Contextualizing the New Sappho Information

Mike Holmes of the Museum of the Bible has released some intriguing new information about the Sappho papyrus fragments owned by Hobby Lobby. I posted Mike’s statement here.

There really is a lot to unpack with this situation. I want to focus now on the timeline of events around mid-January 2012, because some pieces seem to be falling into place with regard to the early history of the Green Collection and the practices of Scott Carroll and Oxford University Professor Dirk Obbink.

So, we can say that the Green Collection Sappho fragments appeared publicly for the first time on 16 January 2012 when Scott Carroll dismantled a mummy mask at Baylor University, an event that was recorded in the now (in)famous video that was uploaded to YouTube on 19 May 2014.

The implication for a viewer of the video is that these Sappho fragments were among those extracted from the mask, but in his statement Mike Holmes noted that this seems highly unlikely, because of the existence of a photograph (provided to MOTB by Professor Dirk Obbink) of a chunk (or perhaps “pad”?) of non-mummy-mask cartonnage apparently bought from Yakup Eksioglu (a.k.a. MixAntik) that appears to show one of the Hobby Lobby Sappho fragments also visible in the damp clump of pieces at Baylor in 2012 (the connection here between Dirk Obbink and MixAntik definitely cries out for further elucidation, but that is not my goal here [[Update 30 January 2020: See Paul Barford’s reflections here.]]).

Scott Carroll holding a frame containing the Green Collection Sappho fragments on 7 February 2012 (left); the published Green Collection Sappho fragments (middle); a piece of “cartonnage” apparently showing one of the Green Collection Sappho fragments (right); image provided by Mike Holmes, Museum of the Bible

As I said, this piece of cartonnage does not appear to be part of a mummy mask. Furthermore, the bulk of the visible material extracted by Scott Carroll from the mask on 16 January 2012 looks at first glance to be considerably older–late Ptolemaic or very early Roman–than these Sappho fragments, which are assigned to the 2nd or 3rd century CE.

Material extracted from the Baylor mummy mask; image source: Josh McDowell presentation

It is possible that more than one piece of cartonnage was dissolved that day at Baylor, but I don’t see any strong evidence of that in the video. As I said, the editor of this video seemingly wants to give the impression that the Sappho fragments came from the mummy mask.

But there is more. First, I need to thank Candida Moss for having the foresight to create a record of Scott Carroll’s facebook posts from 2012 relating to his collecting activities and for sharing these with me. Here are two sequential posts from early 2012:

So, freshly back from a trip to Oxford in early January 2012, Scott Carroll comes to Baylor on 16 January 2012 with a mummy mask that he dissolves. Two days later, 18 January, he strongly implies that he recovered papyrus fragments of Homer, Euripides, Thucydides, along with “the earliest-known text of Romans” and “numerous large sections of the most-illusive and valuable of all Greek works–the lyricist SAPPHO!!” from that mask.

18 January 2012 also just happens to be the same day that Steve Green went on CNN and claimed to own a newly discovered papyrus fragment Romans that was the earliest surviving copy of the letter (a fragment that we now know was stolen from the Oxyrhynchus collection):

“This [fragment] has just been discovered within the last 48 hours. Ah, Dr. Scott Carroll, who is a Bible expert that we have been working with was at Baylor and discovered this.” When the surprised CNN host asked him, “How…how did you get this?” Mr. Green responded:

“Well, um, this is in part of the acquisitions that we have, that we have, ah, uh, in uncovering layers of papyrus and as we’re pulling layers away, all different kinds of texts show up, and this happens to be, is, as Dr. Scott Carroll has identified it, the oldest portion of the book of Romans known, dating to middle second century.”

Mr. Green’s statement and Carroll’s FB post strongly imply that the Romans papyrus was extracted from a mummy mask, at Baylor, within 48 hours of 18 January. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Mr. Green thought this fragment of Romans was extracted from the mummy mask in the YouTube video.

But we now know that this fragment did not come from cartonnage and in fact was stolen from the Oxyrhynchus collection and is alleged to have been sold to Hobby Lobby by Professor Dirk Obbink. Yet, Carroll seems to have presented the fragment as having been obtained from the mummy mask at Baylor.

From his Tweet, it seems that Scott Carroll makes the same claim for the papyrus fragments of Sappho, some of which appear as a wet clump in the Baylor video from 16 January. Did the stolen Oxyrhynchus Romans papyrus also make an appearance that day?

