Diane Rayor: “Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ’ ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει, γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον.”
Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, a podcast where we investigate the truth and controversy surrounding Sappho, her life, the Isle of Lesbos, and her relevance today. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
LC: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we’re continuing our discussion from last episode, about the recent discovery of Sappho’s poems. This topic is so huge that this is the second part of what will actually be three episodes now.
LC: And we promise this is the end. We’re not going to make it four. We’re not going to make it five, because it was supposed to be one and now it’s three, but it’s just so much.
EB: There’s a lot of content.
EB: And we just want to give it all to you.
EB: We don’t want to leave you wanting more.
LC: I mean, we did leave you with a one month break after a cliffhanger, but here we are. As we do each episode, we’re going to start off with one of Sappho’s fragments, chosen by our resident poet, Alyse. Stay tuned until the end of the episode to hear our own version of the poem as a song.
AK: You’ll recall that in our last episode, I read you Anne Carson’s 2002 translation of Fragment 58. The thing that’s so exciting about today’s episode is that more of Fragment 58 was discovered in 2004. So now–
AK: Yes, more of it.
LC: Yes. And more is more as we know. So, it’s really a good thing, right?
AK: Yes. So the 2002 version, you remember, was really airy and open and fragmented. This version is much more–all the blanks have been filled in. So I’m going to read you Anne Carson’s 2004 post-discovery translation of Fragment 58. Here we go: “You, children, be zealous for the beautiful gifts of the violetlapped Muses / and for the clear songloving lyre. / But my skin once soft is now taken by old age, / my hair turns white from black. / And my heart is weighed down and my knees do not lift, / that once were light to dance as fawns. / I groan for this. But what can I do? / A human being without old age is not a possibility. / There is the story of Tithonos, loved by Dawn with her arms of roses / and she carried him off to the ends of the earth / when he was beautiful and young. Even so was he gripped / by white old age. He still has his deathless wife.”
EB: That’s the end?
AK: Yeah, did it leave you wanting more?
EB: Yeah, I was like, “What about the wife? What is it?” Well, I also asked, too, because we have a song coming up, as we do.
EB: And the translation for the song is a bit longer, if I’m correct.
AK: Yeah, so we used a different translation of this poem for the song than I just read. And there’s actually a little bit of scholarly debate around where the poem should end. So the version that we used is a little bit longer than this version. And that’s the beauty of translation, which we’ll be getting into in a future episode.
LC: We talked about the “Poem of Tithonus” with Liv, right?
AK: Yeah, the myth of Tithonus that gets mentioned in this poem–it’s kind of important to understand it–is that Tithonus was this guy, he was a human being beloved by the goddess Dawn. And so the goddess Dawn went to Zeus to ask him to make Tithonus immortal, so that he could, you know, be with her, an immortal goddess. And she forgot to ask Zeus to give Tithonus eternal youth. So Tithonus lived forever, he’s immortal. But he kept getting older and older and older until he was, you know, feeble and senile and locked up in a room and forgotten about. So it’s kind of a tragedy, and so Sappho is comparing herself to Tithonus saying, “No one can escape old age. Even Tithonus who, you know, tried to have a shortcut via a goddess, even he got old. And I’m getting old, I can’t dance anymore.” So this poem is commonly known as the “Old Age Poem” of Sappho.
EB: I have a question for both of you. Do you want to live forever, or do you want eternal youth?
LC: I want both.
EB: Or both.
AK: Wait, what is eternal youth without immortality?
EB: Or, okay–what if you were young forever until you died?
LC: Oh, you mean like young until you’re like 100, or however long people live for?
EB: Yeah. Or you live forever, but you keep getting old.
LC: I have such a problem with mortality. It’s been like–I had time off for the holidays, and then I started thinking about my own mortality. Like, I get FOMO about life after my life, you know.
AK: I think I want the Sappho option where I die, but my work lives on forever.
LC: Oh, yeah. I mean, what is this podcast for if not immortality, in our own way.
AK: Oh, fun story. I have a fun piece of trivia for you guys about old age, too, about this poem, because the 2004 bits of it that were discovered are actually the oldest Sappho artifact ever found.
LC: Oh, wow.
AK: They date to the early third century BC, which was only 300 years after she was alive. So the “Old Age Poem” is the oldest artifact of Sappho’s.
LC: That’s amazing.
EB: That is very cool.
AK: I know.
LC: Well, there was some people who didn’t like it very much, right? Like didn’t Anne Carson say that she liked the poem better before the new parts of it had come in?
AK: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. In her notes, with the translation I just read you, you can read this in the New York Review of Books. Maybe we can put the link in the show notes. She says she liked the old fragmented version better because it was more uncontainable and more open-ended and interesting. She said the old version just had fawns wandering around in the middle, but now they’re–in the new version–they’re relegated to a metaphor. You know, my knees used to be as light as fawns. And so now it’s been made kind of boring. So Anne Carson, she’s so smart, and in these notes, she actually like references RuPaul and quotes RuPaul to understand–
LC: How does she bring RuPaul into it?
AK: She’s talking about how Sappho uses really plain language in this poem, she uses really concrete adjectives and kind of stock Greek epithets for her descriptions. And so she quotes RuPaul saying, about clothes, “We’re all born naked, and the rest is just drag.”
