylor.
The sight of these papyri, lying in a pile sopping wet being picked at by well-meaning but untrained amateurs, is shocking. Carefully humidifying ancient papyrus to unfold it without damage is a time-tested technique for flattening out papyri so that they can be mounted between glass panes for preservation and study. Needlessly drenching ancient papyri in soapy water is simply stupid. Investigations by Ariel Sabar raise the possibility that Carroll already knew that these fragments contained poems by Sappho:
“[Baylor classicist Simon] Burris found a spot at a table where Carroll was drying papyri he’d pulled out of the sink, but soon felt his head spinning. Before him was a small Greek fragment with four-line stanzas in an Aeolic dialect—a hallmark of Sappho, the sixth-century B.C. poet…Burris quickly spotted other pieces—still wet—bearing the same Sapphic markers. He ran their surviving words through a search engine: They not only overlapped with known Sappho poems, but filled in previously unknown lines. …But something felt off. The Sappho pieces had been laid out in such a way that even a non–Sappho expert like him could spot several in just minutes. (He would eventually discover some 20 of them.) He wondered: Did Carroll somehow know what was in the mask before he’d disemboweled it?”
It may of course be the case that Carroll didn’t know the planted papyri contained works of Sappho. [[Update 30 March 2021: see Addendum below]] But given the already existing connections between Carroll, Eksioglu and Prof. Obbink, it seems quite possible that the fragments were known to be Sappho before the event. Nevertheless, they were given a bath. Would an ardent Sappho enthusiast such as Prof. Obbink really allow ancient papyri containing lost lines of Sappho to be so treated without already having undertaken the fullest possible study of the fragments? That would appear strange.
According to Sabar’s report, Carroll did on that day soak an authentic ancient papyrus fragment of Paul’s letter to the Romans stolen from the Oxyrhynchus collection. That immediately suggests the possibility that the Sappho fragments were also authentically ancient and also stolen from the same source. This possibility cannot be ruled out, but it strikes me as doubtful. It seems unlikely that Edgar Lobel, who had a special interest in Sappho and spent almost 40 years working with the Oxyrhynchus collection, would have missed extensive fragments of Sappho like these.
To summarize, then, we have:
- Papyrus fragments with sensational and much-desired content
- Faked provenance stories for these fragments
- Seemingly false claims about scientific testing of these fragments
- No access to the main fragment for examination
- Early doubts about the quality of the poetry copied on these fragments
- Surprisingly cavalier treatment of supposedly highly valuable unique ancient papyri
Given all this, is it really accurate to say that there is no “evidence to suggest that either P.GC inv. 105 or P.Sapph.Obbink is not authentic”? It might be better to say that most (perhaps all?) competent scholars regard these fragments as authentic even in the face of many suspicious circumstances surrounding these papyri.
Let me reiterate. I can’t pass judgement on the authenticity of these papyri. If these fragments are fakes, they are some of the best I’ve ever seen. But then again, I haven’t actually seen them. And other than Prof. Obbink, who has?
Addendum 30 March 2021: Looking again at the relevant sections of Sabar’s article, it seems pretty clear that Carroll did know beforehand that it was Sappho that he was needlessly soaking for his fake extraction: “When I told Carroll what I’d discovered, he acknowledged planting the Sappho and Romans fragments in the mask at Baylor that day. His aim, he said, was to teach students how to identify papyri, not how to dismount a mask. Unsure of what he’d recover from the mask, he decided to mix in some exciting pieces from the Green Collection. ‘At the time, I didn’t feel that it was duplicitous.’ “