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…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we’ll be concluding our three-part series on the recent Sappho papyrology scandal that rocked the Classics world.
LC: Such a scandal. As we do each episode, we’re going to start 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. And this one was suggested to us by Roberta Mazza, actually. So Alyse, tell us more about it.
Alyse Knorr: Yeah, so the brilliant ancient historian Roberta Mazza, who we interviewed for our last episode, told us about this papyrus, which was edited in 1937 by a woman named Medea Norsa, a papyrologist who published this poem which was originally found on a potsherd. So it’s an ostracon. Remember that word, from our papyrology episode?
EB: Yes, Leesa knows it well.
LC: You mean the means to banish me from the podcast?
EB: You don’t remember that?
AK: There’s pictures of it online. It’s like a really cute little shard of pottery that apparently has really, really terrible spelling and grammar. So there’s a thought that maybe it was a school exercise, like a student was copying the poem as a little exercise in class to like, learn how to read and write. So that’s cute, but it’s also a devastatingly beautiful poem. So here goes. This is Sappho’s Fragment 2, as translated by Diane Rayor: “Come to me from Krete to this holy temple, / here to your sweet apple grove, / altars smoking with / frankincense. // Cold water ripples through apple branches, / the whole place shadowed in roses, / from the murmuring leaves / deep sleep descends. // Where horses graze, the meadow blooms / spring flowers in the winds / breathe softly . . . / * // Here, Aphrodite, after gathering . . . / pour into golden cups nectar / lavishly mingled / with joys.”
EB: I love it.
LC: It’s beautiful.
EB: I love all the apples.
AK: Yes, apples are imagery that–apples and horses and roses and meadows–these are all things that are traditionally linked in Greek mythology to Aphrodite. But it is important that this takes place in this apple grove, because the apples are kind of a symbol for like erotic and female desire.
LC: And you said a kid was writing this poem?
AK: Yes, that’s your homework. To copy this sexy love poem.
EB: Apples are like the peach emoji of Greece, is that what we’re saying?
LC: Oh wow.
LC: I love that. I’m gonna start using apples from now on.
EB: Apple-bottom jeans, boots with the fur.
AK: The grove sounds a lot like, you know, paradise in a lot of ways, some scholars have talked about. And there’s also that part right in the middle where everybody’s getting sleepy. There’s one scholar who talked about how that’s nothing short of post-coital. So it’s a super–
LC: We know about naps. We know how the naps work.
EB: Quenching our desire for a bed, you know?
AK: Yeah, totally.
EB: I get it.
AK: So she’s calling on Aphrodite again, just like she did in Fragment 1 that we started this whole podcast with. But what’s different about this is that usually poems would begin with the call out to the god at the beginning, but instead this one ends with it. And it’s not clear whether that’s just like, because we’re missing too much of the poem, or if it’s because that’s the way Sappho wrote it. She wanted to create tension and make you wait to find out who she’s addressing until kind of four stanzas in. This poem is really exciting too because of the manner in which it was discovered. I mentioned that woman, Medea Norsa, who is a sadly unusual editor of Sappho manuscripts for reasons that Roberta explained to us.
Roberta Mazza: For instance, among these famous papyrologists who have provided additions, there are only fucking men! They are all men. The only one papyrus of, you know, the many that we have of Sappho has been firstly published by a woman, this famous Medea Norsa, a splendid Italian woman of Jewish origin, by the way, who worked more or less in the fascist era. So she’s the only one who never became a professor, actually. They invented the first chair in papyrology in Italy the year after she died, and she was a genius and she was, you know, the strictest collaborator of one of the fathers of Italian papyrology. But we read Sappho through the work of men! For me, this is incredible.
AK: So just to make sure we’re gonna say this correctly, she’s the first woman papyrologist to edit Sappho?
RM: She is the only woman. Yes, it’s insane. So the only woman to publish, you know, a newly found papyrus of Sappho is Medea Norsa in 1935. But this story is even better, because she published these ostracon that was bought on the antiquities market, as everyone was doing, by these times. And then, when the information was, you know, somehow given to the press, many papyrologists tried to steal, you know, the findings from her. Yes.
AK: Yeah, so, there’s the story Medea.
LC: Yeah, tell us how you really feel, Roberta.
AK: She’s such a gem.
LC: We love it. We love it.