AK: And she then says, Sappho is putting us into the problem of life and death in this really like naked way and just kind of letting us experience the way time pours out of this poem, without any kind of ornamentation.
EB: I love that. I also do feel like if we juxtaposed my response to last week–or, to last episode, the fragment and poem–with this week’s, I also sort of agree with Carson, like, the fragmented poem left me like, “Ah.”
EB: Like it’s just like, there was so much space. I think space is really the, like, correct word that you’re like, wow.
EB: And this one I was like, “Oh, that’s it?”
AK: This one’s a lot more direct, right?
LC: “Sappho: oh, that’s it?”
EB: –Ellie Brigida:.
AK: Yeah, I mean this says a lot about how we experience Sappho in her fragmentation as part of the beauty and the joy and the excitement. A lot of people point out that this poem sounds so much more direct. It has something to say. And some people have even speculated that it’s a didactic poem, that it was meant for her to sing to young girls to kind of teach them about, like, “Hey, take advantage of your youth, because you’re gonna get old like me. Look at my white hair.” And so that seemed kind of less, I don’t know, yeah–I might be with you, Ellie, and with Anne Carson on the like, fragmentation is inherently exciting.
EB: Filling in those spaces. I agree.
LC: And so you spoke to Sandra Boehringer, who we’ve spoken to before, about this poem. And she had some really interesting different interpretations of this poem.
AK: Yeah, Sandra, she’s a Greek historian and Sappho scholar and professor, and she gave this beautiful reading of the poem as not about old age at all. So let me play y’all the clip of her explaining this, and you’ll hear it as translated from the French by our friend of the pod, Annie McCarthy.
Sandra Boehringer/Annie McCarthy: What is fascinating, this poem, is that the symptoms that could be those of old age are also the symptoms of eros. So for me, this poem is not at all about age, it’s really a poem about love. That might make you think at one point that we are old, because we have all the symptoms, that we are weak and we can’t dance anymore. And if we have a close look at this poem, Sappho says, “I can’t dance anymore.” And at the end of the poem, “I pick it up again, and I continue to dance and sing.” So it’s a recovery. It’s eros who comes back and gives energy to sing and dance. This kind of poem is to be heard together in public. We have to be careful because in the same poems, we have a person who says, “I.” It’s usually sang by a choir group. So this “I,” it’s you, it’s me, when we’re singing for the lapse of the song. “I am Sappho, you are Sappho.”
EB: We are all Sappho.
AK: Do you not have chills right now?
EB: Well, I love to–like obviously, we talk a lot about Sappho and eros. And I feel like we’re like, “Oh, this poem doesn’t really fit in.” But I actually really like the interpretation of, “Oh, yeah, it does. She’s just using another metaphor for eros.” Also, just Sandra speaks so eloquently. It’s beautiful.
LC: She does. Damn the French and their beautiful language.
AK: Je suis Sappho. Vous et Sappho. It’s so nice.
LC: So beautiful. Well, thank you so much, Alyse, for sharing that with us.
LC: We’re gonna let you go, and get into it.
EB: Before we get into the episode today, we want to remind you that, as in the last episode, everything in the upcoming podcast is alleged as it is now. Please take this as a disclaimer for the whole episode. Everything we touch on has been reported in reputable news outlets or academic journals, and we’re simply relaying the info.
LC: So let’s do a quick recap. In 2014, renowned papyrologist Dirk Obbink announced the discovery of Sappho’s poetry. That was sketchy to say the least. There were several different provenance stories, which had people in the papyrology world asking questions about where they had come from, since if we don’t know the origins for sure, they could be looted.
Scholars were also concerned that Obbink had ties with the Greens, wealthy evangelicals who own Hobby Lobby, and were collecting massive amounts of ancient artifacts for their Museum of the Bible. We’ll let Ariel Sabar, the Atlantic journalist who reported on the story, take it from here, followed by papyrologist, Malcolm Choat.
Ariel Sabar: What he’s now under investigation for by the police is selling biblical fragments from the Oxyrhynchus Collection to the Greens. So in other words, he’s selling fragments from the collection doctor he’s charged with overseeing to the Green family, and they’re largely biblical fragments of the sort that they want. And he’s actually–and he’s been accused of falsely dating them to the first century, which would make them very, very exciting and unprecedented. So–but they don’t actually date to the first century. So he lies about the provenance of biblical fragments, he’s allegedly–I should say allegedly–stealing from Oxford. It’s important also to know that Dirk Obbink denies doing any of this. So given his view, he denies doing it. But the accusation and what police are now investigating and what he’s been detained for questioning in Oxford, is selling biblical fragments from his own collection to the Greens, lying about their provenance in order to launder the profit, saying they come from an anonymous owner, an anonymous family, and selling them to the Greens, the Greens paid him something like, again, $1.8 million for those. These were discoveries I made in the course of reporting the story about all of this for the Atlantic magazine in June of this year. And so the fact that Dirk Obbink is now accused of faking provenance to sell biblical fragments to the Greens raises questions about whether he might also be faking the provenance of the Sappho fragments. Now there’s no indication–and I want to be clear–there’s no indication that these Sappho fragments come from the Oxyrhynchus Collection. I get asked that question, “Could it be that these were discovered in, you know, late 19th century, early 20th century, part of this collection at Oxford, and he stole them, allegedly brought them to the Greens.” There’s no evidence for that, and there’s no accusation along those lines. The larger question that was raised is, “Is he putting out a fake story about where these come from to disguise their actual origins?”
