Sappho's New Poems: The Tangled Tale of Their Discovery


Lingering questions

Work on the new Sappho papyrus isn't finished. Obbink said he would be in Oxford today (Jan. 23) to further examine the manuscript with a noninvasive technique called multispectral imaging, which allows researchers to take very high-resolution photographs with multiple wavelengths of light. Better images of the text could help clarify some of the uncertain letters, which could change how scholars read the poems. 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.

Despite the promise of transparency, Obbink might not appease all of his critics still reeling from months of confusion, but he thinks there is an explanation to most of the questions that have cropped up in the blogosphere.

One of the first people to report on the new Sappho papyrus was author and historian Bettany Hughes. In a column in The Sunday Times of London, Hughes wrote that the papyrus seems to have been originally owned by "a high-ranking German officer." Some, like archaeologist Paul Barford, who blogs about cultural heritage issues, wondered whether she was suggesting the manuscript was Nazi loot. Others, including Mazza and David Gill of Looting Matters, have questioned why this "German officer" has disappeared now from every other account of the papyrus' provenance. But 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.)

Some skeptics raised the possibility that the Sappho papyrus might not have belonged to the Robinson collection at all — that instead it may have been tucked in with the lot before the Christie's sale. But Obbink says the piece does have its original Robinson collection inventory number attached to it. That will hopefully be made clear when the documents go online.

Inventory numbers in Obbink's original paper gave away the fact that the new Sappho papyrus was somehow connected to fragments in the Green Collection. That set off alarm bells for some scholars, such as Mazza, who outlined some of her worries in a presentation at an art crime conference in Italy last summer. Her concerns include texts that may be lost or ignored, and the cartonnage mummy masks that may be destroyed, in the search for biblical manuscripts.

Tim Whitmarsh, a classicist at the University of Cambridge, has similar apprehensions about the Greens' collecting habits.

"I don't think many of us are in a position to know what's really going on, and I don't want to allege mischief," Whitmarsh said. "I just have a nagging fear that secretive, billionaire-backed evangelicals questing after original Bibles aren't likely to be the best servants of disinterested classical scholarship."

But Obbink shot down any theories that the Green Collection was somehow linked to the anonymous collector in London. He said the London collector does not know the Greens, and the fragments were traded through at least one intermediary dealer. Obbink (who was listed as a co-editor on the Green Scholars Initiative's papyri series) said he didn't have a problem working with the Green Collection either, though he said its leaders were not overly keen on him working on the Sappho fragments because these poems weren't directly related to Christian history.

"The only real connection is that the monks of the Middle Ages may have conspired to destroy Sappho's writings since her brand of pagan sensuality was not compatible with Christianity — at a certain point in time anyway," Obbink said. "That's not a story they're interested in telling, but they didn’t try to stop me from publishing it anyway."

Obbink credited the Green Collection for preserving the Sappho fragments, and said he would have been more upset if those bits of text had gone missing or were lost.

"They could have gone into the hands of someone who did want to keep them away from other people," Obbink said.

This is where he might find common ground with his critics. The anxiety that more Sappho fragments could be hidden in anonymous, private collections is what turns some historians into amateur detectives.

"These little objects we are talking about, which range from Sappho verses to ancient tax receipts, are the basis of our study of history," Mazza said. "It's our cultural heritage. It may be the property of an institution or of a collector, but they are at the basis of what historians and classicists are doing. If we lose track of these materials, we lose track of our history — a piece of our history goes lost."