AK: I mean, she told that story because it was her way of showing that, you know, it’s stories like this that really need to be told because, you know, Roberta feels that papyrologists need to be more reflective of their discipline and of the power imbalances between men and women in their discipline, and especially of the colonialism inherent in the field. That came up again and again when we talked to all these papyrologists.
LC: Yeah, absolutely, it did. Well, thanks so much for joining us, Alyse, and sharing the poem with us, and–
AK: My pleasure.
LC: –being an awesome human. We’ll take it from here. So we’re gonna start off this episode hearing from papyrologists Mike Sampson and Malcolm Choat talking about the allegedly sketchy origins of the “Brothers Poem” that we’ve discussed in the last few episodes, which you may remember Mike broke huge ground on as a kind of academic detective, as all of these wonderful guests are.
EB: Before we get into the episode today, we want to remind you that, as in the last two episodes, 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 in this episode has been reported in reputable news outlets or academic journals, and we are simply relaying the info.
LC: So, here’s Mike.
Mike Sampson: For a time, I felt like I was on a bad episode of “CSI,” or like living “Da Vinci Code,” like these sort of weird, obscure scholarly sales. Like it was just–it was a really surreal experience for me to work on the Christie’s brochure and to uncover the evidence that these provenance stories had essentially been concocted, and were fake, were fiction. You know, and those are ultimately my conclusions, and it was a really–it was a thrilling experience. I’ve not had a lot of research projects that completely engrossed me the way that this one did. And I spent months and months and months, and I started it while I was actually on parental leave. I was at home with a baby and, you know, I was just like I couldn’t wait to go and get back to work for when bedtime came because I couldn’t think about anything else, except for my kid. So it was a unique experience on that front. But it was also so, so depressing, because as I uncovered and began to conclude that, you know, these stories were bogus, it sort of suggested to me that there was something really rotten in the papyrological world. As a papyrologist I felt implicated in, sort of, the questions and the scar that the discipline as a whole was sort of being afflicted with. And it was depressing.
Malcolm Choat: These Sappho papyri, genuine or not, appear to have come from the most notorious online dealer in unprovenanced papyri, and that they were edited by someone who was almost certainly likely to have stolen papyrus fragments from the most venerable, old collection of papyri in the world, the Oxyrhynchus Collection in Oxford, and who generally now has no credibility on anything. This is a boon for those of us that study forgery, ethics, and deviant expertise, and a massive problem for those of us who actually want to use this in their historical work. Because is it ethical now to use these 2014 new fragments of Sappho, when you’re writing about Sappho? Or should we shut it up and say, “No, this was stolen from Egypt. We should put it away.” You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but it creates those ethical questions. No one wants to lose knowledge of the past, but is the looting of things from Egypt–the sending of children down into tombs to try and get things out, killing them on occasions in there, the shooting of guards at museums to steal things from them–all to drive an antiquities market, which is overwhelmingly comprised of people from Europe and America and Australia and such places, but also the Gulf states? Is that worth it to know more about the past? What’s the price of an extra 40 lines of Sappho? And to me, the price of the destruction of cultural heritage is too high a price to pay for having the “Brothers Poem.” But a lot of people would disagree with me and say, “No, the most important thing is that we know about the past.” That’s the ethical issue that we’re focusing on in ancient history and the study of the past at the moment, and it is the most important issue that the discipline needs to deal with. The most important issue is absolutely not something about when some emperor reigned or what this word was in this poem. The most important issue, and the one that has to be addressed first, is about how we relate authentically, respectfully, and ethically with the past and with the societies that are in those countries that we work in today. And that’s a very short-worded history of the Sappho papyrus and where it leads.
EB: Yeah, I mean, what Malcolm said, we’ve been sort of hinting at for the past few episodes, but it is: what are the ethical implications? Of course, we want more Sappho–at what cost?
LC: Yeah. And so you might recall, in our first episode of this three-part series, we spoke to Egyptian papyrologist Usama Gad. So he said that if you start by looking at a practice like de-masking, which we’ve spoken about before–to remind you, that’s where a scholar dissolves a mummy mask to try to find papyri on the kind of scraps that it’s formed with, which is one of the stories that Obbink gave for how he obtained Sappho’s “Brothers Poem”–you see how truly horrifying some of the field’s practices are.