Malcolm Choat: So people say, “Okay, well, what’s up with the Sappho then, because this is the same person that is now almost highly likely, if not proven, to have stolen papyri from the Oxyrhynchus Collection and tried to sell them, or actually sold them, to other people.” And people started picking holes in the provenance narrative, the many collection histories that Obbink had put forward for the Sappho papyrus. People said, “Well, you said it was found in 2012. But here’s a photo of it from 2011. But you said that it came from here, but that’s obviously impossible.” More people started talking about the authenticity of the piece. So we in papyrology are now primed to see fakes. Of course us, because we work on fakes here at Macquarie. But we’re very careful not to just wildly accuse things of being fake, because overwhelmingly things are a genuine article, and we need to develop criteria for discussing whether they’re fake or not. But a lot of people out there now in the papyrological and the general ancient history community just have a hair trigger for saying things are fake. “This is a bit dodgy. Must be a fake. We don’t know where this came from. Probably a fake.” And so some people simply say, “Well, we don’t know where this came from. So how do we know this new Sappho poem is authentic?” And other people said, “What are you talking about? To fake this, you’d have to have, like, you’d have to be one of the world’s best Greek scholars. You’d have to know Archaic poetry intimately. You’d have to have access to papyrus, know how to make ink, and have a way to sell it. And you’d have to know–you have to be one of the world’s best papyrologists, again.” And a number of them said, “Yeah, but I can think of one person who ticks all of those things, like the person who actually propagated it.” A number of people had also said, “Well this poetry, this is not up to Sappho’s standards. This doesn’t look very good compared to the rest of her poetry.” I’m sure some of your other, like, interviewees might have said that the “Brothers Poem” looked, to some Sappho experts, as if it was sort of poor quality Sappho.
EB: So he’s saying that because this poem doesn’t seem as good as Sappho’s usual stuff, some people think it might be faked?
LC: Savage. So does that mean we think the “Old Age Poems–“
LC: Should we wreck on that? It’s just like, “It’s not good. We don’t claim it.” If only it was like that, hey? Like every bad thing you ever did.
EB: The “Old Age Poem” is good. I think we’re just saying that we like the fragmentation. That’s all.
LC: Yes. I mean, this was echoed by a few of the classicists we spoke to regarding the “Brothers Poem.” You might remember Marguerite Johnson, who was from one of our earlier episodes. Here’s what she had to say.
Marguerite Johnson: So there’s an ethical problem about the “Brothers Poem” in terms of the provenance, but there is also the problem that some Sappho scholars have, which is, “Are they authentic?” Because if the provenance is sketchy, and there’s little information about how they actually came to be in the collection at Oxford–have they been dated, you know, definitively, so the script, the physical artifacts tacked on in which they were written–so some people are a bit cautious about the authenticity of them, mostly because of the controversy around where they actually came from.
MC: But Sappho could have had an off day. But when people started saying, “Well, it wouldn’t be possible to forge this,” as someone who studies forgery, that’s where I step in and say, “No, no, no. It’s very possible to make something that fools experts,” because we had over 100 fragments of what we thought were Dead Sea scrolls that fooled the world’s top scholars and these Dead Sea scrolls are now absolutely, certainly fake. All the ones that came on the market in the last 20 years are almost certainly fake, or the vast majority of them. We look at the Sappho papyrus in the photos, which is all it’s got, and it doesn’t look like a lot of our forgeries that we know, because it doesn’t have lots of the tells, in many ways. But that could just mean that the forger with much better, because there’s also opportunity and motive and, of course, financial opportunity, conceivably. But that discussion can never be solved, except really by really close examination of the original. We’re probably not going to get that, because who even knows where the Sappho papyrus is now.
EB: Alright. So people know so little about where this poem came from that they’re actually starting to think it might not even be real?
