BMCR 2022.05.25

The Ethics of Publication: Papyrology

This article is part of an occasional series on ethics and cultural heritage.


The editors of BMCR have asked me to reflect on the current landscape and ethics of publishing in papyrology. I should preface the discussion with a couple disclaimers. First, I am not someone who edits and publishes new texts on a regular basis. But, like many of us, I constantly use papyri and other ancient manuscripts in my work. And indeed, everyone who interacts with a manuscript has a stake in ethical questions surrounding publication of unprovenanced materials, from the conservators who first render them legible to the many historians who study texts reconstructed from ancient manuscripts.[1] Second, many of us who do spend a lot of time working with manuscripts but who now have reservations about unprovenanced materials have ourselves studied and published unprovenanced materials. I count myself among this number. As a graduate student I worked on papyri that could be traced back no further than the clichéd Swiss dealer in the 1990s. More recently, I have extensively studied and published parts of manuscripts that were acquired much earlier in the twentieth century but almost certainly in violation of Egyptian laws that regulated the export of artifacts at the time.[2] If I had the opportunity, I would now encourage my younger self to think much more critically about these decisions. What I would like to do here, then, is to attempt to trace the contours of the debate around the study and publication of unprovenanced manuscripts and to suggest some ways forward.

I begin by observing that a lot has changed in the fields of papyrology and classics over the last fifteen years. A comparison of two cases will illustrate the point. In the fall 2007 issue of Amphora, a public outreach periodical of the American Philological Association (now the Society of Classical Studies), the lead story carried this headline: “What’s New in Sappho Studies: The Cologne Papyri.” The opening lines set the stage for the discussion:

“In 2002, the Institute for Archaeology at the University of Cologne, with financial support from various German agencies, was able to purchase a group of twenty-five papyri offered for sale by a private collector. …Scraps extracted from mummy cartonnage (the richly painted casing, usually made of recycled papyrus, laid over the linen-wrapped body)…were part of an early third-century B.C. poetic anthology, containing passages on aging, death, and song—and they preserved a breathtaking find, two fragmentary poems in Aeolic metre by Sappho.”

What follows is a description of the contents of the papyri and well-informed discussion of their significance. The tone throughout is celebratory: “as a discovery, the ‘New Sappho’ is in a category by itself.” The newly published poetry, “because it captures human experience so perfectly, because it is so rich in feeling yet so understated, will doubtless soon be anthologized and taught in all Humanities survey courses as a part of the classical canon.”

In February of 2014, a similar level of enthusiasm greeted Dirk Obbink’s announcement of the discovery of a papyrus containing still more poems by Sappho. Like the Cologne fragments, its origins were somewhat obscure. Obbink’s Sappho papyrus was said to be in the hands of an anonymous London owner and was reported, at first, to have been extracted from mummy cartonnage. The initial reaction from the press and academics mirrored the giddiness surrounding the announcement of the Cologne papyri. Except that this time around, a handful of archaeologists and papyrologists began to raise questions about these obscure origins.[3] Over the course of a couple years, these few voices became a loud chorus, and Obbink’s claimed provenance story (or rather, stories) came under intense scrutiny, eventually falling apart in dramatic fashion and coming to intersect with allegations of faked cartonnage extractions and of theft from the Egypt Exploration Society’s collection of papyri from Oxyrhynchus.[4]

With such similar provenance stories, why did the Obbink papyri attract so much more critical attention? This was no doubt due in part to the differences between the two cases. Obbink announced the existence of his Sappho papyrus after the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The widespread ransacking of archaeological sites that followed the revolution created an atmosphere of greater wariness about the sudden appearance of spectacular antiquities on the market. The Cologne Sappho had become part of an established institutional papyrus collection, while the whereabouts of most of Obbink’s Sappho papyrus were never revealed and remain unknown.[5] The extraction of a Ptolemaic papyrus of Sappho from the Cologne mummy cartonnage is intelligible, since the practice of using inscribed papyri to make mummy casings was common in the Ptolemaic period. But the idea that Obbink’s papyrus, said to date to roughly 200 CE, would be extracted from mummy cartonnage was curious, since the practice of using inscribed papyri for manufacturing mummy cartonnage seems to have died out two centuries earlier.[6] But in addition to these differing circumstances, the field of papyrology was also itself in the midst of a shift with regard to questions about provenance. In June of 2007, the American Society of Papyrologists (hereafter ASP) approved its “Resolution Concerning the Illicit Trade in Papyri.” This document observed that the illicit excavation of papyri and other artifacts diminishes their historical value and that the antiquities trade encourages the looting of ancient sites and the destruction of the historical record.[7] Therefore, the resolution prohibited members of the organization from participating directly or indirectly in “the buying or selling of papyri or other archaeological objects that have been excavated illegally or exported from their country of origin after 24 April 1972, the date upon which the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property entered into force.” Indirect participation was said to include any activity that “adds significantly to the commercial value of the papyri.” Further, members were discouraged from publishing such post-1972 material without “a frank and thorough discussion of provenance.” In 2021, the ASP issued a further set of recommendations, including the following guidance for authors:

“Authors should in principle avoid the publication of illicit papyri, but it is recognized that such materials are already present in many collections, and that new objects deemed to have extraordinary scientific importance may emerge. In these exceptional cases, authors must document the circumstances of acquisition thoroughly and completely; the identity of the persons involved should be disclosed. Authors should not accept non-disclosure agreements imposed by the keepers or curators of papyri when such agreements prevent proper documentation of the circumstances of acquisition.”

In taking up these positions, the ASP was entering into a fray that had been roiling sectors of the archaeological and museum communities already for some time.[8] Other academic associations had placed similar and even more stringent restrictions on the publication of unprovenanced artifacts. The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, for instance, “will not knowingly print in any of its publications the announcement or initial scholarly presentation of any object acquired after December 30, 1970, by any means other than through an officially sanctioned excavation or survey, unless the object was part of a previously existing collection or was legally exported from the country of origin.” The Archaeological Institute of America goes further:

“An object may not be mentioned, cited, discussed, or illustrated in the AJA [American Journal of Archaeology] if it was acquired by a private or public collection after 30 December 1973 and its existence is not documented before that date, or it was not legally exported from the country of origin, or it has not previously received appropriate initial scholarly publication or announcement. An exception may be made if, in the view of the AJA’s Editor-in-Chief, the aim of publication is to emphasize the loss of archaeological context or acquisition history.”

Although these types of policies are becoming more and more common, they have not been universally welcomed. As might be expected, antiquities dealers and auction houses, which profit financially off the buying and selling of antiquities and have a vested interest in academic publication (and legitimation) of artifacts, have lamented such policies, as have many private collectors.[9] Reactions from library and museum professionals as well as academics (archaeologists, philologists, historians, etc.) have been mixed. Especially in the case of artifacts that contain writing, many academics have been reluctant to endorse a full stop to the publication of unprovenanced textual artifacts. The American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR), for instance, implemented a policy of refusing to allow its publications or meetings to serve as the initial place of publication for artifacts that have emerged after the UNESCO convention went into effect (24 April 1972) without a known provenance, but allowed for what has become known as the cuneiform exception, the exemption of inscribed cuneiform tablets from this broader policy. But even in this case, ASOR policy carries conditions. The would-be editor of an unprovenanced tablet must provide

“a written commitment from the owner of the artifact asserting that the artifact will be returned to the Department of Antiquities or equivalent competent authority of the country of origin following any conservation or publication, once permission for its return has been received; or alternatively, that its title has been ceded to the determined country of origin, or to some other publicly-accessible repository, if return to its country of origin is not feasible.”[10]

In spite of these extra conditions, the very impulse to separate cuneiform tablets from other classes of ancient artifacts establishes the point: According to this line of thinking, inscribed artifacts, even more so than other antiquities, can “speak for themselves” independent of archaeological context.[11] This viewpoint likely owes something both to the privileged place of narrative in the study of history and also to the disciplinary formations of classical archaeology and biblical archaeology, in which texts tended to establish the archaeological agenda and discoveries of inscribed objects held out special promise for the confirmation of literary evidence.[12]

That all inscribed antiquities should be published has thus been the default view of most scholars trained in the applicable languages for centuries. It is only relatively recently that hesitance about publication of unprovenanced artifacts has surfaced. Because the “pro-publication” viewpoint was long regarded as self-evident, it did not need to be articulated, never mind defended. Now, in response to these more restrictive publication policies, the advocates of the pro-publication position have more clearly stated their case. It is my sense that fields other than papyrology have been more vocal in this regard. For example, Jöran Friberg, a historian of mathematics and scholar of cuneiform texts, has argued that

in an ideal world, unprovenanced texts coming from the antiquities market would not exist. In the real world, where such texts do exist, some people excitedly claim that serious scholars should have nothing to do with them, for various contrived reasons. However, one must keep in mind that great parts of most collections of non-European cultural heritage, even those of the greatest museums in Europe and the United States, are unprovenanced texts from the antiquities market. …The task of a serious scholar must be to attempt to make all kinds of texts publicly known and understood, and to try to trace the origin of the texts if it is not known.[13]