Usama Gad: We talked about the mummies as our ancestors. They are full of humans, but they are deceased. They are not commodities. To commodify these mummies, it was a practice, again, of colonialism. But no, it’s actually like this. I went to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, with my two daughters. And there was a mummy of a child. And when I saw it, I am a father, you know. It’s a human, you know. I, too, have my daughter’s by me, and this is a human being–a child, actually–with his mother. So, you know, it was chilling, it was something, you know–it was overwhelming for me to have it. And again, a mummy is not just a thing. No, it’s a human being, a deceased human being. It’s my ancestor, they are Egyptian, they are fellow humans, like us. So we have to treat them like this. But this understanding was not there. And actually, in the de-masking process, it is not there, because they are targeting the manuscripts, because they know–as papyrologists or as archaeologists–that these cartonnage, you know, wrapping itself around the mummy, in the Greco-Roman period, were done through, you know, wraps of papyrus. So you will have papyri and sometimes these manuscripts are written. So they are targeting this. They are unwrapping the mummy in order to have the papyrus. The written or unwritten, they will discover after they do this unholy, if we would say, unwrapping of the mummy.
MC: That’s what we want people to think about. Not just, these are objects that we can destroy to get somewhere. 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. Anyway, just let’s log off before I get too, like, out of control about this.
EB: Yeah, I mean, when you think about it, it’s like, if you saw someone gravedigging at the cemetery down the street, like it’s not–it is really not ethical.
LC: And it’s interesting how we’ve somehow separated this throughout everything. Like we consider gravedigging to be so horrific, but we just don’t seem to care.
EB: Yes, well because it’s not, you know, it’s not our grandmother. It’s somebody else’s, from a very long time ago. But that still–it was a human. That was a person who had a life and a family.
LC: So engaging in this process of de-masking is obviously really problematic from an ethical standpoint. But many scholars would say that working on a text that’s obtained like this is also problematic. So the same thing with working on or writing about a text when you don’t know the origins or provenance, which some scholars just flat out refuse to do.
EB: Because if the provenance is murky, as it is with the “Brothers Poem,” then you might be talking about a fragment that was obtained unethically by looting or violence or child labor, we really just don’t know. And then you’re encouraging those practices with your scholarly attention.
UG: Specifically in the Sappho, it was extracted from a mummy. The mummy appeared in the market after 2011, which was the Egyptian Revolution. So you could imagine who has taken this from under the ground, legal or illegal, you don’t know. Where the mummy comes from, you don’t know. It’s again scientifically and also, you know, ethically, it is problematic here because you don’t know the context, the real context of this mummy, where it’s found. But for someone who is, you know, concentrating on the text, these things does not matter, you know. He is concentrating on the text and, in specific, his own Sappho. So it’s something that he wants and the materiality of the artifact itself does not interest him.
EB: Okay, so how important is it to abide by a code of ethics? To not work on or talk about a text unless you can guarantee that it was obtained legally?
LC: Classicist Marguerite Johnson told us more about how some in the field have been reacting to this conversation about the “Brothers Poem” and what it means for the field.
Marguerite Johnson: I haven’t published on the “Brothers Poem” because I feel a bit uneasy, but some people actually have decided not to publish on them for ethical reasons. So you’ll come across things occasionally about her poetry, where it will say, “We’re not addressing the recently discovered “Brothers Poem” because of the issue of ethics around provenance.” And, so yes, some scholars are pulling back from writing on them completely, whereas when you have the poem on old age, which was published, discovered/published in around about 2004, we knew exactly the provenance. We knew the scholars who recorded that they went into the library in Cologne, they opened up a book, scattered amongst that book was a page that had copied out a fragment of Sappho’s. It gave us another part of a poem. It was all aboveboard. The whole process was transparent. The “Brothers Poem,” less so.
