The Retraction of Dirk Obbink’s Sappho Chapter and the Question of Authenticity

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 [2020] 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.

Plates of the Sappho papyri published in ZPE 189 (2014), obviously reduced in size here

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.’ “

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

20 Responses to The Retraction of Dirk Obbink’s Sappho Chapter and the Question of Authenticity

  1. Though I am not competent to distinguish genuine Sappho text from an excellent imitation, I wonder about other recent cases that may or may not be, in part, comparable.
    Extremely competent scholars considered the fake p. Jesus’ Wife ancient, maybe partly because it was mostly readable (if sloppily drawn, brushlike rather than penlike) Coptic (because largely borrowed from Gospel of Thomas).
    Extremely competent scholars consider the Moses Shapira strip texts (apparently on thick dark hides) ancient. Is that, in part, because they are mostly in readable Biblical Hebrew (because largely borrowed from canonical Torah?)?

  2. Theo Nash says:

    Many thanks for this excellent post, Brent. The cavalier treatment of the GC frr. is certainly concerning, though what Scott Carroll and the Greens were willing to do should probably be judged by different standards than what Obbink himself may have done.

    I certainly agree that the composition of Sapphics is more than possible; the ‘extraordinary effort’ I referenced was in relation to the GC fragments, which I was assuming had the same ultimate origin as P.Sapph.Obbink (the name, incidentally, goes back to the editio princeps in ZPE 189, so presumably Obbink himself). Faking a bunch of fragments, which generally do not confirm the most widely accepted supplements, in order to make a new poem more convincing certainly strikes me as extraordinary. Certainly anyone capable of composing the Brothers Poem could have put together the Green frr., and maybe even chosen more obscure supplements to make them seem more convincing; ultimately, we can twist the facts to serve whichever argument we like. But at the very least we need to consider the GC frr. alongside P.Sapph.Obbink when we make our judgments, which, incidentally, is why your comments on their treatment give me more pause than any other case for forgery I’ve seen. But if they were doing the same to Oxyrhynchus papyri, which are certainly above suspicion, then I’m not sure how much we can make of this.

    (It has since occurred to me since that the GC frr. may have been used as a palaeographic model to ‘launder’ a fake, complete poem, textually ‘anchored’ by the Oxyrhynchus scrap with which it joins. But this seems to be getting into the realm of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence. I really would enjoy seeing the case for a forgery made, rather than simply suggested on the basis of evidence which points more convincingly to looting.)

    As to Obbink’s capacity for composition, Sappho is really well-removed from the type of texts he is used to working with. Supplementing philosophical texts written in prose is very different from composing Aeolic verse. Because he published this piece, and was involved in the Cologne Sappho as well, he gets a reputation as a Sappho scholar that I’m not sure he deserves. In his publication of the Cologne Sappho (https://chs.harvard.edu/classics4-dirk-obbink-text-apparatus-criticus-and-translation/), he does not record a single supplement or conjecture of his own, and all of the restorations of Aeolic forms in the Brothers Poem are credited to M L West. At the very least, I do not think there is any evidence to suggest Obbink himself is capable of composing a poem like this.

    A final note: disappointments regarding quality are a grand tradition in papyrus discoveries. Menander, especially, left a lot of people cold after the Bodmer papyri were published in the 50s, but no one doubts their authenticity for that.

    • Theo, thanks very much for these thoughts. You raise a number of good points–more than I can respond at the moment. But for now: I wouldn’t say I’m making a case for forgery here. I’m more making a case for uncertainty. Given the apparent unreliability of many of the people associated with the fragments (Carroll, Obbink, Eksioglu), we’re really lost at sea regarding the origins of these pieces. I certainly wouldn’t want to rule out looting as a possible source for the fragments (or theft from the Oxyrhynchus collection, though that is less likely in my view). Any case for forgery would require a deep dive on the philological issues as well as physical examination of all the fragments (has anyone besides Prof. Obbink done this?). So, nobody is really in a position to make that argument at present. Prof. Obbink’s “reputation as a Sappho scholar” (or perhaps his cultivation of such a reputation) is also a topic worthy of more discussion than it has so far received (paging Roberta Mazza for that). And finally, on disappointments in connection with papyrus discoveries, my favorite is the New York Times headline on the Cairo Menander in 1907: “Four Lost Plays of Menander Found” followed by “May be a Disappointment: M. Maspero Regards the Plots as Very Primitive and the Characters as Rather Conventional.”

      • Theo Nash says:

        I think there’s a value to uncertainty, but it still seems to me the balance of evidence is something like 90-10 in favour of looting over forgery, and giving the latter too much play can upend the conversation in unhelpful ways. Not that I think you’ve done that here, but the issues around forging are so different from those around looting that sometimes it feels like a bit of a red herring.

