Sunday, October 18, 2015

Recovering Papyri Fragments from the Wrappings of Mummy Masks

Cartonnage bath to separate out the used papyri from a mummy mask
Photo taken from Emily Teeter's Ancient Egypt (2003)
Prior to my post on the Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, I wrote on the mummy masks that were on display at the Getta Villa (see this post). It just so happens that last year, mummy masks were all the rave because of the possibility that some Gospel of Mark fragments dated to the late 1st century A.D. were recovered from the cartonnage (an ancient version of paper mâché made of linnen or papyri strips with glue) of a mummy mask. The claim has stirred up quite a bit of controversy and intense discussion on the blogosphere because the said Mark fragments have yet to be published (the projected 2015 date will probably be missed). Here is a random sampling of scholars who all argue for a healthy dose of scepticism until evidence/data that can be examined by the academic community becomes available: Roberta Mazza, Peter Willliams, James Tabor, to name a few.
    The claims for authenticity, however, should not be ignored because we do have two credible New Testament scholars, highly respected, who insist that the fragments are genuine and it is only a matter of time before they will be published (Brill will publish the fragments as part of the Green Scholars Initiative: Papyri Series; Michael Holmes, Director of the Green Initiative, has released this (un)official statement on his blog). Both Professor of Craig Evans, formerly the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, who this past June 2015 recently accepted a new post at Houston Baptist University, and Professor Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary and known textual-criticism expert, are eager to answer critics once the papyri have been published. Apparently a non-disclosure statement with the owners of the mummy mask from which the papyri were extracted keeps Evans and Wallace from saying any more. The hornet's nest was stirred when Evans, back in 2014, made this announcement during a lecture (see below): 
Almost immediately, the news media picked up on the announcement and posted articles from it and from an earlier press leak by Daniel Wallace during a debate with Bart Ehrman in 2012 (see Forbes, Live Science, The Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and the Christian Today). 
   I personally will simply wait until the Brill publication becomes available before making my own deliberation on the authenticity of the fragments. There is really nothing more anyone can do until they are published. But pedagogically, the whole process is a great segue to sharing with seminary students how some of our manuscripts and papyri fragments have fascinating stories of their own about their discovery. Aside from the incidental coincidence that mummy masks fit the October halloween theme, the anticipation concerning the Gospel of Mark fragments is a good way to talk about how papyri discoveries come from the oddest places: the garbage dumps of Egypt (think Oxyrhychus), on palimpsest (another form of recycled papyri), Christian monasteries (think Bodmer), or on the antiquities black market. 
    In the case of the mummy mask, with all the secrecy, I suspect that a private collector is involved (but this is only speculation). While we wait for Brill to publish the Green Scholars Initiative papyri series, below is a helpful video which outlines the process that some archaeologists / papyrologists used to protect the painted portrait of the mummy mask while still being able to extract the cartonnage and separate its layers to read the recycled papyri. Have fun! 
Video of Jaakko Frösén (University of Helsinki)
demonstrating how to extract the papyri from a mummy mask
without damaging the painted portrait

One more photo: Life Science has a nice article how renowned classicist Dirk Obbink discovered two poems of Sappho from the mummy cartonnage of a private collector. You can read the article (here). Below is the photo of the recovered papyrus scroll fragment from the cartonnage. Wow! It's amazing that it could be restored with such clarity.
Photo credit:
Postscript 10/19/15: One of Roberta Mazza's students found this video on the mummy mask from which the Gospel of Mark fragments came (or at least, this was the mummy mask used on the powerpoint screen for the announcement). If this is indeed the mummy mask, and I'm no expert, it sure makes even me nervous how the mask and papyri was handled. Watching the video can be nerve-wracking as you see the masked and papyri handled by several people. I hope the Green Scholars Initiative is taking care of the papyri well, and the faster Brill publishes it, the better. MJL

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