MS: Right, if you have demand, then supply will arise to meet that demand. And so the reality of looting in the Middle East, especially in the years following the Arab Spring, is that this is happening. And it’s been happening for a long time before that, the Iraq War, first Iraq War is another good example of sort of political events leading to widespread looting. Because there is demand, supply is going to arise to meet that demand. And when scholars enter the equation, there’s very little we can do, you know, for the most part. I’m not rich man, I have a family. I’m not out there collecting, you know, valuable antiquities, because I don’t have the money and because I’m more interested in studying them than in having them on my mantelpiece. And the only check that as a scholar I can place on that illegal trade, apart from getting up and saying this is wrong, is to disassociate myself from it. Because if a papyrus comes to light, no looter is going to know what it is. It’s going to have to be brought to a scholar, to a papyrologist, to read it, to authenticate it, and to determine what, in fact, it is. And the scholar therefore plays a really important role in this cycle of looting in the antiquities market, because if we don’t involve ourselves, then all of a sudden, it’s just a piece of scrap paper that’s, you know, hundreds of years old, and who knows whether it’s worth anything. But the moment you set foot, as a scholar, and you start involving yourself in objects that have been looted or that are on the antiquities market, what you’re doing is legitimizing it. You’re saying that this is real, this is okay. What you’re doing is you’re authenticating it, you’re saying, “In fact, this is new fragments of Sappho.” And the message that you’re sending to the rest of the world is that it’s okay to do this. And that’s why, ethically, you know, these professional standards are encouraging us essentially to back off and to say no. The only check that we can place on it is to say, “No, no, we’re not going to be involved. I’m not going to look at it for you. I’m not going to authenticate it. And I’m not going to increase the commercial value.” You know, if I step in and say, “This is brand new Sappho, we’ve never seen it before. Nobody’s ever looked at it. New poetry, five new stanzas. This is a unique and, you know, groundbreaking discovery.” The looter is going to look at that and say, “Okay.” And what’s he gonna do? He’s going to go and he’s gonna keep digging. And so when scholars involve themselves in the market in this way, what they’re essentially doing is encouraging it. And increasing the commercial value of the items on the antiquities market is a surefire way to pour fuel on the fire.
LC: So when we talked to Roberta, she told us that the Dirk Obbink case was so shocking to papyrologists and classicists that many academic professional associations have changed their entire ethical guidelines and rules around due diligence for providing provenance.
EB: Honestly, Roberta is amazing.
LC: She’s so great.
EB: But like the fact that she impacted that change–I just love her.
LC: Because she was bored, just like sitting in her mom’s place in Covid. She’s like, “What do I do?”
LC: So she said that everyone is much more aware than they were–which is incredible–of some of the bigger questions that have been plaguing the field, because it really doesn’t stop with Obbink, and it didn’t start with Obbink.
RM: You know, rather than being focused on the story of Dirk Obbink and all this drama that, of course, was the highlight, somehow, 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?” I find, you know, in academics like Dirk Obbink and other, you know, white, straight classicists of that type–not very interesting at all. They are a bore! You know, like, okay, yes, that’s the usual guy who is in a super fancy, very wealthy, you know, institution, doing what these guys are doing since the 19th century. Putting their hands on this material, because they have power in their mind, of course. So I think actually this story is not that interesting. What is interesting, in my opinion, as part of, you know, a professional group, is how blind we have been, and how little change we have seen in the history of our discipline, papyrology and Classics. So to me, that is very interesting. And I would like to be an agent for change.
EB: So what Roberta’s saying is–
LC: Very subtly.
EB: –very, very subtly!
LC: You gotta read between the lines of what she’s trying to tell us here.
EB: –is that the patriarchy exists and uses its power in a very boring and predictable way?
LC: Shock and horror!
EB: I think the most savage thing about it is that she’s like, “It’s pretty boring. Like, I don’t even want to talk about how boring it is.”
LC: Okay so, we had to calm down.
EB: Everything’s fine. Everything’s fine.
LC: We got into a real laugh fest about the patriarchy, because otherwise we’ll cry.
EB: And on that note, let’s take a quick break to hear from some sponsors.
LC: What kind of changes does Roberta want to be a part of? So there is a movement to address bigger questions about Eurocentrism, and colonialism, and patriarchy in papyrology and archaeology, which we talked to Usama about.
UG: And if you go to archaeology also, this is exactly the same. Archaeology in Egypt, still works in the footsteps of the colonizers. You have the collections in Europe, you have the collections in the United States, and you will find the professors and curators who devoted their time to these collections. These collections are not seen as an Egyptian heritage, they are seen as European or American or Western Heritage, not as an Egyptian heritage. I’m not saying here that there is a conflict here, no, at all, there is no conflict at all, you know, I’m very grateful for everyone who has take care of the heritage of these papyri. But these papyri are Egyptian papyri, whatever the language they are written in, I mean Greek, Latin, Coptic, Egyptian, Arabic–they are Egyptian papyri. They are to me one archive, it is the National Archive of Egypt. And that’s why I’m talking about extraction. It has been extracted under colonialism, from people who don’t know the language, whatever the language, you know.
