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UK: The online battle for papyrus texts
They are tattered yellowing fragments of bygone civilisations, ancient manuscripts that open a outstanding window on preceding millennia, including the earliest days of Christianity. But papyrus scrolls are also now increasingly hot items in the distinctly 21st Century globe of the on the web auction trade.

The online battle for papyrus texts
Papyrus trading is becoming feverish with 15 tattered lines 
of Homer selling at £16,000 [Credit: Telegraph]

A rectangular scrap measuring about 4.five inches by 1.five inches and featuring 15 partial lines of Homer's epic poem The Iliad in the elegant hand of a 4th Century Egyptian scribe was just [DEC] picked up by an unidentified European purchaser for £16,000 right after a feverish Net auction battle.

That value was way above the posted estimated but is standard of the sums that collectors will now devote to lay their hands on these fingerprints from the previous. Indeed, it is not just modern day art that has been setting jaw-dropping records at auction lately - so have ancient scrolls.

When a fragmentary parchment sheet from the 3rd century AD featuring portions of Paul's epistle to the Romans was bought at Sotheby's for £301,000 auctioneers and antiquity authorities alike have been stunned.

But even though there is no suggestion of any impropriety in these unique sales, scholars are alarmed by the burgeoning online trade as some unscrupulous sellers also cash in. They portray a no cost-ranging trade, particularly on the on line auction giant eBay, exactly 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, has turn into an on the web scrolls sleuth, scouring auction web-sites for manuscripts that are usually incorrectly labeled or their provenance unclear.

A couple of pieces are straightforward forgeries. Most famously, the papyrus fragment called the Gospel of Jesus's Wife created headlines for apparently overturning almost two millennia of theological teaching that Jesus was unmarried, but is now widely viewed as a forgery.

Considerably a lot more distressingly, some sellers are dismembering papyrus books to sell things page-by-page, a financially lucrative endeavor that amounts to small extra than vandalism of ancient works.

A single eBay papyrus seller turned out to be two sisters who ran an online beauty supplies store. They had inherited a Book of Revelation from which they cut person pages to sell on an ad hoc basis to fund the wedding costs for one.

But Mr Jones has also identified a proliferation of scrolls becoming sold of which the origin and ownership is unknown or unclear. A fragment of papyrus with neatly penned Greek script of Homers Iliad, 565-580, 4th Century AD. Ex Hamdy Sakr collection, London, formed in the 1960's. There had been only two serious bidders on the piece and it probably went a lot greater than either of them had anticipated.

Papyrus itself is a tall, fibrous reed plant that grew along the shallow banks of the Nile River in Egypt. 'Papyrus' is the Latin type of the Greek word papuros, from which the English word 'paper' is derived.

The papyri - mostly written in ancient Greek and Coptic - variety from items such as rare biblical texts or the lines of the Iliad to hum-drum but fascinating each day records of book-maintaining accounts or letters amongst loved ones members. All exert an incredible lure for collectors, historians, archaeologists and theologians.

But under American and Egyptian law, only antiquities that can be verified currently to have been in private hands ahead of the early 1970s can be traded. Those guidelines are intended to avoid looting and end the export of papyrus that is generally still identified by Bedouin tribesmen, preserved by the arid desert situations. But critics say that lots of sellers skirt or ignore the guidelines on Internet internet sites that are difficult to monitor and regulate.

The disapproving tone from academia also reflects a deep philosophical objection by many scholars to how manuscripts flow by means of private hands, fearing that priceless scripts will disappear forever amid the frenzy of trading.

"The study of ancient papyri is a fascinating field of historical inquiry, simply because these artefacts are the fingerprints of true men and women 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 several cases was meant to be private: an argument in between a husband and wife, a divorce contract, an invitation to dinner, a letter in between a father and son.

"But when private collectors acquire papyri for private enjoyment and restrict scholarly access to them, the instant consequence is that we drop worthwhile historical info that would otherwise advance our understanding about ancient people."

Nonetheless, the owner of a little specialist World-wide-web auction corporation, who asked not to be named due to the fact of the sensitivity of the situation, pushed back against these criticisms.

"We are scrupulous about producing certain of ownership despite the fact that not everybody is so fussy and it's accurate that there are some people today who know practically nothing who are out attempting to make a buck in the wild West of the Web," he mentioned.

"But some of these archaeologists and purists simply hate the reality that that any private person would personal, invest in or sell antiquities.

"They ignore the reality that things like this have always been collected. Indeed, some of these scripts have been commissioned by the private collectors of that time.

"Collectors play a crucial function in preserving these items with their interest. A lot of these items would stay hidden, forgotten, fading away, unknown to the scholars, if there was not a industry for them."

Amongst specialists in the research of early Christianity, there is specific concern about the emergence of eBay as a absolutely free-wheeling marketplace for antiquities, with low opening bids and normally exaggerated language to lure in possible purchasers.

An eBay spokesman, however, stated that its150 million buyers and sellers "must make certain listings comply with our clear policy on artefacts. We operate with regulators, law enforcement and other parties which includes the Egyptian Embassy to apply this policy, and if a listing of concern is identified we will need proof that it was legally exported and take away any listing exactly where this proof is not supplied."

As a specialist who spends his life studying such scrolls, Mr Jones also has concerns for the preservation and conservation of sensitive centuries-old documents when they are handled by traders.

He cited then instance of the well-known papyrus codex of the Gospel of Judas, which published in 2006. It was stored by one particular of its owners in a protected-deposit box on Long Island for sixteen years, and then placed in a freezer by a possible purchaser who thought that was the ideal way to preserve it.

"The benefits of these choices have been horrifying: the codex crumbled into quite a few hundreds of tiny pieces and what was after a practically total codex was now badly deteriorated and tricky to restore," he stated.

The booming trade has clearly revealed to scholars how numerous papyri have survived down the centuries.

"This prompts the question: just how quite a few ancient manuscripts are sitting in the basements, match boxes, drawers, safes, or shelves of private collectors about the globe?" Mr Jones asked lately.

"It is nearly certain that numerous ancient manuscripts or fragments thereof are just sitting in the dark closets of their collectors, decaying and crumbling to pieces. The public demands to be conscious of the importance of the preservation of antiquities, for the reason that when they are gone, they are gone forever."

Author: Philip Sherwell | Source: The Telegraph [December 28, 2014]