An Informative Article on a (Different) Sappho Papyrus

When it comes to Sappho papyri, I’ve been reporting mostly bad news for the last couple years. I’m happy to have some good news now about a different papyrus of Sappho, one whose provenance and authenticity are not under any clouds. A recent issue of the journal Mnemosyne included a fascinating (open access!) article on P.Oxy. XXI 2288 (LDAB 3886), a fragment of a papyrus roll containing part of the first poem in Book 1 of Sappho:

Mark de Kreij, Daniela Colomo, Andrew Lui, “Shoring Up Sappho: P.Oxy. 2228 and Ancient Reinforcement of Bookrolls,” Mnemosyne 73 (2020), 915-948.

The papyrus was first published by Edgar Lobel in 1951. All that survives is a narrow strip:

P.Oxy. 21 2288, Sappho Book i I; image source: P.Oxy.: Oxyrhynchus Online

In 1973, Eric Turner pointed out a characteristic that Lobel neglected to mention, namely that the strip actually contains two layers of papyrus, the upper papyrus with the text of Sappho and another layer below it, with writing visible in some places where the upper Sappho papyrus had worn away. In 2011, Dirk Obbink argued that the lower layer was part of the same roll that had become compressed to the adjacent section of the roll, and further that the lower layer preserved another poem of Sappho that stood before the poem preserved in the upper layer (thus attesting an alternative order of the poems). The authors of the present article (de Kreij, Colomo, and Lui) subject the papyrus to a detailed physical examination, including scanning electron microscopy / energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and X-ray tomography. They also print several photographs of the layers of the papyrus under high magnification:

Detail of P.Oxy. 21 2288; image source: Mark de Kreij, Daniela Colomo, Andrew Lui, “Shoring Up Sappho: P.Oxy. 2228 and Ancient Reinforcement of Bookrolls,” Mnemosyne 73 (2020), 921, fig. 3

The authors point out differences in the quality of the ink between the two layers, and they also argue that certain bits of white material on the lower layer may be the remains of an adhesive. Their conclusion is that the extra layer of papyrus is likely not part of the text of Sappho but instead a patch used to reinforce a damaged part of the papyrus roll. The authors note that such a repair would make good sense if this piece (which preserves the first poem in Book 1) was near the beginning of the roll. Normally when a papyrus roll was rolled up, the text was on the inner surface of the roll, and the beginning of the text on the roll was positioned so that it would be the first thing readers encountered when they unrolled it. Thus, the beginnings of rolls were frequently handled and especially subject to damage. In a highly informative section of the paper, the authors cite many examples of this kind of repair from other surviving papyri and also gather references to the repair of rolls from ancient literature and documentary papyri. It’s a great article: Informative, collaborative, and based on a legally excavated and owned papyrus that was first published 70 years ago. It still has something to teach us.

This entry was posted in Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Voluminology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to An Informative Article on a (Different) Sappho Papyrus

  1. Yes, a fine article.
    For whatever reason, this is a Sappho ms that was not put in a bath.
    And, what, Leofranc Holford-Strevens, if you care to say, were the corrections mentioned in a March 31, 2021 comment on the March 30 post? (“I had to correct some of the dialect in a private communication to Obbink before publication.”)

  2. howardb2013 says:

    This truly is a good news gem of a story: open access scholarship, no dodgy provenance or fiddling with the evidence, and a collaboration between the humanities and the sciences that advances our understanding of a fascinating lost world.

  3. Pingback: The Vocabulary of Reading a Papyrus Roll | Variant Readings

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