Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Papyrus Artemidorus in the News Again

This article has been updated (additions/substitutions in italics).

In 2009 Peter Head wrote a short piece on this blog about the Artemidorus Papyrus. There has been an endless debate over the authenticity of this manuscript, purportedly a work by the first-century BCE geographer Artemidorus, which was purchased in the early 2000s by an Italian foundation related to a bank group for an unbelievable price of nearly 2.750.000 EUROS ($3,369,850). The papyrus was exhibited in 2006 and then published in 2008 as Il Papiro di Artemidoro by an Italian group of scholars. However, a professor from Bari, Luciano Canfora argued at a very early stage that it was a modern forgery, possibly by the infamous 19th century forger Constantin Simonides. So, there are two camps among scholars, one defending its authenticity, one arguing that it is a fake.

Now, the manuscript has surfaced in the news again, in Italian newspapers (here, for example), suggesting that the case is closed – the manuscript has been proven a forgery. What is this fuss about? Apparently, there has been a legal investigation and the prosecuting side, the Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office has confirmed that the papyrus is a forgery, based on investigations arranged by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage (Ministero dei Beni Culturali). Well, who did the prosecutors call in as expert? Answer: Luciano Canfora & co, the one side that has argued for a forgery for many years. In fact, the news article repeats Canfora’s hilarious proposal that “it is most likely a 19th-century forgery attributed to the Greek Constantine Simonides.” As one who has studied Simonides’ forged papyri (yes, I have just submitted an article on the topic to a major journal), I must say that the Artemidorus papyrus is nothing like the papyri we know were forged by Simonides. I am ready to go to Italy to testify, just invite me :-).

What was more interesting than the old arguments by Canfora & co, however, was the anticipated “smoking gun” mentioned later on in the article, namely tests of the ink. There are no decisive evidence yet, but apparently, preliminary tests have supported the case for forgery (of course not specifically by Simonides) rather than authenticity, as suggested by Piero Gastaldo, Secretary General of Compagnia di San Paolo, the foundation that bought the papyrus (related to the Turin bank that now owns it) just before he resigned. But what tests and when?

 It is suggested that the ink composition is different from that which was used in papyri from the first to the sixth century (it is unclear whether they mean 1st century BCE here). Preliminary tests have detected zinc, and suggest that the fragments were placed on a metallic net that contained zinc, and then treated with acids. There is, however, no details of this testing, and it seems that the legal case is already closed … this is interesting.

One of our anonymous readers explains that these facts of the case were presented far too long ago for anybody to be charged at this point. It was a personal investigation by a judge who is now about to retire, and therefore  "he had to publish his findings now or never. For this reason the case is closed - without that judge following his personal interest and no possibility of charging anybody, no one in the legal system will not continue with the investigation."

In 2010, a Florence-based research group published the results of their tests on the Artemidorus papyrus in the journal Radiocarbon vol 52 (2010): 356–63. They tested both the writing material and the ink with various methods including radiocarbon. There was nothing they could find to prove the case for forgery – this is their conclusion:
C4 measurements have dated the papyrus to a period that is compatible with the hypothesis of the papyrologists. However, this result alone cannot be conclusive proof of the document’s authenticity. Some have already commented that a blank ancient papyrus might have been used to draw the inscriptions in the 19th century (even though it seems unlikely that a forger used such a great support). The ink analysis can add some important information: actually, all the results support the idea of the originality of the scroll. It is true that also in this case, someone has suggested that an expert forger might have simulated the composition of an ancient ink. In any case, in spite of and in addition to these results, discussion among the scholars is ongoing, mostly based on philological and linguistic issues. It will probably continue for a long time, at least until we are able to directly date theink (perhaps in the future!)
Finally, I should point out that there is a lot more to learn about ancient ink on papyri. In fact, last year, a group of Danish scholars showed for the first time that carbon black inks on ancient Egyptian papyri from different time periods and geographical regions contain copper. This article was published in Nature. I have recently learnt that my co-author Malcolm Choat, with whom I am working on Simonides, with two colleagues has received funding from the Australian Research Council (again!) for a project “to investigate the chemical composition of papyri from ancient Egypt and their inks to identify scribes, date texts, detect forgeries, match fragmentary texts, and illuminate environmental and technological change.”

All I know is that the last word on Papyrus Artemidorus is not said.  

Update 17/12/18: Luciano Canfora posted a link to the news article on the Papy-L discussion list. I then posed a question where we can read about the scientific analyses of the ink. From Canfora's reply (to me privately) it is clear that he did not know more than what the news article said (i.e., we have no further information about these tests).


  1. Interesting. Pure zinc (or zink) was indeed rare in ancient times. (And the once-claimed "zinc coffin" from the Qumran cemetery turned out to be modern, not ancient, zinc pieces.)
    Zinc oxide, though, may be less rare. For example, Paul T. Craddock of the British Museum, "Zinc in Classical Antiquity" (2000 Years of Zinc and Brass, 1998 p.1): "Zinc is one of the more abundant metallic elements in the earth's crust, but is very reactive and thus never occurs as a native metal."

  2. I may have made a mistake with zinc oxide, it may just have been zinc. I will wait for Italian reader(s) to correct me.

  3. The Italian article does say zinc rather than zinc oxide - it suggests that the fragments were placed on a metallic net that contained zinc, and then treated with acids, that transferred the zinc from the net to the fragments.

    It also says that there is not a "smoking gun" (ie decisive evidence), but rather preliminary evidence that supports more the case for a forgery than being authentic. Actually, it is probably not the article that said this, but the President of the Foundation that bought the papyrus just before he resigned. "Probably", because there an inverted commas at the start of his comment, but no inverted commas at the end, so it is not clear when his quote ends and the article's explanation restarts.

    The case was a personal investigation by a judge - the facts occurred far too long ago for anybody to be charged, even when the investigation was started soon after he was appointed as a judge. So it was only for personal interest. Since the judge is about to retire, he had to publish his findings now or never. For this reason the case is closed - without that judge following his personal interest and no possibility of charging anybody, no one in the legal system will not continue with the investigation.

  4. Thank you for these clarifications! I will update the blogpost later tonight.

  5. And if the writng on this papyrus bears no resemblance to Simonides' known forgeries (which are readily observable in facsimile), much the same can be said for the peculiar allegations claiming Simonides' involvement with Sinaiticus. Of course, some people still won't be happy without C-14 dating and ink analysis, but that is just par for the course.

  6. Can somebody - I assume Tommy - who has seen both a Simonides forgery and the matching facsimile of that forgery confirm that the facsimile is an accurate representation of Simonides' hand and not in any way modified by whoever prepared the facsimile?
    Can anybody who has seen Simonides' hand - again Tommy I assume - advise if there is any significant variation within the hand?

  7. I can confirm that the facsimile is *not* exactly the same as the actual manuscript ... but nearly (as good as the reproduction could be done with the technique of the time).