        (I don’t see any way it’s an Oxyrhynchus piece, for the reasons you claim and because it hasn’t been on any of their lists yet.)

  3. Gregg Schwendner says:

    The possibility of forgery by an expert is pretty frightening. Without high resolution images it would be difficult to detect inconsistencies in the writing, things we do without thinking that an ancient scribe would avoid (like moving the pen upwards rather than down). The relative quality of the poetry is another issue. There was universal disappointment with the Gallus papyrus’ uninspiring poetics, but no one seriously thought it a forgery. It was conveniently identified as Gallus by the name of his lover in line 1 (Lycori tua).
    Without access to the papyrus to check his claims, it is not possible to go further in support or dismissal of the authenticity of the papyrus. Ultimately, Dirk’s unwillingness to provide access, or to explain his actions and conclusions against the accusations of theft and/or forgery in any detail brings to mind a legal maxim: qui tacet consentire videtur.

    • “Without access to the papyrus to check his claims, it is not possible to go further in support or dismissal of the authenticity of the papyrus.” I agree. This is why the editors’ statement seems strange to me.

  4. Kruse, Thomas says:

    Many thanks for this!
    Thomas

  5. spiker says:

    A little more than a decade after being acquitted of his wife’s murder O.J Simpson reportedly produced a book, entitled *If I did it* to show he wouldn’t have done it the way, well, that he did it. I have to wonder if Obbink’s article will be the same kind of thing.

  6. Roy D. Kotansky says:

    Very interesting, Brent, and the questions you raise are pertinent. As far as I can tell, there is only a single black-and-white photograph available online. Do you know if Obbibk’s editio princeps (which I obviously have not seen) contained a color photo? If not, that in itself is surprising. Based on the available photo (not enough to go on, admittedly), I am personally troubled by at least three things.

  7. Dr MJ says:

    The poem itself could have been faked–scholars who fail to acknowledge this possibility are insufficiently trained in Greek verse composition. It’s the forging of the document itself that presents the true challenges. Schrödinger’s papyrus fragment. Until it is made available for study, it is simultaneously authentic and forged.

  8. In the case of the Jehoash Inscription, which I guess majority opinion sees as a fake, two quite learned scholars of Hebrew and comparative Semitics (both from Ben-Gurion U.; both sadly deceased) differed. Chaim Cohen wrote (New Seals and Inscriptions, 2007), whether fake or not, that the text cannot be excluded from ancientness on the grounds of philology. Victor Avigdor Hurowitz wrote (bibleinterp.arizona.com 2003) that the passage “I made the bedeq of the Temple…” was sufficient to falsify it, show it as modern.
    Roy D. Kotansky: What “three things” trouble you? (Another optional question, RDK, having, iirc, stated that Morton Smith’s Greek was not advanced enough to compose the Clement of Alexandria Letter– does that include even if he spent a long time?)
    What sort of papyrus collector and/or investor (London or otherwise) would sell fragments of a scroll before seeing what text was inside?
    How much did overlap and known names influence the extent of acceptance of the new Sappho? Without such, hypothetically, would it have been less without this (perhaps statistically-unlikely?) instance?

  9. David Meadows ~ rogueclassicist says:

    On who named it P.Sappho.Obbink, it’s worth noting that in the preliminary version of the ZPE paper that was circulated, it wasn’t so designated, but was in the published version …

    • Theo Nash says:

      Interestingly, the article on the GC papyri in the same ZPE also calls it P.Sapph.Obbink, suggesting there may have been a degree of coordination there. West, whose thoughts were at least developing prior to the editio princeps (since Obbink credits him with various things), just calls it ‘the Brothers Poem’ in ZPE 191.

      • Leofranc Holford-Strevens says:

        Since the Brothers Poem is one of the two poems preserved in P.Sapph.Obbink, the reference by title is more specific; it is also more appropriate for literary or linguistic comment that does not depend on re-examination of the photographic evidence.

  10. Leofranc Holford-Strevens says:

    I had to correct some of the dialect in a private communication to Obbink before publication. None of the Greek poets (admittdely not many) who tried to wrote in her dialect or metre) succeeded.

  11. Amelia Brown says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful analysis; following the story closely, as I find the Two Brothers poem really fine writing, and historically significant. Are there other unpublished papyri collections which Obbink had access to besides Oxyrhyncus?

  12. By every account, even Carroll’s, soaking the fragments was a duplicitious act. His explanation is remarkably weak and doesn’t account for his continued silence when Burris drew them to his attention (as he then thought). I have to think it was an attempt to establish a fake provenance for the fragments. That doesn’t prove that they’re fakes, rather than having been looted, but why would anyone risk damaging genuine fragments in this way, given that they would be practically priceless?

    Also, when it comes to effort in deceiving people, it’s worth bearing in mind the comment made by illusionist Teller (of Penn and Teller): “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”

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