RM: The story that I was told as a student, and even as a, you know, at the beginning of an academic career, was a grand story of how these people were amazing, pulling together all these fragments, opening up all these materials to knowledge for everyone. The other thing about papyrology is that, you know, we read and provide access to material that interests historians, theologians, you know, literature people, and so forth, so on. So it was all about great discoveries while, all suddenly, I started realizing the bad side, the achievement that was the appropriation of Egyptian–so, African–material, and from then on, I started also being very interested in ethical issues. The big bulk of the material that papyrologists study came to Europe–broadly speaking Europe and the US, let’s say “the West.” I don’t like this label, but let’s use it. In the course of the 19th century, I would say, firstly, papyri were just curiosities that some travelers brought back and then there was a little bit off, you know, fragments started coming to light and then being brought back in the second half of the 19th century. And this was a time in which Egypt became part of big political issues that was controlling the world. So papyrology was born in the colonial period, the end, of course, this material was brought back, are spoils, somehow, of a conquest. So even if, you know, most of the material was exported legally, I mean with permission from the authorities, that permission, anyway, came out of a power balance that was unequal.
EB: Roberta is truly lighting a fire in my soul. I just like so strongly identify with her and think she’s amazing. This podcast has now turned into a Roberta fancast.
LC: She’ll be so happy to hear it. Roberta, we stan. So we spoke about this more with Katherine Blouin. I hope I said her name right. I actually, once upon a time, spoke French, and now no longer do. So my accent is terrible.
EB: I mean, it’s beautiful to me. It’s all French to me, really.
LC: It’s all French to you. So, she is an ancient historian who, with Usama and Rachel Mairs, co-created the Everyday Orientalism blog, which we’ve referenced in previous episodes. She pointed out that the field isn’t just rooted in colonialism, it is still actively colonialist. It’s dominated by white Europeans–color me shocked–who make little room for Egyptian papyrologists or scholars. For instance, Arabic isn’t even one of the four official languages you can present or publish in at the International Congress of Papyrologists, to which I actually want to ask, what are the four official languages? Do we know?
EB: Fun fact, Leesa. I’m sure you could guess which four languages.
LC: I can guess which continent they’re from.
EB: Yes. But the four languages are English, French, German and Italian.
LC: Because German and Italian are so widely spoken.
LC: It is ridiculous that Arabic isn’t even on there. We’ll let Katherine discuss it further.
Katherine Blouin: One of the main issues is really what Usama calls Eurocentrism. So there is this fetishization of the text, which moves a little bit, right. So originally, if you think Grenfell and Hunt, those who are considered the forefathers of papyrology. It’s interesting if you look at the first volume of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, the first papyrus is a fragment, if I’m not mistaken, from the Bible. So there is this fetishization of these texts as traces that are directly tied to a kind of European–and eventually white–civilization. But so there is a disconnect. So these texts, those written in Greek and Arabic, were obviously given clarity now. I mean, there are scholars working on all other languages preserved on papyri. But there’s this appropriation by Europeans, “This is our history. It’s not Egypt’s history. It’s not Egyptians’ history. It’s our–.” I mean, once again now, it’s a bit of a caricature. But that was the logic then. And to a certain extent, it remains the logic now. And so there’s also really a lack of awareness of the–it’s not a lack of awareness, I think, of the colonial entanglements of the field and also of how papyri collections were acquired. But it’s also kind of an unwillingness to engage with that as if it’s the Pandora’s box, and if you start talking about this, all the papyri will be siphoned back into the Cairo Museum, you know. It’s like there’s this anxiety over discussing these questions and just being honest about it. It’s kind of a white fragility. It’s a bit of a white fragility. This Eurocentrism manifests itself into, really, the still–the whiteness of the field. It’s extremely white, as in, literally and metaphorically, still. There is a field of, you know, Catholic and Arabic papyrology that is developing. And I mean, they are Egyptian, people who do great work as well. But there is really–you know, there are structural issues and discrepancies that are not properly addressed. And this is also visible in more official contexts, right. So I mentioned the International Congress of Papyrologists really have resistance to making Arabic an official language.
LC: So Usama, Rachel, and Katherine, through their work on the blog as well as all the other voices you hear on this episode–they’re all invested in decolonizing the field and making things better in papyrology.