Back in 2012, just after Steve Green’s interview on CNN aired, the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog made a post about the new Romans fragment (thanks to the commenter Aractus for drawing my attention to this). In the comments section, there were several posts that were somewhat skeptical of the story Mr. Green presented and some posts that were wary of the travelling “Passages” exhibit and the need to pay to see the Green Collection manuscripts. But one commenter, posting anonymously on 22 January 2012, offered the following defense of Mr. Green:

“Well, I was there when we ‘harvested.’ For people who are on a blog that says to be ‘evangelical’ I must say that the responses are saddening. It was something for the general public. The BBC has actually filmed a similar ‘event.’ And, yes, publications will follow. No need for demeaning people or spouting about ‘having to pay.’ The public comes with hundreds of thousands at the time. There actually will be a showing in the Vatican for several weeks (with the pope seeing it on Feb 29). Just let it be. Isn’t the whole point that the Word is made attractive to the world? Why make it a ‘liberal thing.’ Never forget your goal.”

So, it seems that at least one person claims to have seen the stolen Oxyrhynchus Romans papyrus “harvested” from a mask. (Sidenote: This is the second reference to a mummy mask dismantling filmed by the BBC in early 2012: Does anyone know where to get this footage?)

We are left to ask: How is it that the Romans papyrus (likely datable to the 3rd or 4th century CE) and the Sappho fragments (usually assigned to the 2nd or 3rd century CE) are said to have come out of a mummy mask that seems to be Ptolemaic? It would be great if Scott Carroll or one of the several people present that day at Baylor could speak up and shed some light on what exactly transpired. It was troubling before the latest revelations. Now it is even moreso.

And we shouldn’t forget that Professor Obbink’s “anonymous London owner” of the larger Sappho fragments seems to have been dissolving them at just about the same time in January 2012. Busy month.

Posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink, Green Collection, Green Collection Romans, Green Collection Sappho, Mummy cartonnage, P.Sapph. Obbink, Scott Carroll | 15 Comments

Important Developments with the New Sappho Papyrus

Mike Holmes of the Museum of the Bible has just released some new discoveries from the Museum’s ongoing provenance research to me and several other people via e-mail. There are several important revelations. Especially important are 1) a stunningly sharp observation by MOTB curator Brian Hyland and 2) the news that Yakup Eksioglu (“Mixantik”) appears to be the source of the Hobby Lobby Sappho fragments. I post Mike’s text below:


The Hobby Lobby Sappho fragments: some additional information

Michael Holmes, MOTB

Last summer, in response to a question from Roberta Mazza, I informed her that Sappho material was not listed as a specific item on any invoice in museum records, and that it was not at that time possible to identify the seller of the Sappho fragments in the Green Collection. Since then, MOTB curators, in keeping with the Museum’s commitment to research and make available provenance information on artifacts in the Museum Collection and in collections curated by the Museum (see: https://www.museumofthebible.org/collections/provenance), have continued to research the HL Sappho fragments. In recent months, it has been possible to verify some additional information about them. Working in reverse chronological order, I will mention two known points, which will provide context for presenting some additional information.

1. In 2014, images of the HL Sappho fragments were published in an article in ZPE (Bd. 189, pp. 1-28).

2. On Feb. 7, 2012, at a lecture event in Atlanta, Scott Carroll displayed 20+ HL Sappho fragments between glass plates and claimed that they “came out of a mummy mask I dismantled a few weeks ago” (see: https://brentnongbri.com/2018/12/13/the-green-collection-sappho-papyrus-some-new-details/).

Sappho image 2 (SC)

Several scholars have commented on the significance of this “sighting,” most recently Mike Sampson (as reported by Charlotte Higgins, in her recent Jan. 9th, 2020, Guardian article).

3. Brian Hyland, an MOTB curator, pointed out to me that about one-third of the HL Sappho fragments are visible in a video filmed at Baylor University on January 16, 2012 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_gwgGcpD1M; this is the well-known video of Scott Carroll dismantling a mummy mask). One example of a visible fragment: in the published ZPE image of the fragments, the small fragment just to the right of the label “Sa.16.5” can be seen at the 6:35 mark of the video.

Some of the Sappho fragments are visibly wet, giving the impression that they were being extracted from the mummy mask at the time the video images were taken—an impression that is, however, almost certainly incorrect, in light of the next point. 

4A. A purchase agreement dated January 7, 2012, and signed by Yakup Eksioglu is
accompanied by (i) an invoice for the following items:

  1. “Ancient Greek-Coptic language Papyrus fragments parobably between 800-
    1000 fragment Shown as in the group pictures”
  2. “Cartonagge Masks and other cartonagge fragments Shown as in the group
    pictures”

and (ii) several “group photographs” of the items purchased, arranged in rows and
columns. The “group photographs” clearly show the shape and general appearance of
the items, but do not show enough detail to identify the contents of any particular item.

