A 4th century fork, with a mule-head finial

Here’s a fascinating item currently held at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Inventory no 1987.210.  It’s a “furca”, a fork, or possibly a “furcula”, a table fork.  It’s just over 8 inches long (20.4cms):

The museum date it to 375-425, but on what this is based they do not say.  I generally find that such dates in Museum catalogues are not reliable.

There is a fascinating article by Maria G. Parani, “Byzantine cutlery: an overview”. Athēnai: Christianikē Archaiologikē Hetaireia, (2010), 139-164, fortunately online here.  This reviews a range of surviving forks, from both the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian realms.  On p.147 she tells us:

Finally, reference should be made to an unpublished two-pronged silver fork said to be from Italy and dating to the late fourth or early fifth century, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art (Department of Greek and Roman art, inv. no. 1987.210) (Fig. 8). It is much larger than most of the examples discussed so far, with a length of 20.4 cm, and has long tines and a smooth handle terminating in an equine head. The animal-head finial brings to mind the fork mentioned in the Auxerre inventory discussed earlier. Furthermore, though much simpler, the Cleveland fork is evocative of certain silver and copper alloy Sasanian forks in terms both of general form and size….

So this is perhaps a “furca”, a serving utensil, rather than a table-fork / furcula.  What a pity that we have no excavation context for it.

We are more fortunate that the finder recognised this as “art”, as something that he could sell to a dealer for more than just its value as raw silver.  I recall reading, too long ago, that some gold items stolen by a workman at Schliemann’s excavations at Troy, were simply melted down by the local gold smith, unaware that they were priceless.  Annoying and destructive as the trade in art can be, this item probably would otherwise have been destroyed.

Lovely to see it!

H/T @romanarchaeouk.


Gospel of Judas, Coptic Paul, Greek Exodus

Sometime before 1983, peasants in Egypt found four manuscript books somewhere. They were smuggled out of the country, and first seen by scholars in 1983, in boxes. They were hawked around the art market for more than 20 years. One of these contained the ps.gospel of Judas; the others were a Greek mathematical treatise, a Coptic version of three of Paul’s letters, and a copy of Exodus.

In an evil hour, these papyrus books went sold to a US antiquities dealer named Bruce Ferrini, who dismembered them and sold them, a bit at a time, to his contacts.  Ferrini eventually double-crossed his supplier, and then went bankrupt.

It seems that Ferrini retained fragments of the books, despite undertaking not to.  Despite being bankrupt, he seems to have operated a shop on e-Bay at one period.  Some of fragments then bought by collectors are now going around again on e-Bay.  A scholar is intending to purchase at least some of them and thereby get them out of this circus.

Silence has largely descended on this business.  Dutch art-dealer turned game-keeper Michel van Rijn used to expose all the dealings, but his site shut down after death threats.  Yet three of the four manuscripts are still missing.  In all this silence, it’s impossible to say whether all the pages and fragments that went to Ferrini are recovered.  I think I know where the Greek mathematical treatise is; and the anti-social scholars who have been commissioned to publish it but have not done so.  The Exodus may be in pieces; the whereabouts of the majority of the Paul are utterly unknown to me.

The fact that shreds of the gospel of Judas are turning up online can only mean that even now the find is not in safe keeping.  And every shred, remember, is a word of the text.  It’s a little bit of ancient knowledge, gone forever unless we are lucky.  It’s enough to make anyone weep.

Later:  I’ve just been to look for pieces of “manuscripts” generally on e-Bay.  There are offers of what is plainly pages from one manuscript, being dismembered and sold page by page by some reprehensible and greedy individual.  There are obvious fakes being offered.  The vision of destruction and dispersal, of the sheer lack of ethics, is horrible to see.