Several years ago when I worked in Oxford during a July program for high school students, one of my co-workers was a first generation Greek who lived in Manhattan. The program took students to many museums and exhibits. One favorite was the British Museum, and one particular July it had an exhibit of Greek gems. Aphrodite, my co-worker, convinced me to go with her to see the exhibit of gems, as she said, “From my homeland.” While we marveled at the vastness and beauty of the collection, a young couple were next to us. The young woman said something to her companion in a non-English language, and Aphrodite quickly looked toward her—their eyes met, and the young woman hurriedly walked away with her friend. On the ride back to Oxford I asked Aphrodite if she had understood what the young woman had said and she told me how the other woman said to her companion in Greek, “Just think! All of this used to belong to us.” She obviously had been surprised that someone besides her companion understood her words and their criticism.
I recalled this experience recently when I read two magazine articles centered around Dirk Obbink and his work for the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) collection in the Sackler Library at Oxford. Obbink, a highly regarded scholar, helped oversee the Oxyrhynchus Papyri collection, named after the Egyptian city which trash heaps held the throve of ancient literature excavated by Bernard Pune Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Eventually over 500,000 fragments of literary, biblical, and documentary texts would find its way to Oxford from Egypt.
Obbink sold some of the papyri to Steven Green, the wealthy American zealot behind the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Obbink may have taken up to 120 pieces of papyrus from the collection, including one fragment from the Gospel of Mark dating to the first century, which he sold to Green for his museum. He also sold other fragments to the Museum of the Bible and may have pocketed up to 1.5 million. Now Green is forced to return the stolen fragments and several others to the EES.
All of this is good, but not just. This thievery is why Aphrodite’s explanation of the young woman’s comment matters so much. All the Greek gems we saw on display that day in the British Museum had been taken—stolen—“From my homeland” as she said. While Grenfell and Hunt did a valuable service to the world’s scholarship of ancient literature by saving the fragments from obvious harm, the fragments were found on Egyptian soil, thus they belong to Egypt. Perhaps more of us are like Steve Green– parties in the buying of stolen property for our own desires than we admit.