Papyrus texts are becoming collectable items for those who can afford them.
These are tattered and yellowing fragments of bygone civilisations, ancient manuscripts opening a window to previous millennia – including in particular the earliest days of Christianity.
But papyrus scrolls have now become increasingly ‘hot items‘ in the twenty-first-century world of online auction trades.
A rectangular scrap measuring 4.5 by 1.5 inches, featuring fifteen partial lines of Homer’s The Iliad in the elegant hand of a fourth-century Egyptian scribe, was picked up by an unidentified European buyer for £16,000 after a ‘feverish Internet battle’.
That price, far above the estimate, is typical of the sums collectors now spend to get their hands on these fingerprints from the past.
When a parchment sheet from the 3rd century AD, featuring part of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, was bought for £301,000 at Sotheby’s, auctioneers and antiquity experts were astonished.
There is apparently no suggestion of any impropriety in these sales, but scholars are alarmed that unscrupulous sellers are also cashing in on the burgeoning online trade.
In such a free-ranging market, particularly the auction giant eBay, where ‘precious documents are carved up for sale, potentially stolen goods are trafficked and forgers can flourish’.
Brice Jones, a papyrologist and lecturer in New Testament and Early Christianity at Concordia University in Montreal, became an ‘online scrolls sleuth’, and has been ‘scouring auction websites for manuscripts that are often incorrectly labelled’ or have an unclear provenance.
A few are straightforward forgeries. Most famously, ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ made headlines for ‘overturning nearly two millennia of theological teaching’ that Jesus was unmarried, but it is now widely considered a forgery.
Some sellers are dismembering papyrus books to sell items page-by-page, a financially profitable endeavour that amounts to little more than vandalism of ancient works.
Papyrus is a tall, fibrous plant that once grew along the banks of the Nile in Egypt. ‘Papyrus’ is the Latin form of the Greek ‘papuros’, from which the English word ‘paper’ is derived.
Mostly written in ancient Greek and Coptic, the papyri range from rare biblical texts or lines of The Iliad to daily records of book-keeping accounts or letters between family members.
According to American and Egyptian law, ‘only antiquities that can be proven already to have been in private hands before the early 1970s can be traded’. This is intended to prevent looting and end the export of papyrus that is often still found by Bedouin tribesmen, preserved by desert conditions. But critics say many sellers ignore the rules on websites that are difficult to monitor and regulate.
The disapproval from academia reflects a ‘deep philosophical objection’ by many scholars to how manuscripts flow through private hands, fearing many priceless scripts will disappear forever as a result of ‘the frenzy of trading’.
‘The study of ancient papyri is a fascinating field of historical inquiry, because these artefacts are the fingerprints of real people from a bygone era,’ Mr Jones told the Telegraph. ‘Each time I study a new papyrus, it is as if I am peeking over the shoulders of the scribe who wrote it, eavesdropping on a conversation that in many cases was meant to be private: an argument between a husband and wife, a divorce contract, an invitation to dinner, a letter between a father and son. ‘But when private collectors acquire papyri for personal enjoyment and restrict scholarly access to them, the immediate consequence is that we lose valuable historical information that would otherwise advance our knowledge about ancient people.’
Nevertheless, one anonymous owner of a small Internet auction company said: ‘We are scrupulous about making sure of ownership although not everyone is so fussy and it’s true that there are some people who know nothing who are out trying to make a buck in the wild West of the Internet. But some of these archaeologists and purists simply hate the fact that that any private person would own, buy or sell antiquities. They ignore the fact that items like this have always been collected. Indeed, some of these scripts were commissioned by the private collectors of that time. Collectors play a crucial role in preserving these items with their interest. A lot of these items would remain hidden, forgotten, fading away, unknown to the scholars, if there was not a market for them.’
There is particular concern among specialists of early Christianity about the emergence of eBay as a ‘free-wheeling marketplace for antiquities, with low opening bids and often exaggerated language to lure in potential buyers’.
A spokesman from eBay said that its 150 million users ‘must ensure listings comply with our clear policy on artefacts. We work with regulators, law enforcement and other parties including the Egyptian Embassy to apply this policy, and if a listing of concern is identified we will require proof that it was legally exported and remove any listing where this proof is not provided’.
As a specialist himself, Mr Jones also has concerns for the preservation and conservation of sensitive centuries-old documents when handled by traders.
Mr Jones cited an example of ‘The Gospel of Judas’, published in 2006. After being stored by one of its owners in a safe-deposit box on Long Island for sixteen years, it was then placed in a freezer by a potential buyer who thought that this was the best way to preserve it.
‘The results of these decisions were horrifying: the codex crumbled into many hundreds of tiny pieces and what was once a virtually complete codex was now badly deteriorated and difficult to restore,’ he said.
Collectors should ensure that these remarkable artefacts of ancient times are properly stored and looked after with great care, lest part of the civilisation of which we still know very little is buried without a trace.
If I had to live my life again and had the means to engage in profound studies of people who lived before the advent of Christianity and what followed thereafter, I would die happily and more knowledgeable and content than I have ever been.