From this angle, the decision to avoid publishing unprovenanced artifacts is nothing less than a betrayal of the mission of humanistic scholarship. John Boardman, formerly Assistant Keeper at the Ashmolean Museum and Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art at the University of Oxford, has expressed this view in the sharpest terms, labelling the publication policies of the Archaeological Institute of America and the German Archaeological Institute as “pure censorship,” the severity of which he further elaborates: “I was brought up to believe that censorship is worse than theft, and especially so where scholarship is concerned.”[14]

Those who adhere to the pro-publication viewpoint usually (though not always) agree that looting of archaeological sites is a problem, but they generally dispute any connection between the activities of collectors who buy unprovenanced artifacts and looting. By extension, they also deny any connection between academic publication and looting.[15] Some argue that the very idea of national cultural heritage is misguided. On this reasoning, borders of modern nations have no direct relevance to the ancient cultures that happened to occupy the same geographic areas. Both national laws placing limitations on the export of ancient artifacts and international agreements such as the UNESCO Convention mentioned above are, in this view, unfortunate and short-sighted. James Cuno, currently president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, has drawn on Benedict Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities” to argue as follows:

“All cultures are dynamic, mongrel creations, interrelated such that we all have a stake in their preservation. National retentionist cultural property laws deny this basic truth. They depend on the myth of pure, static, distinct, national cultures. And not just about living cultures, but about ancient cultures, too. They define and seek to regulate access to ancient cultures on the grounds that they belong to the modern nation as the work of its descendents [sic] and the origins of its modern culture and identity. They promote a sectarian view of culture and encourage the politics of identity at a time when nationalism and sectarian violence are resurgent around the world.”[16]

Such scholars often characterize ancient artifacts as “global” heritage and thus see no problem with the continued movement of heritage objects across national borders.[17] Indeed, scholars operating from this point of view encourage the study and publication of unprovenanced artifacts as an act of “rescue” (“it is incumbent upon scholars to rescue, conserve, record, and publish any and all artifacts that have been torn from their original contexts”).[18] The only alternative, according to this view, is that looted artifacts languish and deteriorate in the hands of dealers or private collectors. If reputable museums and collectors are dissuaded from purchasing unprovenanced items and scholars discouraged from working on them, then other less reputable buyers will emerge to fill the void, looting will continue unabated, and the artifacts will suffer. For example, when National Geographic in 2006 sponsored the publication of the papyrus codex containing the Gospel of Judas, which was almost certainly illegally exported from Egypt, their publicity materials strongly implied that damage done to the codex resulted in part from hesitance of museums to buy the codex. The antiquities dealer Frieda Tchacos had offered to sell the codex to Yale University, but Yale declined to buy “in view of potential legal issues.”[19] Tchacos then sold the codex to another dealer, Bruce Ferrini, whose sloppy handling of the codex severely and permanently damaged it. The implication? Had the codex been purchased and published at an earlier point, the lost text could have been saved.

Yet, as these various pro-acquisition and pro-publication views have been articulated, they have been met point-by-point by those who consider the publication of recently appeared unprovenanced artifacts unethical or illegal or both. For instance, archaeologist Monica Hanna has argued that those who object to the concept of national cultural heritage ignore the damaging legacy of colonial exploitation of global resources, including historical artifacts.[20] There is thus a ready answer to the question of why, if the borders of nations are imagined, modern Egyptians should have special claim to the ancient Pharaonic, Greek, and Coptic artifacts buried under the soil: As Andrew McClellan has noted, it is “the very real power of the ‘imagined community’ and its reliance on heritage and invented traditions (monuments, customs, cuisine, etc.) [that] give[s] the modern nation the semblance of deeply established roots in place and time.”[21] For papyrology in particular, which as a discipline is so dependent upon materials removed from the modern nation of Egypt, the issue is especially pressing. The Association Internationale de Papyrologues (AIP) makes this point in its “Recommendations on the Commerce of Papyri,” which contains repeated references to the building up of infrastructure for papyrological study within Egypt and support for training Egyptian students of papyrology. The connection between the historical commerce in papyri and the modern lack of opportunities for Egyptian scholars appears to be an underlying concern that the AIP’s recommendations seek to remedy.[22]

