BMCR 2023.02.05

To Publish or Not to Publish? This is No Longer the Question

This paper was first presented at BMCR’s 30th anniversary celebration in October 2022. It is also part of an occasional series on ethics and cultural heritage.


Papyrologist Malcolm Choat characterizes the seemingly intractable debate of whether or not to publish unprovenanced texts as pitting archaeologists, nobly saving the past for the future, against those who abet the evil of the antiquities trade through their scholarly study and academic imprimatur.[1] Both Choat[2] and I want to move beyond this false dichotomy of heroes and villains, but the lure of unstudied shiny, pretty things is strong—very, very strong, leading textual scholars to agree that just as “haters gonna hate,” “scholars gonna publish”[3] with or without provenance. In his BMCR thought exercise (his phrase) on the ethics of publishing papyri, Brent Nongbri asserts “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.” [4] In the following I want to consider Brent’s call to respond and what might constitute best practices in future responses. If we begin with the premise that there are scholars who are always “gonna publish” unprovenanced textual materials[5] then perhaps “To Publish or Not to Publish?” is not the question we should ask. If scholars are going to continue to publish, and if we cannot ignore the scholarly work that arises out of the study of unprovenanced materials, what are scholars and publishers like BMCR to do?


Provenance Matters

Before we dive into best practices and questions around how much provenance is enough provenance, or what constitutes “good” provenance, which I think are the questions we should be asking, let us all get on the same provenance page. In a forthcoming paper on “Ethical guidelines for publishing ancient texts,” Patty Gerstenblith submits that the acceptance of unprovenanced or poorly provenanced cultural artifacts by the academic and scholarly community poses problems beyond the contamination of the historical and archaeological record through the acceptance of forgeries and the legitimization of potentially looted, stolen, forged, or illegally imported artifacts. [6] Gerstenblith raises an additional issue of “the derogation of respect for the law and of the rights of the country of origin with associated rights of local communities and descendant communities in their heritage and the incentive for further looting and destruction of archaeological heritage through publication and increase in market value of such artifacts.”[7]

In an illustration of the importance of provenance Dennis Mizzi and Jodi Magness state, “While we acknowledge that, as textual artifacts, “Dead Sea Scroll-like” fragments”—their euphemism for undocumented scrolls—”have inherent value, the information that is lost when these are devoid of a documented archaeological context is immense.”[8] Without an archaeological findspot, Mizzi and Magness argue that we cannot conclude that these fragments are from the Qumran region. More than that is at stake: without provenance, can we be sure that that they are real? Mizzi and Magness approach the post-2002 Dead Sea Scroll fragments by considering provenance and authenticity as two separate issues; I would argue that there is an inextricable link between the two issues. Without the archaeological origin stories of an object, what is the assurance of authenticity?

Choat stresses that provenance also matters in a broader sense: “issues of how and where artifacts were found do not apply only to knowledge loss due to looting, or to forgeries. The provenance of something matters if it was excavated in occupied territory; if the manner in which its excavators conduct themselves serves to carry forward and reinforce colonial mentalities and power structures.”[9] It is not just about contextual integrity or authenticity, but also jurisdiction and questions of “who owns the past,”[10] if indeed anyone can own or control narratives of the past.

While there is now some consensus on the detrimental effects of demand on archaeological landscapes and objects,[11] other disputes in textual scholarship have become increasingly thorny in recent decades. This is due in part to the continuous flow of unprovenanced ancient text-bearing objects onto the market and into both private and public collections.[12] We now have a greater understanding of how scholarly research supports the market directly or indirectly through authentication, identification, legitimation, and publication.[13] Despite assertions to the contrary by particular interest groups, [14] provenance does matter. And because it matters, learned societies like the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the American Society of Papyrologists, American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR), Society for Biblical Literature (SBL), and the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) have enacted policies and codes of conduct limiting the presentation and publication of undocumented materials which Gerstenblith has described as “a schizophrenic approach to issue.”[15]


The ambiguity of ‘first place of publication’