LC: Yeah, it’s a mess. All the scholars are asking questions about this “Brothers Poem” and whether it’s forged or stolen, or what to do about the fact that they really couldn’t trust Obbink anymore. And then, papyrologist and classicist, Mike Sampson, and his colleague, Anna Uhlig, broke huge ground in November 2019 with a big discovery. Before I let Mike explain it, because he’ll do a way better job than me, I just want to remind you that Obbink’s very first provenance story was that the new Sappho came from mummy cartonnage, which, as we discussed last episode, is basically papier-mâché–owned by a high-ranking German officer. But then eventually said that the first story wasn’t true, and replaced it with a bunch of other provenance stories
Mike Sampson: After the allegations against Obbink were aired and came to light last summer, involving the Egypt Exploration Society’s Collection of Oxyrhynchus papyri, I was asked to author a piece for EIDOLON’s special issue on papyrus thefts, just about the Sappho controversy and the history, and I did this with the help of–in collaboration with a colleague at the University of California, Davis, Anna Uhlig, a wonderful scholar, a great friend. And we wrote up essentially the history of the provenance of P. Sapph. Obbink, which is its technical name, you know, in the different, the changing, the evolving stories. and the controversy that had surrounded it. And on the day after that article went live, I received an email from a scholar named Ute Wartenberg Kagan, who was, at the time, a research curator at the American Numismatic Society. She had just stepped down from the position of executive director of the Society, a position she had held for 20 years, essentially. Prominent figure in numismatics involves ancient coinage and the study of coinage, and has all of the same issues of collecting and provenance that the papyrological world does. And in fact, she had been trained as a papyrologist at Oxford, so she was inherently sort of interested in the story. And in her email to me, she said, “Have you seen the Christie’s brochure, with the pictures of it coming out of mummy cartonnage?” I sort of scratched my head, I said, “No, I haven’t seen the brochure.” And I quickly sort of checked all of the other, you know, discussions on blogs and tried to figure out if anybody had seen it, and as best as I could tell, no one had. And so we began a correspondence, and we had several phone conversations. And she shared with me this brochure that she had received from an acquaintance, and inside it were pictures of the alleged discovery of this papyrus. The first picture that caught my attention of the extraction has a bulk of papyrus lying in a ceramic basin, next to a painted mummy cartonnage panel. And so I’m looking at this and I’m saying, “This is the original story. This is the version–the first version–that Obbink being published in The Times literary supplement, and which Bettany Hughes had reported in the Sunday Times.” And I said to myself, “I wonder if I can find out where this cartonnage came from.” And I started looking at auction results: Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bohnam’s, and basically looking through old auctions and their cartonnage lots to see if it popped up, and I found it. It had been sold at Sotheby’s in, I think, 2008. And the thing that sort of leapt off the page at me is, on the Sotheby’s auction results, it indicated the provenance for this piece of mummy cartonnage. And it had previously belonged, it was claimed, to an individual named Rainer Kriebel, who had acquired it in Cairo in the 19–I think it was in the 1960s. Rainer Kriebel rose to the rank of “Oberst,” which is German for essentially “Colonel” during the Second World War. Here was the high-ranking German officer that Bettany Hughes had written about in the Sunday Times. And so what I realized here is that I had visual evidence of this original story, which had been sort of swept under the rug.
EB: So if Mike found evidence that Obbink’s first story was true, isn’t that good for Obbink?
LC: Yeah, that’s what Alyse and I thought when we were talking to him, too. But because Obbink had said the first story wasn’t true, and then replaced it with all these other stories, it maybe still isn’t good for Obbink. And also, Mike found out that the story couldn’t have actually been true at all.
MS: Yeah, it essentially–it wasn’t a mistake that it had been deliberately concocted, is my conclusion, by the owner of the papyrus in order to provide a provenance for a papyrus that otherwise didn’t have one. The problem was that if the papyrus came from this mummy panel, which was the original story, that was just patently impossible, because mummy cartonnage does not contain papyrus in the time that the papyrus was said to have been written. There was simply a disconnect. The third century CE papyrus, and the mummy cartonnage dates to the Ptolemaic period, sort of before Christ. And so there’s hundreds of years in between. This story–this is why it was called out immediately by scholars who said, you know, “How can you get a third century papyrus out of mummy cartonnage? It doesn’t make sense.” And that’s why the story was essentially retracted and swept under the rug. And a year later, we get this new version involving domestic or industrial cartonnage, which retains the key idea, right? It came out of cartonnage. But sort of gets rid of the problematic elements, the Ptolemaic mummy bit, and the high-ranking German officer bit, and essentially sort of moves on to a new version of the story. The story involving mummy cartonnage was concocted and used, I think, in an attempt to sell the papyrus, as a way to provide cover. “Where did it come from? Well, it came from mummy cartonnage. And the mummy cartonnage has this provenance.” And that’s where Kriebel comes in and that’s where Kriebel was so important, and the fact that he is said to have acquired the cartonnage in the 1960s in Cairo is important, because it brings it back prior to that UNESCO convention from 1970, right? Ethically speaking, this is an object that is in the clear and is admissible for scholarly study, but it couldn’t have come out of the cartonnage. And so that story is clearly bogus. And instead of, you know, accepting the idea that it was an accident, you know, what the Christie’s brochure shows me is, in fact, no, these pictures were staged in order to sort of present that version of the story. And when that version of the story was sort of swept under the rug, well there’s still the pictures that reflect it.