The conceptual objection to national cultural heritage also seems curiously detatched from material practicalities: Even if those who favor publishing unprovenanced texts may disagree with and lament national cultural heritage laws and the international treaties that allow for their effective enforcement, the world is nevertheless in fact arranged into nations that operate under national laws and international treaties. Running afoul of them has consequences (more on this below).[23]

Although pro-publication scholars tend to minimize the significance of lost archaeological context when it comes to written artifacts, we are only at a very early stage in coming to appreciate what archaeological context can add to the interpretation of ancient manuscripts. Despite the fact that tens of thousands of papyri from Egypt have been published over the last several decades, relatively few have been published as archaeological artifacts. Even when the archaeological context of papyri was known, it was only rarely exploited to place these manuscripts in their ancient settings (whether that would be libraries, houses, offices, or trash heaps). The immaterial text was what mattered, not the material artifact that was a mere carrier of the text.[24] As these attitudes toward texts as artifacts have changed, we are just beginning to see the exponential increase in knowledge that arises when manuscripts are considered in archaeological context.[25] The loss of this context does matter.

But does the publication of unprovenanced manuscripts actually stimulate the looting that destroys this context? To many people, this link now seems intuitively likely, and there is a growing effort to demonstrate with clear data the connection between looting and private collecting of unprovenanced artifacts on the one hand, and the effect of academic publication of unprovenanced artifacts on their monetary value on the other.[26] The illicit trade in antiquities is of course secretive, so quantifiable data are hard to come by. What can be reliably ascertained, however, points in the direction of the reality of these connections.[27] The extensive looting of archaeological sites in Egypt and elsewhere in recent years has been well documented.[28] Sales of unprovenanced manuscripts are more difficult to track and quantify. Papyri can still easily be purchased in large quantities for relatively low cost in online auctions. As recently as February 2022, TimeLine Auctions of London was offering several groups of Egyptian papyri for sale. It is difficult to know what the source of such antiquities might be other than recent looting, unless we simply accept at face value the somewhat vague statement of the auction house: “North London gentleman, in storage since the 1970s. Property of a West London gentleman.”[29] Higher-end purchases present even more problems because of the practice of private treaty sales, in which auction houses facilitate the buying and selling of antiquities without any public knowledge at all.[30] This impulse toward secrecy is itself telling. On balance, it seems naïve to suggest that the demand created by collectors has no effect on the supply generated by looting, or that the prospect of academic publication of unprovenanced artifacts has no effect on their attractiveness to collectors.

I will mention one further point occasionally articulated by those who favor some restraints on the publication of unprovenanced manuscripts. They note that decisions about publication of unprovenanced manuscripts (that is to say, decisions made by authors, editors, peer reviewers, publishing houses, and others) involve only some kinds of people, most often academics and professionals associated with European, North American, or Australian institutions. Other stakeholders have been historically excluded from such discussions. The decision to publish or not to publish an unprovenanced artifact is thus not just about weighing the search for knowledge against the evils of destroyed archaeological context. “It is about the power to do, act, rationalize, and justify what we think is appropriate. It is important that we recognize that not everyone has this kind of power. The pursuit of knowledge is intimately connected to the global dynamics of social, economic, and political inequality.”[31] It is thus vital to engage previously excluded stakeholders in this discussion. In the case of Egyptian artifacts, efforts such as those of Heba Abd el-Gawad and Alice Stevenson aim to broaden the range of voices taking part in the debates surrounding exported artifacts by connecting with segments of the Egyptian public through humor and social media.[32] From this point of view, the treatment of unprovenanced manuscripts (and unprovenanced artifacts in general) always involves more than strictly academic questions.

I have tried to provide a concise overview of the points of disagreement that ground the divergent views about publishing unprovenanced papyri.[33] Where, then, do we stand when it comes to actual publishing practice? As noted, many journals associated with academic organizations place different kinds of limits on the publication of artifacts whose provenance cannot be securely documented before 1970 or 1972. This usually takes the form of a ban on being the initialplace of publication of the unprovenanced artifact. Yet, there are many other journals, such as Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, that do not hesitate to publish unreliably provenanced artifacts. The result is that once such artifacts have been published, they then enter the dataset and become part of the academic discussion. The various studies of P.Sapph.Obbink that have appeared since its publication are a good example of this phenomenon.

