By: Brice C. Jones
Over the last decade, we have witnessed a growing fascination with ancient papyri from Egypt. By now, most people have heard of the Gospel of Judas, published in 2006, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, which made headlines in 2014, or, most recently, the controversial fragment of the Gospel of Mark that is reputed to have been extracted from Egyptian mummy cartonnage. What all of these manuscripts have in common is the material upon which their texts were inscribed: papyrus. What is this material? And where are all these manuscripts coming from?
Papyrus (pl. papyri) is a tall fibrous plant that grows along the shallow banks of the Nile River. As a general rule, almost all papyri from antiquity come from Egypt, whose arid climate facilitated their preservation over time. In particular, most papyri have been found south of the Nile Delta in cities and villages along the Nile River, since the soil in northern Egypt is more humid.
The ancient Egyptians used the papyrus plant for a variety of purposes in the ancient world, including for making sandals, mummy wrappings, rope, nets, sails, and basketry, but it was predominantly a writing surface. Many thousands of non-literary (or documentary) papyri from the Ptolemaic, Roman, and Byzantine periods have survived. Written in a variety of different languages, these documents attest to all facets of life: marriage, divorce, taxes, agriculture, banking, government, economics, death, and so on. To be sure, there are also copies of great literary masterpieces, including texts of Homer, Thucydides, Plato, Herodotus, and the Bible, just to name a handful. But these enjoyed a place predominantly among the upper echelons of society, since Egypt was generally, like most ancient societies, illiterate. Quotidian documents are more common.
Why is the Western world beginning to show such interest in ancient papyri? Over the last century, with respect to Egypt, it has generally been the great pyramids of Giza, the pharaohs, the Book of the Dead, the Nile, the desert, that have captivated the modern imagination—not scraps of papyri. Perhaps it is just the romantic notion of discovery that is so alluring. The media has certainly played a role in dramatizing certain papyrus discoveries; this is not a bad thing in itself. But global news coverage also increases the market value of such items. And this has in turn generated efforts on the part of antiquities dealers to hunt down artifacts to sell for profit.
In recent years, many papyri have surfaced on various online auction sites, such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Live Auctioneers, Bonhams, and the like. And they are being purchased at colossal prices. In December 2013, for example, a tiny 5th century C.E. fragment containing a small portion of text from the Gospel of Mark sold on Sotheby’s for £18,750 GBP (=around $30,000 USD). In 2012, a very fragmentary sheet from the 3rd century C.E. with portions of Paul’s epistle to the Romans sold for a whopping £301,250 GBP (=around $470,000 USD). And there are many more examples. What is most surprising, however, are the many hundreds of papyri that are being sold by private collectors on eBay. I have been keeping track of these sales, highlighting some of them on my academic blog. Examples include an early Coptic papyrus of Galatians, a Greek papyrus of the Gospel of John, a Greek papyrus of Homer, an early Coptic monastic text, among many others.
It is generally quite difficult to predict how much an ancient papyrus will sell for once it is listed on the market. Many auctions begin with an extremely low estimate and ultimately end with a very high winning bid. The reality is that there is no regulation on prices for ancient papyri. It is not like going to the auction to buy a car or a piece of sports memorabilia for which there is a steady market. Not surprisingly though, texts of a religious nature often fetch the highest prices. And there is a growing concern among scholars about how some Christian evangelists and organizations are buying and using ancient manuscripts for apologetic purposes. This entire religious subculture is in essence intensifying the efforts of antiquities dealers to procure ancient papyri and other antiquities. The concern here is a legal one.
There is one overriding question concerning the acquisition of papyri and other antiquities: have they been legally exported from their source country? If the answer is yes, then some sort of documentation must accompany the sale if these items are to some day end up in public collections. Export laws vary from country to country, as do the policies of auctioneers and antiquities dealers. However, Egypt is one country that is committed to repatriating items that have been illegally smuggled out. What we often see on the market are what archaeologists call “orphans,” that is, papyri or other objects whose provenance cannot be demonstrated. As a standard practice, North American museums cannot touch orphans, since there is always a possibility that they have been looted. But private collectors can, and in such cases there needs to be some sort of measures taken in order to prevent the illegal trade of stolen antiquities. I am not so sure that online auctions like eBay are helping the situation, since the appropriate documentation of provenance is often lacking.
This is an area that needs greater public awareness. It is no longer simply an academic conversation. It is time for scholars and public intellectuals alike to be more vocal about the importance of cultural heritage, provenance, and ethical practices where papyri and other ancient artifacts are concerned.
Brice C. Jones holds a Ph.D. in religion from Concordia University. His web site is http://www.bricecjones.com.
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