AS: There are photos in the brochure that purport to show the Sappho poems pre-extraction, next to this mummy mask or mummy panel, I should say. Is it a mummy mask, or is it part of the mummy case? The cartonnage was used for both, but again, that’s probably an evolving story. A mummy case panel next to sort of a wadded up piece of papyrus–that suggests that it was once part of cartonnage and that it came from this panel that it’s next to. But the date of the photos, it doesn’t work with what else is known about the chronology when the extraction is said to have happened. We know that those photos reflect the first provenance story, not the evolving ones. So this brochure was put together at a time before Dirk Obbink or whoever was involved in the sale. And it’s good that Dirk Obbink was involved, at least in advising the owner, because a lot of his language appears there. That the brochure was prepared at a time in which people did not think that the provenance story would be questioned. This may be why the sale never went through, or enough questions were raised about this. Sellers were like, “I’m not gonna spend $15 million for something with this many question marks.” It shows that there was an effort to obfuscate and lie about provenance through the Christie’s brochure, at least it appears to show that. And in fact, Mike Sampson, the classicist in his peer-reviewed article in the Bureau of the American Society of Papyrologists that just came out, he uses two terms. So there are basically two classes of provenance story that Dirk Obbink or his associates have told. The first story that Dirk Obbink told, Mike Sampson calls the “original provenance fiction.” And the second story that Dirk Obbink told, this classicist calls the “revised provenance fiction.” And yeah, this is Mike Sampson from the University of Manitoba, these aren’t my words. So he has studied the evidence, he’s looked at the brochure, he’s also looked at the other stories. He believes that both of the provenance stories are bogus, my own reporting–he basically basically corroborates my own reporting for the Atlantic. And so the brochure suggests that, at the time, this papyrus was being groomed for sale, for $15 million, at a time when Dirk Obbink was also spending a lot of money that a lot of people were surprised that any classicist would be able to spend. Including purchasing a giant, dilapidated castle in Waco, Texas, at a time when Dirk Obbink was thinking of potentially leaving Oxford for Baylor, where Waco is. So he, you know–to have someone come and buy a castle on it and then be willing to spend a few million dollars rehabbing it, when you’re just a classicist, not a business owner, a CEO. Again, people at Baylor are like, “How the–what–why is he–how could he afford to buy it? And why does he decide to buy a castle, of all things, in Waco, Texas?” And so, you know, now that people know that he was selling allegedly stolen papyri from his own collection at Oxford to the Greens, these biblical papyri, that might explain some of the money. But if you are in fact behind, or if you were in fact able to receive a cut of the Sappho sales from Christie’s, that might explain another source of income for him. Again, these are allegations at this point. We need to be very clear about that. But there’s certainly a circumstantial case that Dirk Obbink was involved, in some way, in the preparation of the Sappho for sale through Christie’s.
EB: We’re gonna take a quick break to hear from some sponsors, and we’ll be right back.
EB: So Leesa, I heard there was a castle foreclosed on, and I think it’s up for sale. Should we–should we go in on it?
LC: You know we’re raking in just so much money. Who doesn’t have money lying around for a castle?
EB: I mean, all we have to do is find some Sappho fragments.
EB: Then we can get a castle. Let’s do it. I mean, that obviously all sounds pretty damning.
LC: Yeah. And Ariel Sabar broke another new key part of the story in his Atlantic article from just this past summer, the one we first saw, since he discovered yet another fake provenance story for the Sappho.
AS: So the Green Collection have this kind of larger-than-life head of collections named Scott Carroll, who has a PhD in ancient history, he then became a consultant to evangelical Christians seeking to amass large collections of Bibles. And he’s hired by the Greens to head up their collecting spree. Some people describe him as a circus act, you know, he’s very colorful, he’s very good at sort of getting people excited about papyri. So in January of 2012, he goes to Baylor University to put on a demonstration for their Classics department about how exciting it is to be able to dissolve a mummy mask and pull out all these amazing pieces of papyri from antiquity. And all these students are in the room, all these classicists from Baylor are in the room in the Classics department lounge. He puts on this demonstration where he fills a sink with warm water, pours some palm oil soap into it, dunks a mummy mask into it, and then begins moving the mummy mask around in the warm water and then pulling out fragments of papyri, and laying them out on pieces of paper towel to dry. There’s a younger classicist at Baylor and he’s looking at these tiny pieces of papyrus that are coming out of this mummy mask and he’s like, “These are four-line stanzas in the Aeolic dialect. This looks like Sappho.” I mean he was–this is the kind of thing that is like mind blowing for classicists to be looking down at papyrus that have just emerged from some mysterious place. In this case, it seemed to have been pulled from the inside of a mummy mask. And you realize that, “I’m looking at Sappho,” and the room just becomes standing room only. You know, word is racing through the Classics department. One professor is in tears. I mean, it’s like this mind-blowing thing. This scholar, Simon Burris, at Baylor says, “I was gobsmacked.” Like he said–I think he said something like, “Not without the moley.” I mean, it was like–he was just like, it was gobsmacking for him. And here’s this young scholar who believes he has made a major Sappho discovery. Here are 20 pieces of Sappho that no one’s ever seen before, that have just been pulled out of the mummy mask, you know. “I’m the one who identified them.” And everyone in the room is really going nuts over this.
EB: I mean, if I was there, I’d be running around the room crying. But yeah, I mean, it sounds really exciting.
LC: It does. And so this was yet another provenance story for the Sappho. But Ariel pointed out to us that it never leaked out at the time. The big discovery of Sappho at Baylor never became public, which started raising suspicions of people at Baylor. Because like, I mean, you’d want to share the news, right? So they were wondering why the Greens were keeping the Baylor discoveries so quiet. And then, the scholar who identified the Sappho in the mummy mask started wondering why they were so easy to identify. It almost seemed like too good to be true, like how easy it was to tell that they were Sappho. So he started wondering, were they really being pulled out of the mummy mask? Or did Scott Carroll just slip them in there to stage the discovery and create a legitimate provenance story?