In practice, then, these restrictions divert the publications to other journals and publishing houses, and scholarship moves on—essentially business as usual.[34] I do occasionally wonder, though, what might happen if there were, somehow, a total ban on the publication of unprovenanced papyri? Would papyrologists be forced to simply sit on their hands with nothing to do? That outcome seems unlikely. Tens of thousands of unpublished manuscripts acquired before 1970 are sitting in repositories in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. If the pace of publication over the last century is indicative, the unpublished Oxyrhynchus material alone could keep papyrologists busy for generations, working on legally exported material.[35] Of course, such a view presumes that it would be possible to provide facilities, infrastructure, and the human and financial resources to make this material accessible to scholars.[36] But I do suspect the discipline would find a way to go forward. This thought exercise again highlights the fact that publication is a matter of choice. While access is a real problem that needs to be discussed, there is no shortage of legally acquired papyri that await publication. Researchers could choose to stop publishing unprovenanced papyri, if the guild could muster the collective discipline to do so.[37]

In a more realistic scenario, unprovenanced manuscripts will continue to be published, and the question for those of us who find this to be a matter of concern is how to respond to these publications. The default reaction—simply adding them to the dataset with minimal comment—no longer seems to me to be an adequate way to proceed. If unprovenanced manuscripts are to be published, they ought to be clearly identified as such in any post-publication treatments. If book review editors determine that a publication of an unprovenanced manuscript or collection of manuscripts should be reviewed, the assigned reviewer should be expected to comment on the absence of provenance. If databases include unprovenanced manuscripts, they should ideally be clearly identified as such, rather than guessed or wished into a specific provenance by means of a question mark in parentheses. In general, if we choose to discuss unprovenanced manuscripts, we ought to make it easy for others to identify the pieces in question as unprovenanced and thus in some ways qualitatively different from artifacts excavated under controlled conditions and legally exported from the countries in which they were found.[38]

My own current work centers on the development of the technology of the codex. Most surviving evidence for early papyrus and parchment codices comes from Egypt. But in light of all the issues discussed in this essay, I am interested in how much of the surviving data can be demonstrated to have come from legal excavations or from sales that were, at the time they were executed, carried out in accordance with Egyptian law. How much of the corpus of early codex fragments was illegally obtained?[39] What would a survey of only the legally obtained materials even look like? How would it differ from a survey of the total published corpus? The fact that these kinds of questions are rarely asked suggests that we might not like the answers.[40] But I am becoming more convinced that such questions are useful and that clearly labelling all papyri with a provenance statement would improve scholars’ ability to make informed decisions about the materials that they will choose to study.[41]

Beyond raising awareness of unprovenanced manuscripts and the problems that surround them, some scholars have called for a more thoroughgoing overhaul of traditional publication practices. Usama Gad has argued that papyrological publication projects undertaken by scholars in North American and European institutions must make greater efforts to include Egyptian scholars and students.[42] Especially when it comes to unprovenanced manuscripts that have a high probability of having been looted from Egypt, decisions about how to proceed (or whether to proceed) with publication ought to involve Egyptian academics.[43] As the discipline of papyrology proceeds in the twenty-first century and more actively engages with ethical questions, there is an opportunity to avoid repeating mistakes of the discipline’s past, which include the marginalization of Egyptian colleagues.

Though related to the question of ethics, the question of the law and the publication of unprovenanced manuscripts is distinct and worth a few concluding thoughts. To do so, we can return to the example of the codex containing the Gospel of Judas. Neil Brodie has reframed the discussion outlined above, noting that well before its publication, the codex had become known to many scholars and curators, yet

“despite widespread knowledge of its uncertain provenance, not one single person seems to have alerted the Egyptian authorities or indeed any law enforcement agency about the existence of the codex. … The idea that Egypt might have a legitimate claim to ownership seems not to have entered anybody’s head, except perhaps as a possible complication of acquisition. … Even though Yale quite clearly had doubts about the provenance of the codex, it still failed to take the further step of alerting the Egyptian authorities or the police.”[44]

As Brodie’s argument indicates, when confronted with artifacts that might have been illegally exported, scholars should be aware of potential legal risks. Patty Gerstenblith, a specialist in cultural heritage law, has put this in fairly stark terms:

“If a scholar is aware of the illegal nature of the artifacts he or she handles or engages in conscious avoidance of the relevant facts, the scholar is as guilty of breaking the law as the looters, sellers, smugglers and purchasers who traffic in such objects—in fact, it is very much the scholar’s business to avoid handling stolen or otherwise illegal artifacts. No significance of the Gilgamesh Tablet or the Iri-Saĝrig tablets justifies the role of scholars in incentivizing the future destruction of sites and artifacts, possibly including tablet fragments that are of equal or greater significance for knowledge and understanding of the ancient world. So long as there are scholars willing to authenticate and publish such artifacts and so long as scholars continue to evade the reach of the law despite their handling of stolen property, scholars will continue to confer value, and the illegal trade will continue while the world and the countries of origin suffer the consequences of loss of knowledge about the past.”[45]