EB: For instance, they host an annual event every year in Egypt, with a majority of Egyptian- and Arabic-speaking presenters, as well as a writing workshop for young Egyptian scholars. They’ve been pushing to include Arabic as one of the main languages at the International Congress of Papyrology. But they’ve received a lot of pushback about these efforts.
KB: So there are colleagues who do, let’s say, “old school” scholarship in papyrology, or elsewhere, who are very comfortable. Now in general, people who are comfortable and benefit from the status quo are not very invested in shaking things up. Because why would they create trouble for themselves when they’re very comfy? I mean, it doesn’t make any sense. So there’s a certain attitude whereby, you know, research that surrounds the ethics of papyrology, or on forgery, like what Malcolm does with his team, is–it’s not serious. Why are people doing this when there are so many papyri to decipher? Why are they wasting their time? Well, it must be because they’re not that good at deciphering papyri, right? So you have kind of these logics going on. “Oh, I just see, they’re not good enough papyrologists, so they need to do something else. So they need to whine about the field or they need to talk about the ethics of fake papyri when there are so many papyri to edit,” right? So you have this kind of, you know, a bit snobbish response, which is being proven wrong more and more as stories like the Sappho papyri shows. I mean, it shows that you cannot just be in your little glass box editing papyri like they’re some kind of floating gem that is disconnected. Like, it doesn’t make any sense. And to believe that you can do that means that you really have been sheltered as an academic, through your trajectory, either because of the particular environment you’ve been training to, and/or because of your own life circumstances and privileges. You also have the racist, colonial reaction like, “Why are you encouraging when we talk about the papyrology? Why are you encouraging these Egyptians? They’re really incompetent, the country’s crap, they’re not able to take care of their heritage, and now you’re gonna empower them, and now they’re gonna–they’re gonna make them difficult for us.” So you have some reactions, which are really like, “Have you been frozen in 1880 and they just unfroze you?” I don’t understand.
EB: So folks working on this issue, like Usama, are really hoping that Dirk Obbink can become kind of a wake up call that people will remember and feel fired up about.
UG: The most important details for me are the ethics, you know. We could do better as a community of papyrologists, as a community of scholars and researchers who are interested in this heritage, which is scattered all over the world now. It’s not in Egypt, it’s in Europe and the United States. And we have to take care of this heritage and not only think of its past–colonialism or Eurocentrism–but also to think of its future, how it is created, who is experienced with all these manuscripts, who has access to these manuscripts? Physically and virtually, also. I mean, also, online, we have to ask ourselves about the rights and privileges of the people–the Egyptian people may want to have access to the digital assets online. Open a case is an eye opening for every one of us, not only for Oxford University, which is one of the main important collections of papyri, but also for Michigan, for Heidelberg, for Berlin, California, Berkeley University, took this papyri. So we have to learn the lesson, we have to open channels for research on the market, trade market, illegal trade market. We want to open research on the ethics of papyrology, encourage the students, you know, not only to edit papyri. We don’t want you to be interested on texts themselves, but their materiality. What about beyond this materiality? If I am in Australia, I do have a connection of papyri. What does this collection represent to the Australian people and the Egyptian people? Could we have a channel of student exchange? Maybe we have some students of Ain Shams University or Cairo University who will visit these collections. We could ask them to come and to arrange for a translator if they don’t know English. And also the other way around. If we are in London and Oxford, and maybe have some students from Oxford, and go to Egypt and see what are the perspectives of the Egyptian students who represent the Egyptian families, who represent Egyptian society. What is important for them: the text or the material itself?
EB: Like you were talking about before, Leesa, with everything being connected and getting out of your bubble, there’s no way people are going to get outside of their bubbles if we’re not moving in between different countries, different lifestyles, right?
EB: There’s no way that–I think it’s great, what Usama is talking about, about moving through different cultures.
LC: Absolutely. And I think as someone who–like I didn’t leave my country until my mid-20s. And it completely changed my perspective. And even before that, like just meeting people. You know, I grew up in a pretty small place, I guess, anda pretty white place. And like, my mind was so opened by moving to a bigger city and meeting people from different countries ,even before like, you know, I was able to travel overseas. So I think these things are really important. These folks are making progress. But it’s a lot of work. There’s a lot that’s left to do. So Katherine told us that she feels like it’s a kind of a “Tortoise and the Hare” story. So they’re like slowly chipping away at the problem and they’re doing as much as they can. But then also, like through her syllabi for her classes she teaches, she’s trying to move the needle forward as well.