AS: The head of Green’s collection, Scott Carroll, this colorful scholar I was telling you about–did he know they were there beforehand? Or did he plant them? And in the course of my reporting, I actually wound up confronting Scott Carroll and saying, “Look, there are a lot of people who really wonder whether those fragments of Sappho were ever really in that mummy mass, or whether you maybe put them there.” And to use Scott Carroll’s credit, for the first time, he acknowledged to me, he’s like, “Yeah, I pretended to pull them out of the mummy mask.” His reasoning was that, “I wanted to demonstrate how exciting it could be to dismantle a mummy mask, and all the exciting things you can find. And not really being sure of what I might find that actual day, I decided to mix in some things from the Green Collection that I knew were exciting. Just to demonstrate to people how exciting it could potentially be.” His quote to me was, “At the time, I didn’t feel it was deceptive.” There are other questions raised about Scott Carroll’s conduct but–including the fact that he made up a bunch of things on his resume that got him fired by the Greens very shortly after this presentation. So you have Scott Carroll who’s working closely with Dirk Obbink as the top papyrus consultant, who has now been exposed as having planted Sappho in a mummy mask that it didn’t come from. You talk about laundering in a figurative sense. So it’s a literal laundering of provenance. You’re putting Sappho–and by the way, if you’re an archaeologist, or you’re a lover of Sappho’s work, can you imagine how you feel that someone is taking a very rare piece of Sappho, dunking it in the sink in a university with palm oil soap, and then pulling it out again? Conservationists–this must be giving you fits, because this is not how you treat very rare archaeological objects. I mean, the ink won’t necessarily fade, you know, like, probably the papyrus and the writing on top of it will be okay. But I mean, it’s like really, you’re gonna dump one-of-a-kind piece of Sappho in a sink, just to fake a demonstration for you and for students? So that also raises a lot of questions. And so now you’ve got this other provenance story that no one’s ever heard of before.
LC: It just feels really irresponsible. Just let’s just dump it all in the sink and just…
EB: I know. I’m like–and I said I’d be crying of joy. But like if the Sappho got ruined…
LC: Oh my goodness.
LC: I’m not even–there are some like clothes I own that I wouldn’t even do that with.
LC: And then this is ancient papyri.
EB: But I mean, at this point, I’m losing track of all these fake provenance stories. Do we have any idea where this Sappho actually came from?
LC: So I’m going to let Ariel explain that. But first, I just want to briefly point out that he mentions a big fragment of Sappho, as well as some smaller bits. And this is just because the 2014 discovery was actually one large sheet of papyrus, as well as a few other smaller fragments.
AS: The other thing I was able to discover–again, thanks to the sources I was able to develop–is that, in fact, the Sappho that were pulled out of the mask were visible in photos taken two months before as part of a sales invoice. And this is a sales invoice for papyri that was acquired by the Greens, the Hobby Lobby family, and acquired by them from a Turkish dealer named Yakup Eksioglu, who scholars suspect of trafficking elicit papyri. And the Greens have acknowledged that they did in fact acquire the smaller bits of papyrus, not the large Sappho, but the smaller bits of papyrus contain Sappho from this Turkish dealer, several weeks before Scott Carroll fakes their discovery in a mummy mask at Baylor. And this Turkish dealer who I interviewed denied. He claims that he was the source of all of the Sappho, both the Sappho that Dirk Obbink winds up publishing–the two new poems–and the smaller bits of papyrus that were extracted at Baylor. So he says, “Both of those come from my family.” But when I–again, when I asked him to document or corroborate that they came from his family, rather than being looted, he wasn’t particularly helpful. He also claimed that the story that either of the Sappho being sold at Christie’s was a fake story. He told me that that was made up and in fact, they didn’t come from Christie’s at all. And I said, “Well, then what other story? They were pulled out of cartonnage, whether they came out at the demonstration of Baylor or somewhere else.” And he said, “Well, no that also was staged. We folded the Sappho together in such a way you can take pictures of it to make it look like it came from cartonnage, but they didn’t come from cartonnage. They were just always loose papyri.” Now, this Turkish dealer isn’t the most credible person in the world. He’s also acknowledged telling me lies. So he might have his own axe to grind. What’s clear from from both his story and other documented pieces of evidence is that he, in fact, was the seller of the smaller bits of Sappho to the Green family, and that he is denying either that they were sold through Christie’s, or that they were ever part of the mummy mask, or any other kind of cartonnage–which punctures a huge hole through the story that Dirk Obbink has told about where these papyri come from.
EB: So if you bought your artifacts from this Turkish dealer, you’d want to cover it up, because it wouldn’t be legal or ethical to get them from this guy.
LC: Exactly. We learned more about this dealer from Roberta Mazza, an ancient historian at the University of Manchester, who has done a ton of academic detective work on the Obbink story, and reported about all of it in her blog, Faces & Voices. In fact, Roberta was one of the first academics to start looking into the Sappho provenance after Obbink’s announcement of the discovery in 2014. She was suspicious right from the beginning, and she did some incredible work tracking down Eksioglu.