While this exact view of legal liability is contested and not entirely generalizable outside the United States of America, it should give scholars pause as they consider the benefits and drawbacks of working with unprovenanced materials. Beyond the strictly academic questions usually posed (“What will be lost if I don’t publish this manuscript?”), what are the possible consequences of these decisions in other arenas? Am I working on an item that was illegally obtained? Am I adding monetary value to an item that could return to the market? Am I contributing to the destruction of archaeological sites? How might my actions affect colleagues in the countries from which my manuscripts were exported? With questions such as these, many of us find ourselves wandering in territories that we were not trained to navigate.

But whether we are prepared or not, these questions remain. The sooner we grapple with them seriously, the sooner we will find workable solutions.[46]


[1] Conservators are also currently reckoning more explicitly with questions of unprovenanced artifacts. See the recent overview in Gretchen Allen, “Textual Healing: Ethical Conservation of Looted Manuscripts and ‘The Gospel of Judas’,” Journal of the Institute of Conservation (2021) DOI:10.1080/19455224.2021.1969257.

[2] These latter items present a set of problems that is different, though still related, to the problems that form the topic of this reflection—that is, manuscripts that have only recently appeared on the antiquities market.

[3] Most prominent was Roberta Mazza, “Sappho, Papyrology, and the Media,” Faces and Voices (11 February 2014).

[4] On the faking of the cartonnage extraction, see C. Michael Sampson, “Deconstructing the Provenances of P.Sapph.Obbink,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 57 (2020), 143-169 (summarized online here) and Brian D. Hyland, “A Note on the Provenance of the Sappho Fragments P.GC. inv. 105,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 218 (2021), 1-16. On the alleged theft of papyri from the Egypt Exploration Society, see “Professor Obbink and Missing EES Papyri,”, along with the detailed media accounts in The Guardian and The Atlantic.

[5] Additional fragmentary pieces of the Sappho papyrus published by Obbink were part of the Green Collection, an organization for which Obbink acted both as an advisor and a supplier of numerous papyri and other artifacts. Ownership of the Green Collection Sappho fragments has been transferred to Egypt, but I am informed by Brian Hyland of the Museum of the Bible that as February 2022, the fragments themselves remain in the United Kingdom for logistical reasons arising from the Covid pandemic.

[6] See Eric G. Turner, Greek Papyri: An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), 31.

[7] The terms “looting” and “looter” are loaded and are generally used to cover a variety of actions and actors. “Undocumented excavation” would be a more neutral term, but because “looting” and its cognates are most often used in these discussions, I also use them here, with the recognition that matters are more complicated. See Julie Hollowell, “Moral Arguments on Subsistence Digging,” in Chris Scarre and Geoffrey Scarre (eds.), The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 69-93.

[8] See Colin Renfrew, Loot, Legitimacy, and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (London: Duckworth, 2000). For more in-depth contextualization of these policy statements, see Roberta Mazza, “Papyrology and Ethics,” in Alberto Nodar and Sofía Torallas Tovar (eds.), Proceedings of the 28th Congress of Papyrology (Barcelona: Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat, 2019), 15-27.

[9] See, for instance, the majority of the essays collected in Eleanor Robson, Luke Treadwell, and Chris Gosden (eds.), Who Owns Objects? The Ethics and Politics of Collecting Cultural Artifacts (Oxford: Oxbow, 2006).

[10] Likely because of these conditions, the “exception” seems not to have been invoked. See the discussion in Patty Gerstenblith, “Do Restrictions on Publication of Undocumented Texts Promote Legitimacy?” in Matthew Rutz and Morag M. Kersel (eds.), Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics (Oxford: Oxbow, 2014), 214-226.

[11] A statement of Frank Moore Cross is typical: “Artifacts, particularly those bearing inscriptions, should be published whether dug up in scientifically controlled excavations or dug up by plundering antiquities dealers, collectors or their minions. Inscribed artifacts have so much—I am tempted to say most—to contribute to history and culture that they dare not be discarded and ignored” (Frank Moore Cross, “Update: Finds or Fakes?” Biblical Archaeology Review 31.5 [2005]: 52-60).