In 2014, John Cherry published a review of the publication policies of several archaeological organizations.[16] He acknowledged the difficulties of applying these policies and the resistance of some academics to the application of these restrictions to their discipline and to themselves. It seems that no venue wants to be the place of first publication or presentation of unprovenanced artifacts (including textual material), but no one really knows how to articulate a clear policy without caveats, carve-outs, and exceptions. Recognizing the ambiguity of the term ‘first place of publication,’ in 2020 the AIA adopted additional guidance on what constitutes a place of prior publication, expanding on the ASOR Policy on Professional Conduct.[17] The new guidance clarified the AIA’s policy in two important ways. First, it specifies the type of publication that would constitute an appropriate initial publication or presentation (a “peer-reviewed or similarly vetted” journal, book, published abstract from a presentation at an academic conference, or museum catalogue). The policy states clearly that an auction catalogue does not meet these qualifications. While the AIA and ASOR now provide more thorough guidelines on initial and secondary publication, Cherry had a hunch about these primary and secondary publication locations. He believed that the stiffer publication policies of many journals might drive scholars to find other venues, thereby undermining the impact of existing and new and improved policies on the actual publication of unprovenanced materials.[18]  Cherry was right.[19] Self-policing ethical codes allow scholars attempting to present or to publish items with problematic backstories (or no backstories) to choose venues that do not have policies or that routinely publish unprovenanced materials. Once published these objects have cleared the first hurdle on their way to scholarly acceptance and are considered eligible for secondary publication in venues with rigorous ethical constraints against first publication.

Once the offending item has had its public debut it becomes a publishing free-for-all in its secondary context. In his paper on the ethics of secondary publication, Michael Johnson proposes that a significant frustration with initial publications is a failure to discuss provenance.[20] According to Johnson this shortcoming results in “an initial publication providing an unwarranted provenance for unprovenanced material.” Publication of an object can establish a provenance or at least the beginning of what Neil Brodie refers to as an academic pedigree—publication provides the unprovenanced object with a toehold in discourse while simultaneously providing an academic endorsement.[21] Initial publications that do not discuss provenance present a sanitized object, devoid of any associated nastiness, which can then be published and discussed elsewhere. By its very nature BMCR will rarely, if ever be, the first place of publication, but for 30 years it has been the gold standard for a secondary place of publication in the review of problematic scholarly volumes.


Best Practices, Asterisks, Footnotes, and Rollston’s Flags

In a 2018 online survey, Rick Bonnie and colleagues asked Dead Sea Scroll scholars about provenance, ethics, and policies: “The goal of the survey was to establish the levels of awareness within Qumran and related studies concerning the role of the antiquities market, the potential accountability (or not) of scholars as perceived by respondents, as well as their general awareness of relevant policies and codes of conduct.” [22] The survey results are fascinating in that many of the answers reinforce the ‘to study or not to study’ divide: ‘One respondent wrote that it was a “terrible dilemma between ignoring or accepting [unprovenanced texts]”, while another one noted that “[i]t’s foolish and lacks scholarly integrity to ignore objects that are legitimately authentic”.[23] Results of this survey corroborate the work of Mizzi and Magness[24] on the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which they conclude that in order to make informed decisions about working with unprovenanced materials scholars need more information and preferably a practical guide on which type of documents constitute good provenance and would “prove their legal status” and would count as “verifiable records,” as well as recommendations on how one could verify such records.” Perhaps scholars want to do the right thing; they just do not know how. Publishers should step in and provide guidance.

Whatever the rationalization in defense of their study of unprovenanced material, (“if I don’t do it someone else will” and “I’m saving the past”), scholars publish, and then the volume is often reviewed in BMCR. Considering the appeal from Brent Nongbri[25] to ponder how the whole practice could be more ethical, what can scholars do? Nongbri suggests one way to encourage best practices would be to follow the proposals of epigrapher Christopher Rollston.[26] In response to the plethora of unprovenanced biblical texts and the associated threat of forgeries polluting the textual record, in 2004 Rollston suggested a series of solutions to the provenanced vs unprovenanced problem, though Årstein Justnes and Josephine Rasmussen[27] caution against this simple binary choice when considering problematic texts. Arguing that there are two basic issues with unprovenanced text-bearing objects, (1) lost contextual information, and (2) potential forgeries, Rollston does not advocate a total ban on publishing. Instead, worried that provenanced and unprovenanced artifacts might be presented together, he advises that unprovenanced objects be separated, relegated in status, categorized, and flagged. Although not explicitly stated, it is implicit in Rollston’s recommendations that unprovenanced materials would be forever ‘marked’ or ‘flagged’ in all subsequent publications.