Roberta Mazza: So I started investigating. I was very upset that the academic who gave the announcement was very reluctant in giving us documents and proof that these papyri were legally sourced. And then I also discovered that were already, you know, some papyrologists working on this, but I discovered myself the world of the internet and eBay, and other means that now is strange. Figures, like this famous Yahoo, but Eksioglu have to, you know, sell the material around. I was pestering everyone, from Dirk Obbink down to Scott Carroll–everyone. So I was bombarding people with questions and things. Then, completely by chance–and I’ve accounted this in some of my, you know, online interventions–I was here in Italy for Easter, mainly living with my mother. And I was very bored. And I decided to start a project that was, you know, checking on eBay. How many papyri were on offer? In the course of a year–at the beginning, I thought, yes, let’s quantify how many papyri are on offer in the course of a year. And as soon as I started, I realized that this account, which at that time was called “ebuyer” and was connected with these famous Galician fragments that was bought by the Greens that I was somehow trying to track back, was active on eBay. So I decided–excitement, in the boring life of the classicist–and I said, “Now I will pretend to be a buyer,” because I was obsessed with these Galician fragments, and it was this famous fragment that was on sale on eBay through this guy, and then appeared, all suddenly, among the fragments of the Green collection that I saw at an exhibition at the Vatican. So when I saw that the guy was again, active, I thought, “I will discover something about him.” I contacted him through the system of eBay, pretending that I was very stupid, pretending to be a buyer. And he said, “Okay, so you are interested in my fragment. Okay, let’s move to WhatsApp.” And I said, “Of course!” And I gave him my number, but he gave me his number. So immediately, I thought, “Ah, I have his number! So let’s Google his number.” What can you do? I googled his number, and I discovered everything about him.
EB: Wow. Roberta is like Harriet the spy.
EB: Or Nancy Drew. I’m like, any of them.
LC: Any of them. Veronica Mars. I just imagine her–you know how Veronica Mars always had those like ridiculous voices on the phone? I just imagine Roberta putting on some weird accent, talking to this guy on the phone.
EB: I’m very, very impressed. I’m so happy we got to talk to her as well.
LC: So Ariel reported in his Atlantic article that apparently, Eksioglu first began selling antiquities on eBay in 2008. So he was in Egypt at the time, which is again, not a good look for my guy, because it’s illegal to sell artifacts out of Egypt. That didn’t stop Obbink from working with him. So Ariel reported in the Atlantic that Obbink actually introduced some of the Green’s people to Eksioglu and encouraged them to buy from him, then Roberta decided to do something.
RM: After a while, we started, you know, he started sending me material. So I discovered a lot. So I was thinking, “Should I write an article about this? Or what should I do?” It was an issue because it was clear that something was wrong. And I decided to go to the art and antiquities branch of Scotland Yard, which is based in London. And from then on, I think a sort of investigation started, that connected also with the other investigations. So I went to the police in early summer. And then I went to this big conference, that is, the Society of Biblical Literature, our annual meeting. And I pull out what I had discovered, and the Green people were somehow nervous, because they realized that, you know, I was aware of a number of things.
EB: This is incredible.
LC: Who knew? Who knew?
EB: I would, I think, give five—as we talk about old age in this–I would give five years off of my life to be at that conference where Roberta spoke.
LC: But I mean, it didn’t come without consequences. So she was threatened at one point, by Eksioglu.
RM: After one year that we were chatting, at some point, the conversation stopped. And then all suddenly, one day, my phone rang, and he started sending me threats out of the blue. In my opinion, why he is doing this now? We were not in conversation since a while. So I contacted, of course, the police. It was a bigger disaster somehow, because of course, since I was teaching, I had to think about–I mean, he had a base in London, and he told me that he had a flat in London. So at some point, we were thinking, to me, I mean, I was thinking, “Oh god, this guy could come and something might happen.” So I was really frightened and preoccupied, so I alerted also the police. What I gathered is that he got nervous because the investigation led somewhere.
LC: Oh my goodness, a man threatening a woman? In this day and age?
EB: God, it’s horrible. It’s so horrible. But we do know that Eksioglu sold the Sappho to the Greens, but we still don’t know where he got it from.
LC: Still a lot of questions. But both Roberta and Ariel told us that everything points to them having been illicitly sold out of Egypt, allegedly.
AS: We just don’t know where they come from. There’s just a question mark. But more likely, given this Turkish dealer’s ties to Egypt and Syria, and actually Dirk Obbink’s ties to people who are dealers with Syrian ties, if they’re in fact authentic, they could well be being looted.
EB: Where in the world is Dirk Obbink? But really, where is he? So where is he now?
LC: So he denies having any involvement in any of this, and claims that he’s been framed. So I’ll let Ariel say more from here.
AS: After the Greens and Oxford discovered that something like 17 of the papyri that the Greens bought for the museum, for their own collection and potentially the Museum of the Bible–17 of those were stolen from Oxford. That was actually reported to the police and the Thames Valley police began an investigation, and then in March of this year, Dirk Obbink was arrested, and that means, essentially, that he was detained for questioning. The term that the police used when I spoke to them was that he was “arrested, detained for questioning on suspicion of theft and fraud.” As of at least a few months ago, there were no charges filed yet. He remains under active investigation. So, whether he wants to being charged or not in the alleged theft from Oxford, the biblical fragments, we won’t know until that investigation is complete. It’s still ongoing. Dirk Obbink has been suspended, relieved of his teaching duties at Oxford.