[12] See Jonathan M. Hall, Artifact and Artifice: Classical Archaeology and the Ancient Historian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), esp. 1-16.

[13] Jöran Friberg, A Remarkable Collection of Babylonian Mathematical Texts: Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, Cuneiform Texts I (New York: Springer, 2007), v.

[14] John Boardman, “Archaeologists, Collectors, and Museums,” in Robson, Treadwell, and Gosden (eds.), Who Owns Objects? 33-46, at 40, reprinted in James Cuno (ed.), Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 107-124, at 114.

[15] See the 2006 “Statement of Concern” signed by several archaeologists and epigraphers and posted to the website of the Biblical Archaeology Society: “Studying and publishing important looted artifacts has no demonstrable effect on the extent of looting.” No supporting evidence accompanied this claim.

[16] James Cuno, Who Owns Antiquity: Museums and the Battle Over Our Cultural Heritage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), xxxvi.

[17] The notions of “cultural heritage” and “global heritage” are both contested. For a good discussion of the complications, see Michael D. Press, “Who Really Owns the Past?” Aeon (27 May 2019).

[18] David I. Owen, “To Publish or Not to Publish—That Is the Question,” in David I. Owen (ed.), Cuneiform Texts Primarily from Iri-Saĝrig / Āl-Šarrākī and the History of the Ur III Period, vol. 1 (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2013), 335-356.

[19] See Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel: The Quest for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2006), 177-178.

[20] “Objects also have a role to play in cultural heritage preservation, which has a very clear impact on the consolidation of the identity of living peoples and their archaeological spaces. …The loss of historical objects thus creates a gap in the production of culture in the present” (Monica Hanna, “Cultural Heritage Attrition in Egypt,” in Amy Rebecca Gansell and Ann Shafer (eds.), Testing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020], 315-318).

[21] Andrew McClellan, “Cosmocharlatanism,” Oxford Art Journal 32 (2009), 167-171.

[22] With its encouragement to foster Egyptian papyrologists, the AIP “Recommendations” seem to (implicitly) acknowledge that the publication of manuscripts has historically been extractive in a dual sense, not only materially (the movement of manuscripts out of the country of origin) but also in an epistemological sense. When an unprovenanced manuscript is published, the manuscript-as-artifact loses something—the academic prestige that goes along with first publication. Seen in this light, “repatriate-after-publication” policies of the sort ASOR endorses look much less appealing.

[23] Patty Gerstenblith, “Hobby Lobby, the Museum of the Bible, and the Law,” in Layla Hashemi and Louise Shelley (eds.), Antiquities Smuggling in the Real and Virtual World (New York: Routledge, 2022, DOI: 10.4324/9781003023043-4).

[24] See Roberta Mazza, “Descriptions and the Materiality of Texts,” Qualitative Research 21 (2021), 376-393.

[25] The study of the papyri and tablets excavated in recent decades at Kellis amply demonstrate this richness. See Håkon Fiane Teigen, The Manichaean Church in Kellis (Leiden: Brill, 2021) and Mattias Brand, Religion and the Everyday Life of Manichaeans in Kellis: Beyond Light and Darkness (Leiden: Brill, 2022).

[26] See Neil Brodie, “Scholarly Engagement with Collections of Unprovenanced Ancient Texts,” in Kurt Almqvist and Louise Belfrage (eds.), Cultural Heritage at Risk (Stockholm: Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2016), 123-142.

[27] For an overview, see Neil Brodie, “Smoke and Mirrors,” in Robson, Luke Treadwell, and Chris Gosden (eds.), Who Owns Objects? 1-14.

[28] See, for instance, Sarah Parcak et al., “Satellite Evidence of Archaeological Site Looting in Egypt: 2002-2013,” Antiquity 90 (2016), 188-205.

[29] TimeLine Auctions: I provide an archived link here because the auction house removed this record from the web, another phenomenon that makes tracking the sale of antiquities challenging.

[30] See Sampson, “Deconstructing the Provenances of P.Sapph.Obbink.”

[31] Akinwumi Ogundiran, “The License of Power in African Art,” African Arts 53 (2020), 18-19. This article is one of several collected in this issue of African Arts under the title “Knowledge, Ethics, and Power: Publishing African Objects Without Clear African Provenance,” 17-23.

[32] Heba Abd el-Gawad and Alice Stevenson, “Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage: Multi-directional Storytelling Through Comic Art,” Journal of Social Archaeology 21 (2021), 121-145.

