A Fake Patchwork of Genuine Fragments

At a quick glance, a Coptic document today in the collection of the Università di Genova (Italy) looks pretty standard. There is some damage at the edges and a few small holes in the middle. But, otherwise, it looks quite well preserved. However, on closer inspection, things aren’t as they seem. While the writing seems to follow the same lines, the text in one area on the left is written upside down and in different handwriting to everything else. And looking at the rest of the document, even though the handwriting is quite similar, it becomes clear that there are three other fragments: one in the top-centre, one in the bottom-centre, and another at the right. In total, this one piece, which has maximum dimensions of 17.2 cm (width) by 8.2 cm (height), is therefore made up of four unrelated smaller fragments.

P.Genova V 225 (Università di Genova inv. 1330). Image from P.Genova V pl. XXXI

No names – of places or people – survive on these fragments, labelled a–d (their positions are noted on the image above), so their authors can never be identified, nor where they were written or to where they may have been sent. Only minimal details can be determined. At most, fragment c on the right may be traced to a monastic origin, because it refers to ‘the brother’. Of the four fragments, three are certainly from letters. Despite what little survives, this can be established based on the presence of standard formulae, mainly greetings (frag. a) and farewells (frag. c), and addresses to other people (‘and you (plural) will say it’ in frag. d). Fragment d concerns a tax in grain (the embolé-tax), but too much is lost from the other pieces to determine what they were about. As for fragment b, the only noun that can be read is ‘fruit’, but there is too little writing (and much of it is faint) to figure out if this is a letter or some other type of document. 

With so little information about the fragments, their story largely becomes one about their modern history. In particular, why are these four fragments joined together in this way? Given the clear intention of making the manuscript look like a mostly intact document, including substantial upper and lower margins, this must be a modern patchwork. When they were joined together and by whom, before being acquired by the Università di Genova in the mid-20th century, remain unknown. One thing, though, is certain. By gluing the pieces together, four small ancient fragments were made to look like a complete manuscript, and this made them a more attractive and profitable sale item on the antiquities market. On the market, a faked whole is worth more than the sum of its genuine parts.  

Technical Details 
Provenance (findspot): Unknown.
Date: 7th/8th century.
Language: Coptic.
Collection: Università di Genova (Italy), inv. 1330.
Designation: Edited by J. Cromwell and L. Prada in P.Genoa V 225a–d (designation according to the Checklist of Editions). Trismegistos numbers: TM 565480 (frag. a); TM 565481 (frag. b); TM 565482 (frag. c); TM 565484 (frag. d). 
Bibliography: n/a.

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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