The additional recent AIA guidance echoes Rollston’s call for flags.[28] Former AIA president Laetitia LaFollette stated, “the point of the policy is to make sure that objects whose authenticity is questionable or whose history remains murky are clearly marked as such and are not confused with scientifically excavated ones to the detriment of the knowledge we seek.” [29] For both the AIA and Rollston the end goal is to keep unprovenanced material distinct from items with good provenance. If the flags of Rollston and the robust tagging of the AIA are the best we can hope for in the grand “to publish or not too publish” compromise, how much provenance is enough provenance?


How much provenance is enough provenance?[30]

At the encouragement of the BMCR editors, Eva Stehle added the following in a footnote to her review of Studies in Sappho and Alcaeus. Trends in Classics: “There is no clear documentation of provenance of these papyri prior to acquisition, or evidence that they were legally exported from their country of origin.” [31] The Twitter backlash to the review was immediate and sustained.[32]  Criticism ranged from disappointment to accusations of lip service, “tepid footnotes,” and uncaring classicists. Theo Nash tweeted: “By publishing books like Tsantsanoglos’ which make no acknowledgement P. Sapph.Obbink is problematic, and then by uncritically reviewing them, we endorse a form of scholarship which ignores the real-world implications of working with looted objects. Scholars and reviewers need to do better.” [33] But do they? The offending objects were first published by De Gruyter, the BMCR review is a secondary publication and was accompanied by a footnote – transparency as recommended by Rollston and as required by the AIA. Both the reviewer and BMCR were ethical in their treatment of a scholarly study of unprovenanced materials. Is this enough?[34]

In a quick review of BMCR publications there is evidence of reviewers raising problematic issues with provenance. Tags range from in-text asides like “also looted and therefore of uncertain provenance” to more robust paragraphs and recommendations like Joan Reilly’s[35] discussion of the 1970 UNESCO Convention to virtually entire reviews dedicated to the issue of unprovenanced materials as in the review of Personal Styles in Early Cycladic Sculpture by David Gill.[36] How much provenance is enough provenance in a footnote/flag?

In his 2017 review of The newest Sappho, Alexander Dale[37] extols the virtues of Dirk Obbink’s chapter which he lauds as “providing an excellent text, apparatus, and translation of the fragments, as well as a discussion of provenance and textual constitution.” This is an oblique reference to a discussion of provenance but nothing explicit about the Green fragments and their suspect origin stories. Dale concludes his review with a glowing statement “Minor criticisms aside, this is a useful, thought-provoking, and important contribution to the study of Sappho. Every paper has something of value to offer, and many will retain a place of importance in the bibliography for years to come.” The review is introduced by the following: “Editors’ note: The editors of BMCR feel obliged to bring to the attention of readers of this review the fact that the provenance of the new Sappho papyri published and discussed in this volume is contested. Update: Chapter 2, by Dirk Obbink, was retracted in March 2021.” Why did the BMCR editors choose to add this disclaimer in 2017? Was the whisper network strong,[38] did they have doubts?[39] When do the BMCR editors step in, when do they step back, and how much provenance is enough provenance?


A Future for Reviewing the Past?

In a 2015 position piece for ASOR ANE Today, Robert Englund defended the study of unprovenanced cuneiform materials, highlighting what he labeled the Pacific Solution: “if ever you find a tablet in your hands that is likely to have derived from illicit excavations in Iraq, then, they [archaeologists] seem to be saying, you must look away and toss it into the Pacific Ocean.”[40] Englund argues that if a single tablet was removed illegally from Iraq after some cut-off point and offered for sale, “we must bend to the natural curiosity of active minds and learn and share its contents without regard to the path that tablet took to London or elsewhere.” Clearly Englund and colleagues will continue to publish unprovenanced materials; it is unclear if they will include a flag or any indication of problematic backstories. As Nongbri,[41] Mazza,[42] and others allege, publishing unprovenanced textual materials is a choice. Researchers could choose to stop and if they won’t stop, then the very least they can do is include a footnote or better yet a big red flag regarding the unprovenanced nature of the material.

In a paper on academic involvement in the antiquities trade, Neil Brodie asserts that, “Unless an author is assiduous in researching and publishing provenance, he or she cannot claim to be acting in good conscience and might even stand accused of colluding with the criminal trade.” [43] This call for greater intentionality in the examination of undocumented artifacts is not new,[44] but Roberta Mazza thinks we are amid a paradigm shift, where provenance research is becoming increasingly the norm [45] One way to ensure that the behavior of flagging is normalized and ingrained in the discipline is in publishing venues. BMCR can and should lead the way by requiring reviewers to include robust footnotes related to issues of provenance.