[33] It is interesting to note that the old practice of partage, the division of artifacts (from authorized excavations) between the country of origin and the (often foreign) organization undertaking the excavation, appeals to at least some representatives on both sides of this divide. See Renfrew, Loot, Legitimacy, and Ownership, 21 and James Cuno, Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), xxxiii and 154. The system has worked well in the past, but it has also been abused. See the rich discussion in Brendan Haug, “Politics, Partage, and Papyri: Excavated Texts Between Cairo and Ann Arbor (1924-1953),” American Journal of Archaeology 125 (2021), 143-163.

[34] On this point, see John F. Cherry, “Publishing Undocumented Texts: Editorial Perspectives,” in Rutz and Kersel (eds.), Archaeologies of Text, 227-244.

[35] The exact number of papyri excavated from Oxyrhynchus under the direction of Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt between 1896 and 1907 is not publicly known with precision, but estimates from authorities close to the collection put the number at roughly 500,000. See Peter Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007), 17. At present, about 6,000 of these have been published.

[36] See further Roberta Mazza, “The Green Fiasco in Context,” Eidolon (7 November 2019).

[37] As Roberta Mazza has succinctly put it, “Would you knowingly buy a stolen bike? Why would you buy—or publish—a stolen manuscript?” (“The Illegal Papyrus Trade and What Scholars Can Do to Stop It,” Hyperallergic, 1 March 2018).

[38] The phrase “excavated under controlled conditions” will have different meanings depending on context. Scholars leading excavations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rarely employed the stratigraphic excavation techniques and detailed record keeping that characterize modern archaeology. At a minimum, I would say that “excavation under controlled conditions” would be excavations overseen by a trained archaeologist who kept reliable records of some sort.

[39] Legal acquisition does not necessarily imply ethical acquisition. It seems safe to say, however, that an illegal acquisition was very likely unethical as well.

[40] The questions are far from simple. A single ancient manuscript can have multiple different modern histories. A good example is the Oxyrhynchus codex of the works of Philo of Alexandria. It was excavated in part by teams working under Grenfell and Hunt, in part by a team working under Evaristo Breccia, and in part by illicit diggers. See Brent Nongbri, “Excavating the Oxyrhynchus Philo Codex,” Variant Readings (14 May 2018). But just because the questions are complicated does not mean we should avoid them.

[41] Such an approach has been recommended for northwest Semitic inscriptions by Christopher A. Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic,” MAARAV 11 (2004), 57-79. Rollston’s chief concern was the possibility of forgeries entering the dataset. The discipline of papyrology seems overall less concerned about the problem of forgeries, but the recent case of the faked “Dead Sea Scrolls” suggests that greater caution might be in order. Indeed, given our increasing knowledge of the characteristics of forgeries, it seems likely that a critical review of unprovenanced papyri published in the twentieth century would lead to the discovery of more forgeries that have gone unnoticed.

[42] Gad’s comments on this topic were a part of a discussion on ethics and papyrology at the Chester Beatty Library in 2021. See further Usama Gad, “Decolonizing the Troubled Archive of Papyri and Papyrology in a Global Digital Age: A View from Contemporary Egypt,” in Garrick V. Allen, Usama Gad, Kelsie Rodenbiker, Anthony Royle, and Jill Unkel (eds.), The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri at Ninety: Literature, Papyrology, Ethics(Manuscript Biblica 10; Berlin: de Gruyter, forthcoming 2022).

[43] What is envisioned here is not simply adding the name of the relevant authority at the Service of Antiquities to a list of authors, but genuine engagement with Egyptian scholars and students. As Gad has noted, what is in the best interests of Egyptian academics is not necessarily aligned with the interests of the government-run Service of Antiquities.

[44] Neil Brodie, “The Lost, Found, Lost Again and Found Again Gospel of Judas,” Culture Without Context 19 (2006),17-27. To the best of my knowledge, this codex remains in Geneva.

[45] Gerstenblith, “Hobby Lobby, the Museum of the Bible, and the Law.”

[46] Several colleagues offered helpful feedback to earlier drafts of this paper: the editors at BMCR, Robert Emil Berge, Katherine Blouin, Mary Jane Cuyler, Usama Gad, AnneMarie Luijendijk, Ariadne Kostomitsopoulou Marketou, Roberta Mazza, and Blossom Stefaniw. They will all no doubt disagree with some of what I have written, but the essay is much better for their input. Support for the research presented here comes from the Research Council of Norway, project number 314240, The Early History of the Codex: A New Methodology and Ethics for Manuscript Studies (EthiCodex, 2021-2026).