4B. A photo, shared by Dirk Obbink with Brian Hyland (via Dropbox on August 17, 2016), is a close-up image of one of the “cartonnage” pieces visible in one of the “group photographs” accompanying the invoice mentioned in 4A above. In the close-up image, the piece of “cartonnage”—more like a wad of multiple layers of stuck-together papyrus—is in the same relationship to the other pieces around it as it is in the “group photographs.”

According to its metadata, this image was taken on December 7, 2011, 3:25 a.m. In this photograph the small Sappho fragment visible in the ZPE photograph just to the right of the label “Sa.16.5” (and also visible at the 6:35 mark in the January 12, 2012, Baylor video) is clearly visible.

To summarize briefly:

  1. The presence of HL Sappho fragments in the Baylor video definitely moves the date of the earliest “sighting” from Feb 7 to Jan. 16 2012.
  2. The metadata on the “close up” photo apparently moves the earliest “sighting” to Dec. 7, 2011.
  3. The HL Sappho fragments were not recovered from a mummy mask.
  4. Eksioglu (“Mixantik”) is the apparent source of the HL Sappho fragments.

Many questions remain (including, e.g., this one: from whom did Obbink obtain the image he shared with Hyland?), and the MOTB curators are continuing their research. But for now, this note shares the additional evidence that we have been able to confirm to date; additional documentation will be available when a fuller statement is formally published.


The information that Mike and his team have shared raises a number of questions, which we will no doubt be unpacking in the coming days.

Posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink, Find Stories, Green Collection, Green Collection Sappho, Mummy cartonnage, Scott Carroll | 26 Comments

Dead Sea Scrolls Archival Newsreel Footage

DSS Wall Street Journal Ad 1 June 1954Pretty much everyone with a passing knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls will recognize the famous ad in The Wall Street Journal (1 June 1954) placed at the request of the Syrian Archbishop Mar Athanasius Yeshue Samuel. Mar Samuel had brought four scrolls to the US. These were some of the first scrolls that had come to light in late 1946 or early 1947–the well preserved scrolls said to have come from “Cave 1”– the Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa), the Rule of the Community (1QS), the Habakkuk Pesher (1QpHab), and the Genesis Apocryphon (1QgenApoc). Until recently, however, I was unaware that there was newsreel footage in the Sherman Grinberg Film Library of the publicity tour put on by Mar Samuel shortly after his arrival in the US in 1949. It’s fascinating to see the scrolls actually being handled and rolled out (this looks like the Isaiah Scroll being laid out on a table):

Source: Sherman Grinberg Film Library

In October of 1949, Mar Samuel brought these four scrolls to the US, and they were displayed in a series of venues:

  • The Library of Congress in the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. (23 October – 6 November 1949) Newsreel clip of exhibit here.
  • The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore (10-17 November)
  • Duke University (12-17 February 1950)
  • The Oriental Institute in Chicago (17-26 November 1950)
  • The Worcester Art Museum (October 1951)

There are a few other clips at the website of the Grinberg Film Library (search “Dead Sea Scrolls”). This footage (along with the similar clips at Getty Images) all relates to the display of the scrolls in Washington, D.C., but it appears there must be other records of these exhibits. In his thorough account of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Weston Fields includes this image from the display at Duke University:

Image source: Weston W. Fields, The Dead Sea Scrolls, A Full History: Volume One, 1947-1960 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), p. 102

It would be good to learn if there is other existing video footage of the Scrolls at this relatively early date.

Posted in Antiquities Market, Dead Sea Scrolls, Videos | 6 Comments

More on Dirk Obbink and the Marketing of Cultural Heritage Items

In The Guardian today, Charlotte Higgins has a follow-up to her longer story on Professor Dirk Obbink. Apparently Professor Obbink bought an important 15th century manuscript at auction in 2014 and then sold it to “an overseas buyer” (at a loss) in an auction in 2019. Now, the British government has put an export bar on the item in order to give “UK buyers the chance to fundraise to purchase the item. A UK buyer would have to raise £168,750 by 13 April to save it for the nation.” The government views the manuscript as a heritage item, so ideally it would reside in a public museum or library, but this move by the government could, as the article notes, “lead to the unusual scenario of a civic institution raising funds from the public to acquire an item from a person who is suspected of wrongdoing.” Read the full story here.

Posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Antiquities Market, Dirk Obbink | 2 Comments

A New Edition of Sappho by Dirk Obbink

Following up on the fascinating article on Professor Dirk Obbink by Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian, Roberta Mazza recently revisited her conversations with a representative from Christie’s in 2014 and 2015, which now raise “further questions and doubts on the newest Sappho provenance narratives, and more broadly on the mysterious ways in which ancient manuscripts move on the market.”

One of the frustrating things about the new Sappho papyrus is the repeated claim that we can be confident about its provenance because of existing documentation that has not yet been made public. All the way back in 2015, Professor Obbink said in an interview with Live Science that more detailed documentation about the provenance of the Sappho would be forthcoming:

“Obbink said he knew the Sappho papyrus had a legal, documented provenance all along. ‘There’s no question in my mind about where the piece came from,’ Obbink told Live Science. ‘I can absolutely guarantee that there’s no question about that.’ . . .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.

De Gruyter Obbink Sappho Cover

This information has yet to appear. It is thus interesting to learn that Professor Obbink is set to publish a new edition of the collected works of Sappho with the respected German publishing house, Walter de Gruyter [[Update 22 February 2020: Link now dead. Archived link here.]]. It’s a little hard to tell what stage of production the volume is in. It has an ISBN. Amazon says the volume has 222 pages and is due out on 30 April 2020, but the de Gruyter website says the book has “approx. 202 pages” and isn’t due out until April 2025. So, perhaps we can look ahead to seeing the full provenance documentation of the London Sappho fragments later this year, or perhaps in 2025.

Posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Dirk Obbink, Green Collection, Green Collection Sappho, P.Sapph. Obbink | 8 Comments

MPhil in History of Religions at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society

I recently began work as Professor of History of Religions at the MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society in Oslo. A big part of my position here is overseeing a masters program in History of Religions:

“History of Religions: Encounters and Conflict is focused on the issues of religious cross-pollination, coexistence and conflict with particular emphasis on Europe and the Middle East. Taking a long historical perspective stretching from Antiquity to the early modern period, the programme seeks to illuminate the roots of present peaceful coexistence and interchange, as well as of today’s antagonisms and conflicts.

The underlying idea of the programme is that, in order to fully grasp current religious conflicts and alliances, we need to understand how the perceptions of past and present are intertwined, reciprocally dependent, and constantly reshaped.”

We are currently accepting applications for enrollment beginning in August 2020 (the deadline for non-EU applicants is 1 February). This is a 2-year MPhil program featuring one year of course work and a second year dedicated to writing a 30,000-45,000-word thesis. The full description of the program can be found here.

The language of instruction is English, and one of the benefits of the program is that there are no tuition fees. See the admissions page for more information about requirements and deadlines.

We are home to the Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, which houses several research projects focused on antiquity, and Oslo is presently a hub for research on ancient cultures.

So, come live in a European capital city and study with us!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

More News on Dirk Obbink and Sappho

Charlotte Higgins has just published a long story in The Guardian on Dirk Obbink. It is a very nice compilation of what we know and how the stories of the Sappho papyrus and the stolen Oxyrhynchus papyrus intersect. It also contains some new revelations:

Image source: The Guardian
  • Dirk Obbink has been “suspended from duties” at Oxford since October 2019
  • “The alleged thefts [of Oxyrhynchus papyri] were reported to Thames Valley police on 12 November. No one has yet been arrested or charged.”
  • Mike Sampson (University of Manitoba) has analyzed a Christie’s brochure in pdf format obtained from “an academic source” that offers the London Sappho papyrus for sale; Sampson has determined through the pdf metadata that there were attempts to sell the papyrus privately in 2013 and 2015
  • The Christie’s brochure is said to contain images of the cartonnage from which the Sappho papyrus fragments were extracted. Recall that Professor Obbink’s stories about the origins of the Sappho papyrus have changed over time; first it was said to have come from mummy cartonnage, then later from “industrial” cartonnage. The Christie’s brochure contains “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.”
  • “Perhaps Sampson’s most telling finding, though, is that parts of the Sappho manuscript were shown in public when they were supposedly still undiscovered in a wodge of industrial cartonnage. According to his study of the PDF’s metadata, the photographs of the materials sitting side by side in the ceramic basin, prior to ‘processing’, were taken on 14 February 2012. And yet there is video footage of Scott Carroll brandishing 26 small fragments of the Sappho, those that ended up belonging to the Greens, a week earlier, on 7 February 2012.”

Check out the full story at The Guardian‘s website.

Posted in Antiquities Dealers and Collectors, Dirk Obbink, Green Collection Sappho, P.Sapph. Obbink | 17 Comments