I cannot support the publication of undocumented objects, “owned” by anonymous collectors, perhaps ripped from their archaeological context, all of which goes unmentioned or is only nominally flagged as an afterthought. I can, however, see the writing on the parchment and acknowledge that scholars “gonna publish.” But they could do it more ethically, tagging, separating, highlighting issues with provenance forever more. While I am troubled by much of this,[46]  I am delighted to see the inspiring work by many textual scholars who are already heeding the call to ethical action. Change is coming and the choice is yours.



[1] Malcolm Choat (2016). Provenance and the papyri. Markers of Authenticity. 25 April, 2016.

[2] “In terms of the present and the future: what we certainly must do now as a guild [papyrologists] is not trade in, publish, evaluate, or authenticate, antiquities which we suspect have come from source countries recently.” Malcolm Choat (2016).

[3] Referencing the popular “haters gonna hate” meme from Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off lyrics (©Taylor Swift, Max Martin, and Shellback) as a way of dismissing criticism. It seems that there will always be scholars willing to study and publish unprovenanced textual materials. See the work of Roberta Mazza and Brent Nongbri.

[4] Brent Nongbri (2022). The Ethics of Publication: Papyrology. BMCR 2022.05.25.

[5] I am defining unprovenanced materials as artifacts, manuscripts, objects without proper documentation of archaeological findspot, origin story, chain of ownership back to the creator. This definition draws from the work of Neil Brodie, Patty Gerstenblith, Elizabeth Marlowe, Roberta Mazza, Victoria Reed, and many other discussions of provenance.

[6] Patty Gerstenblith (in press) “Ethical guidelines for publishing ancient texts,” in Neil Brodie, Morag M. Kersel, and Josephine M. Rasmussen (eds) Variant Scholarship. Ancient Texts in Modern Contexts

[7] Gerstenblith (in press)

[8] Dennis Mizzi & Jodi Magness (2019). Provenance vs. Authenticity: An Archaeological Perspective on the Post-2002 “Dead Sea Scrolls-Like” Fragments. Dead Sea Discoveries 26(2): 135-169.

[9] Choat (2016) (above, note 1).

[10] See Michael D. Press, “Who Really Owns the Past?Aeon (27 May 2019).

[11] See Blythe Bowman Proulx (2008). Transnational Crimes against Culture: Looting at Archaeological Sites and the “Grey” Market in Antiquities. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 24: 225–42; Neil Brodie (2012). “Uncovering the Antiquities Market,” in Robin Skeates, Carol McDavid, and John Carman (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press 230–52; Fiona Greenland, James Marrone, Oya Topçuoğlu, & Tasha Vorderstrasse (2019). A Site-Level Market Model of the Antiquities Trade. International Journal of Cultural Property 26.1: 21-47. doi:10.1017/S0940739119000018

[12] See Årstein Justnes and Josephine Munch Rasmussen (2020). Hazon Gabriel: A Display of Negligence. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 384.1: 69–76.

[13] In addition to the comprehensive work of Neil Brodie see the various chapters in the forthcoming volume Variant Scholarship. Ancient Texts in Modern Contexts (above, note 8).

[14] Particularly textual scholars like David Owen (2009). Censoring knowledge: the case for the publication of unprovenanced cuneiform tablets, in James Cuno, J. (ed). Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 125‑142. and Age Westenholz (2010). Illicit cuneiform tablets: heirlooms or stolen goods?, in A. Kleinerman and J.M. Sasson (eds) Why Should Someone Who Knows Something Conceal It? Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 257‑272.

[15] Patty Gerstenblith (in press) (above, note 6).

[16] John Cherry (2014). “Publishing Undocumented Texts: Editorial Perspectives,” in Matthew T. Rutz and Morag M. Kersel (eds) Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics. Oakville: Oxbow Books.

[17] AIA Policy On The Presentation And Publication Of Undocumented Antiquities, January 4, 2020; ASOR Policy on Professional Conduct.

[18] Cherry (2014).

[19] While now retracted, the Brill publication Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection (2016) is a good example of Cherry’s concerns.

[20] Michael Johnson (2017) “A Case Study in Professional Ethics Concerning Secondary Publications of Unprovenanced Artefacts: The Re-Edition DSS F.Instruction1.” Distant Worlds Journal 2: 28–44.