EB: Okay, so we know where Dirk is, but what about the Greens?
LC: So Rebecca told us that the Greens have introduced new policies for their purchasing and collecting.
EB: Okay, and what happened to the artifacts? The ones Eksioglu sold the Greens, and the ones Obbink sold them?
LC: The Greens had to send back everything to Egypt that they had purchased from sketchy sources, which is 5,000 papyri, the ones that lacked sufficient evidence of not having been stolen or looted, which is an enormous portion of their collection. So some of those are Sappho, and they’ll be going back to Egypt. But the biggest one is totally lost. We have no idea where it is.
EB: Wait, we literally don’t know where this huge Sappho discovery is? It’s gone. It’s missing.
LC: Yeah, apparently. So the Greens also returned the stolen Oxford fragments back to Oxford and asked Obbink to refund them for what they paid him for them. So, so far, he’s paid back $100,000 of the $1.5 million worth of fragments. So he sold them 15 of Oxford’s fragments, according to Ariel. But Ariel reports that he then stopped communicating with them after this whole business broke out in the news last fall. So, you know, he just ghosted them, basically.
EB: This is insanity.
LC: He might have to return his castle.
EB: Well, we’re buying it.
LC: It can’t be hard to find, just go to Texas.
EB: We’re buying it! So it’s fine.
LC: It is a wild story. But it’s really important to note that Obbink is a famous case of this, but this is not the only case. Roberta really stressed this to us.
RM: This is a wild story, as you say, because of these many twists and whatever. But it’s not really new. Academics involved in the antiquities trade–it’s plenty of them. And I decided that somehow, you have to act. I mean, how many academics are collaborating with auction houses, providing their own opinions on things? I was bothered about this, and, of course, I was stubborn, in a way, because I thought that it was also a matter of power, you know, and the arrogance of some people who think that they can do whatever they like. Like with Mr. Green, I was thinking, “Okay, if you are a millionaire, the American system gives you the opportunity to build your own museum, and I’m fine with that, you know. If you have plenty of money, and you want to open a museum, fine. But you can’t go against the law.” For me, it was just–you know, I felt that there was so much arrogance in that, that I decided that I wanted to have clarity, and now that I have clarity, I am happy, you know. Yes, I mean, they had to send back most of their Egyptian material to Egypt. 5,000 items are on the way to go back to Egypt.
AK: The Greens had to send stuff back? Wow, I didn’t realize that.
RM: Yes, because they had to admit, for instance, that many of their papyri were both from Eksioglu. What I wanted to achieve was for them to send back the material that they have illegally sourced. Of course, there is the fact that they are sending back material is not only because academics made this noise, but also because, and most importantly, the police have acted.
EB: Okay, so if there are academics getting improperly involved in the antiquities trade all over the place, like Roberta says, then where does that leave the field of papyrology? What do they do next to prevent more cases like Obbink?
LC: So these questions are so massive, and as we said at the beginning of the episode, we didn’t expect to make this a three-parter, but we thought that they were so important that we should dedicate a whole episode to them. That’s what we’re going to be talking about next episode.
EB: Well, I am really looking forward to that. In the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Roberta Mazza: Rather than being focused on the story of Dirk Obbink and all this drama that, of course, was the highlight of the media–for me, what was interesting was to study the wider environment and to ask myself and my colleagues, “How could it have happened?”
Usama Gad: Archaeology in Egypt still works in the footsteps of the colonizers.
Malcolm Choat: These were objects that contained people that meant something to other people who were buried the way we bury our dead relatives and friends and loved ones. And the hell that they are just objects to be consumed for our expanding knowledge or because they look nice.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode will be released on the 28th of January. As always, stick around until the end of the podcast to hear our original song for the post-2004 discovery of Fragment 58, written and performed by us. Quick note, today’s song uses a different translation of the post-2004 discovery poem 58. So instead of the one by Carson that you heard, the lyrics from today’s song come from J. Simon Harris’s translation. You may have noticed that we’ve been using a lot of different translations of Sappho, mostly Carson and Rayor. We’ve had heaps of questions about which translations are better, and we will be discussing them more in an upcoming episode.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps other people find the show, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. Speaking of Apple podcasts, we want to thank everyone who left us poem reviews. We loved them so much.
LC: We want to keep the competition going, so we’re going to draw the winner at the end of the series in the next fortnight’s episode. So there’s still time to get in and give us a review if you’d like. Thank you so much for our new patrons this week: Christine, Patrick, Liz, Michelle, Katie, and Liv. We’re so grateful for your support. As always, you can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte. Our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Music is by Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody. Special thanks to Old Songs, Roberta Mazza, Sandra Boehringer, Annie McCarthy, Marguerite Johnson, Malcolm Choat, Mike Sampson, and Ariel Sabar for sharing their knowledge with us today.
LC: If you’d like to look into more of Roberta’s work, you can find her blog, Faces & Voices, in our show notes. You can also follow her at @papyrologyatman, like A-T-M-A-N, at the end. You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website and in the “About” section.
EB: And now, our song for Fragment 58, which features vocals from our poet in residence, Alyse.