KB: I also think another media where you really can make a difference is our syllabi. Like those of us who teach, your syllabus is–never underestimate the power of a syllabus, right? Never underestimate how transformative it can be for yourself and for your students’ experience. So for instance, now I’m going to start on Wednesday a third year undergraduate course on Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. So, you know, what I do, and the papyri are heavily part of the evidence we have on this period. And so, yeah, every year I’ve really revamped the syllabus. And so what I’ve been doing more and more is really include a section on the history of the field, and also embed in the readings scholars or theorists who are not papyrologists or classicists, right? So Timothy Mitchell, who wrote “Colonising Egypt,” we will have experts or, you know, Arjun Appadurai, or you know, Saïd or Ann Stoler.
EB: She’s not the only one changing her syllabus, and teaching-related posts on the Everyday Orientalism blog are some of the most popular and highly read. Roberta said that lots of folks are changing the way they teach to bring in more awareness of the story of how this material came to the West.
RM: I think that we need to change the narrative. So those narratives of discovery and the big achievement that you might still find, you know, in “Introduction to Papyrology”, those books that are the basis of our, you know, all these handbooks that have–those have to disappear. So I think that we should introduce more transparency on, you know, the good and bad of that history, which has been a history of exploitation, where, you know, these big heroes of the time–like Grenfell and Hunt, or Flinders Petrie–certainly made big achievements, but were also acting as predators at some extent. They were–you know, every one of us is–we are scholars who are the children of our age. So it is normal that those people were behaving in a certain way. But it is not normal that we continue, you know, to account that history as if it is the history of heroes, because it was not.
MS: The way forward for papyrology, I think, is to follow the example of the archaeological community. And for the archaeological community, the goal is to keep a bright light onto the questionable aspects of an object. That is to say, when you talk about it, you talk about the fact that it was discovered in these circumstances, or was acquired in these circumstances. And you know, a famous example is the Getty kouros, a marble statue at the Getty Museum in Malibu. And, you know, many art historians think it’s a forgery. And if you go and look at what the Getty says about it, and what scholarship says, the Getty is pretty upfront. You know, this may, in fact, be a modern forgery. It’s not actually on display anymore. And so they’re keeping the attention on this question of authenticity, because it’s now essentially a part of the object itself. And in the papyrological world, we need to do the same thing. We need to–when we talk about this poem, the “Brothers Poem,” we need to say that, you know, there are questions about its origins and about its authenticity,
UG: We can do better, in papyrologist, in the field of archaeology, collection management, you know, national, international collection management. I think we can do better. And I think we could learn a lot from the Obbink case. And if you go on, also, for other cases, like the Bible “Jesus’s Wife” case, we could learn a lot, you know, in this record, and it’s really a scandal, both of them. But again, we could learn from our mistakes, you know, so it’s a way–it’s another indication that we have to reflect deeply about our field, our societies, and their concerns, and how we connect them, in every corner of our daily life. We have to deal with these, you know, legacies on a daily basis, you know, and we can do better. I think we can do better. Both in Egypt, as well as also in Europe and the United States, Australia, South America–the global south or the global north, we can do better.
EB: I just love Usama’s optimism, especially after this episode when we’re getting quite fired up. But there are people who are moving forward and it can get better.
LC: Yeah, honestly, I really admire it. I am not the most optimistic person these days. And–
EB: We need some optimism.
LC: Absolutely. And to be sort of, like, experiencing it in the way that he’s described it to us, and like I was with him when we interviewed him, and the impact on his daughters of all of this stuff, as well. And just hearing him be optimistic, it’s so beautiful. And so I think for all of the scholars that we’ve spoken to, it’s kind of an existential, ethical responsibility they feel to like kind of, I guess, repair this field that they truly love.