[21] Neil Brodie (2006). An Archaeologist’s View of the Trade in Unprovenanced Antiquities, in: Barbara T. Hoffman (ed.), Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy, and Practice. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 52–63.

[22] Rick Bonnie, Matthew Goff, Jutta Jokiranta, Suzie Thomas, and Shani Tzoref. (2020). Professional Ethics, Provenance, and Policies. Dead Sea Discoveries 27(2): 257-293.

[23] Bonnie et al., 266.

[24] Mizzi & Magness (2019) (above, note 8).

[25] Nongbri (2022) (above, note 4).

[26] Christopher A. Rollston (2004) “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic” MAARAV 11 (2004), 57-79.

[27] Årstein Justnes and Josephine Munch Rasmussen (2020) (above, note 12).

[28] AIA Policy On The Presentation And Publication Of Undocumented Antiquities, 4 January, 2020.

[29] Laetitia La Follette (2021) Response to Object Biographies. Collaborative Approaches to Ancient Mediterranean Art (Houston: The Menil Collection), 10 March 2021.

[30] For comprehensive discussions of provenance see: Patty Gerstenblith (2020) Provenience and Provenance Intersecting with International Law in the Market for Antiquities, 45 North Carolina Journal of International Law 457.; Elizabeth Marlowe (2016) What We Talk About When We Talk About Provenance: A Response to Chippindale and Gill. International Journal of Cultural Property 23(3), 217-236. doi:10.1017/S0940739116000175; and Victoria Reed (2013) Due Diligence, Provenance Research, and the Acquisition Process at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 23 DePaul Journal of Art, Technology, and Intellectual Property Law 363.

[31] Eva Stehle (2021) Review of Studies in Sappho and Alcaeus by Kyriakos Tsantsanoglos, Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. BMCR 2021.02.08.

[32] All tweets used with author permission.

[33] Theo Nash (2021) 4 February, 2021 Tweet.

[34] I have no answer, this is an open-ended question that I would like the scholarly community to consider.

[35] Joan Reilly (2001) Review of Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, United States of America, Fascicule 35, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Fascicule 2. BMCR 2001.12.08

[36] David Gill (2014) Review of Personal Styles in Early Cycladic Sculpture by Pat Getz-Gentle, Personal Styles in Early Cycladic Sculpture. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2013. xxiii, 196; 98 p. of plates. ISBN 9780299172046 $34.95. BMCR 2014.07.12.

[37] Alexander Dale (2017) Review of Anton Bierl, André Lardinois, The newest Sappho: P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 1-4. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. BMCR 2017.08.32.

[38] According to Theo Nash it wasn’t so much a whisper network but more a shout as the provenance issues were loudly and frequently highlighted from the time the papyrus was first announced. For an overview and timeline see C. Michael Sampson and Anna Uhlig, The Murky Provenance of the Newest Sappho

Special Issue on the Papyrus Thefts. Eidolon, 5 November 2019.

[39] I raised these questions (and others) in my presentation at the BMCR 30th Anniversary Celebration in October 2022. In the Q & A, BMCR editor Camilla MacKay explained that they added the Editor’s Note because they had doubts and then discovered the whisper network, which they could not ignore.

[40] Robert K. Englund (2015) From Banning to Changchun: Cuneiform Studies Online, Today and Tomorrow. Vol. III, No. 3.

[41] Brent Nongbri (2022) (above, note 4).

[42] Roberta Mazza (2018) “The Illegal Papyrus Trade and What Scholars Can Do to Stop It,” Hyperallergic, 1 March 2018.

[43] Neil Brodie (2009) “Consensual relations? Academic involvement in the illegal trade in ancient manuscripts,” in Penny Green and Simon Mackenzie (eds), Criminology and Archaeology: Studies in Looted Antiquities (Oñati International Series in Law and Society) (Oxford: Hart), 41-58

[44] See the work of Neil Brodie, Patty Gerstenblith, Roberta Mazza, Michael Press, Chris Rollston, and Carrie Schroeder to name a few.

[45] For a discussion of her challenge to Brill to change their publication policy see Roberta Mazza (2020) Letter to Brill on the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments: A Positive Outcome. Faces and Voices, People, Artefacts, Ancient History, 22 January 2020.

[46] For a lengthier inquiry into these issues see a forthcoming chapter: Morag M. Kersel The Trouble with Texts, in Variant Scholarship. Ancient Texts in Modern Contexts (above, note 8).