Tuesday, September 25, 2018

An ancient Coptic love spell?

COPTIC WATCH: Ancient Egyptian 'Magic Spell' Deciphered (Owen Jarus, Live Science).
An ancient Egyptian papyrus with an image showing two bird-like creatures, possibly with a penis connecting them, has been deciphered, revealing a magic spell of love.

"The most striking feature of [the papyrus] is its image," wrote Korshi Dosoo, a lecturer at the University of Strasbourg in France, who published the papyrus recently in the Journal of Coptic Studies.

Dosoo estimates that it dates back around 1,300 years, to a time when Christianity was widely practiced in Egypt.

This is an weird, intriguing little text. But two aspects of it raise concerns. Both are well covered in the article.

First, it is unprovenanced. No one knows where it was found or when exactly. For some time (e.g., here, here, here, here) I have taken the line that unprovenanced inscriptions should be regarded as fake unless someone makes a persuasive case for their authenticity. I stand by that here.

In some cases, it looks as though it would be very difficult to produce a convincing forgery, but these seem to be becoming fewer as forgers become more sophisticated. I don't know how hard it would be to forge a Coptic magical text. But given our experience with the Gospel of Jesus' Wife, I suspect it could be done fairly convincingly.

In the DSD review linked to in the immediately preceding post, Årstein Justnes makes the same point about unprovenanced inscriptions:
Until now the burden of proof in our field has rested on scholars who claim that an unprovenanced item is a forgery. This needs to change.
I have not read the article in the Journal of Coptic Studies. Perhaps it would convince me that this is a genuine ancient manuscript.

Second, due to its lack of provenance, it is not clear that the manuscript was acquired in accordance with the relevant UNESCO treaty of 1972. So if it is genuine, its purchase many not have been in accordance with international conventions. I make no judgement about this particular object. But the issue should be flagged.

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