KB: It is so amazing that we have these texts from antiquity, you know. Without, once again, fetishizing objects. You look at these texts and at these fragments, and they have histories, and they have their own biographies, and they tell stories. And it is such a privilege to be in a position where you can make a living studying these texts, and I find that it comes also with a responsibility. It comes with the responsibility towards the ancient voices and stories that are conveyed by these objects. It also comes with a huge responsibility towards the Egyptians of today, whose heritage this is. So, you know, if you’re an Egyptian, obviously, you relate to this material very differently than I do. I mean this is not–I know a lot of people are saying, “Oh, this is the universal history.” This is Egyptian heritage. It’s Egyptian. You need to recognize it, and you need to be respectful, and you need to–there is a responsibility, you need to do it right. So you need to pay attention to provenance, you need to be thorough, you need to be in conversation with Egyptian colleagues. You cannot be a papyrologist and say you hate Egypt. I mean, you can, because a lot of them say that. But if you do, please question, question, question your position. Like, why is that? It does not affect this? And I also think we have a responsibility to also make these stories available. And in a way that does them justice, beyond our own particular circles, which means in the classroom, but also beyond the classroom. And I think there’s–you know, some of these documents–well there’s literary documents, but you also have, you know, you have private letters, you have petitions. They really tell human stories, and then you realize, now I’ve come to a point where I mean, it’s a bit metaphysical, but I really even question the limit, the fact that time is linear. I mean, when I read some papyrological documents–I mean, not necessarily tax receipts, but, you know, other stories, other types of documents–you can really relate to these voices in a way that makes you realize that we are them and they are us in many ways. I mean, there are differences, obviously. I don’t want to romanticize it. But there is this social, historical, and environmental entanglements that means that even though we conceptualize antiquity as being very far away, it is really not far away. And so that’s why I often say that, “Yeah, the past is now,” right?
LC: Je suis Sappho. Vous et Sappho.
LC: It’s a throwback to last episode.
EB: It is true, I do love–it’s so romantic, that idea of like, the past is really just yesterday. You know, it’s just beautiful.
LC: Yeah, it’s also like, if you have a terrible fear of mortality, like me. It’s very scary to feel like, you know, we’re just so, I don’t know.
EB: I get it, I get it.
LC: We’re just like stuck in time. But at least you know, all we can do is create art and hope it stays. Someone will remember us, in another time.
EB: They will. Yes, but the point is, antiquity isn’t as ancient as we think. Especially if you think about what a short time humans have been alive on this planet, which Katherine pointed out to us. So just because this is ancient history doesn’t give anyone an excuse not to see these problems as pressing and current and worth working on.
LC: Absolutely. Making it ancient doesn’t mean that it’s like, you get a pass at being a colonialist, patriarchal dick, basically.
EB: In the meantime, while we’re waiting for things to get better, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Diane Rayor: All sorts of other possibilities are there. And so, as the translator, what I tried to do is make them available, not shut down the different possibilities.
Chris Mason: “Someone, I say, will remember us in another time.” So I mean, she’s looking forward to us, just like we’re looking back at her.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths: Bless me there was. More people wanted to fill me with themselves.
Diane Rayor: Oh, my.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode will be released on the 11th of February. As always, stick around until the end of the podcast to hear our original song for Fragment 2, written and performed by us.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. Speaking of Apple podcasts, we want to thank everyone who left us poem reviews, we love them.
LC: They’re all so good, so hard to choose. Ellie, do you want to read our winning poem?
EB: I would love to. Our winning poem is from OldHats. It is called “Sweet-worded Fangirling.”
LC: Love it.
EB: Great title. “Of laughter / distant friends / as if wine close / nerds hand in hand / remember / her.”
EB: The fragmentation is gorgeous as well.
LC: Love the fragmentation.
EB: So thank you, OldHats.
LC: I love the “hand in hand” because we very rarely get to hold hands, because we’re all so far away from each other.
EB: Have we ever held hands?
LC: I don’t know, Ellie, did we not hold hands?
EB: I don’t know, I don’t know if we did, but now–
LC: We disco danced together.
EB: So we must have held hands at some point.
LC: I mean–
EB: I’m sure I will remember.
LC: Surely, surely. OldHats, whoever you are, please can you reach out to us? Sappho@sweetbitter.com, to send us your address so we can send you your prize. We’d also like to thank our new Patreon supporter, Nora, this week. 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, Katherine Blouin, Usama Gad, Marguerite Johnson, Malcolm Choat, Mike Sampson, and Ariel Sabar for sharing their knowledge with us today.
LC: So many speakers this episode. You can read more about all of our guests and where to find them on our website in the “About” section.
EB: And now, our song for Fragment 2.