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Metadata and Provenance: New Work on P.Sapph.Obbink

In the latest volume of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists (number 57), C. Michael Sampson’s article “Deconstructing the Provenances of P.Sapp.Obbink” suggests once again that the sale of valuable papyri involves more fiction than fact, more obfuscation than clarification. After receiving a PDF copy of a Christie’s brochure for the private treaty sale of the papyrus, Sampson engaged in some detective work analyzing the metadata of the brochure and the included images.

Whenever digital files are created, metadata involving the creation date, modification dates, contents, etc. may be automatically stored in the file, invisible in the document text or image itself. The metadata that is collected will depend on the application being used and the type of file being created. For example, when you take a picture with a digital camera, the metadata collected with the image will have information about the camera itself (e.g., Apple brand, iPhone 6s model, etc.), the file information (e.g., file name, image size, resolution, etc.), the date and time it was taken, the GPS information (e.g., latitude and longitude, altitude, direction the image was taken, etc.), and the location based on the GPS information (city, state, country, address).

Sampson’s article notes that the metadata in the PDF had not been scrubbed (removed), so his investigation could move forward. The metadata, like any data, can be untouched, cleared, or modified (though modifying it would require knowledge and skill to do so). Given that the data he uncovered proved problematic to the timeline of events revealed in published discussions of this papyrus’ provenance, we could probably assume that the metadata was untouched and that the creator of the PDF was entirely unaware that such data existed. Sampson himself notes, “This is not the kind of research I ever imagined myself undertaking, and it’s not research that should have been necessary in the first place” (169). His analysis of the data is an interesting read and, yet again, the evidence for provenance information appears suspect (consider the posts about so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment and the arrest of Dirk Obbink back in April). The unfortunate cycle of deception and refining research methods continues here: each time researchers come up with a new way of verifying information, we provide the deceivers one more way to cover their tracks. But this is the ongoing process. If I might decontextualize a quote from the Gospel of Luke for a bit of encouragement, “nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”

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