Friday, May 27, 2022

Nongbri on unprovenanced papyri

The Ethics of Publication: Papyrology

Brent Nongbri, MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society.

The editors of BMCR have asked me to reflect on the current landscape and ethics of publishing in papyrology. ...

In fact, this essay discusses the problem of unprovenanced inscriptions more broadly, including, e.g., cuneiform tablets. Dr. Nongbri covers a broad range of views and gives us some of his own reflections.

By the way, ASOR stands for the American Society for Oriental Research. [CORRECTION: Nope, Brent was right. ASOR has changed its name to the American Society for Overseas Research.]

Regular PaleoJudaica readers are familiar with Brent Nongbri's blog, Variant Readings, to which I link from time to time.

PaleoJudaica has discussed the problem of unprovenanced antiquities, especially inscriptions, many times over many years. For some of these posts, including one addressing Frank Moore Cross's comments quoted in the essay above, start here and follow the links. And see also here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and links.

My main point has been that we should assume that an unprovenanced inscription is a forgery unless someone makes a credible case that it is genuine. I have excepted cuneiform tablets and Aramaic incantation bowls from this rule. Cuneiform tablets would be difficult – arguably currently impossible – to forge. The same is probably true about the magic bowls, for now. But as forgers become more skillful and forgery technology improves, the situation for both may change.

Whether scholars should work with unprovenanced inscriptions at all is a difficult question. It involves complicated moral issues and issues of international law. For now, I am content to follow the policies of the various professional societies and journals, although these are not entirely consistent among themselves. The debate continues ...

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