Wednesday 31 July 2019

Why maps have north at the top

One perennially popular question on ask-an-expert social media is: why do maps have north at the top? Is there a solid reason for it, or is it arbitrary?

The answer, just to give you a heads-up, lies in Greco-Roman antiquity.

Now, you will often see maps rotated to arrange a region or a building in a tidy rectangular space. A GPS service may turn a map continuously so that ‘up’ is always the direction you’re facing. Those things are fine. But if you open up a printed roadmap, or an atlas, you don’t want to hunt around to find out which direction is which. If you open up Google Earth, there’s a prominent button that will turn the map so that north is at the top.

We can grant that the four cardinal directions -- north, east, south, and west -- aren’t arbitrary. They’re determined by the geometry and rotation of the Earth. But you still need to choose which of those four to put at the top. The four cardinal directions aren’t arbitrary, but which of the four you choose -- that is arbitrary.
The central Mediterranean in four orientations. Each of these is a perfectly reasonable, non-arbitrary way of orienting a map. The arbitrariness comes in which of the four you choose.
(Actually there are eight possibilities, if we also admit the possibility of maps drawn from an underground perspective. We’ll assume we’re not doing that. We’re also ignoring maps with polar geometry, that is, with the south pole or north pole at the centre.)

Map-makers of various periods and places have certainly chosen directions other than north to put at the top. Prior to the 1400s there was no consistency. The Moroccan cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi drew up a map in 1154 of western Asia, northern Africa, and Europe, with south at the top. Mediaeval T-and-O maps, like the Hereford mappa mundi (ca. 1300), have east at the top. Albertinus de Virga’s world map (ca. 1415) has north at the top, Fra Mauro’s (ca. 1450) opts for south. None of these options is intrinsically better or worse than the others.

Top: Muhammad al-Idrisi’s map, with Asia at the left, northern Africa at the top, and Europe at the bottom right. Bottom: the Hereford mappa mundi along with a stylised simplification.
Anyway, the obvious question is: why? Why did European mapmakers switch to having north at the top so consistently in the late 1400s?

If you do make the mistake of asking this on an ask-the-experts forum, you will get completely speculative answers:
  • ‘Europeans wanted to put Europe at the top ... [so] their maps would end up having the largest sway’. (That’s a good post hoc rationalisation for keeping maps pointing that way, but it isn’t the historical cause.)
  • Globes supposedly are naturally arranged with the axis of rotation pointing vertically (why?), and ‘globes have existed ... since the third century BC’. (They haven’t: this sub-myth comes from a mistranslation of Strabo.)
  • Compass needles supposedly point up. (Funny, I thought they’re horizontal.)
  • Alternatively, ‘you rotate [your map] until the needle is pointing away from you’. (Actually, 15th century European compasses pointed south.)
  • ‘[S]tars apparently rotate around the north pole’, and somehow that translates to having a map arranged with the ‘up’ side away from the reader.
  • There’s more land in the northern hemisphere, and somehow that makes north naturally ‘up’. (This answer comes closest to the reality, but still not close enough.)
Now, it’s imaginable that any of these speculations may hold true for some particular time, some particular place, some particular mapmaker. None of them comes close to the historical cause, though.

The short answer is that it was in the late 1400s that Ptolemy’s Geography became widely available in printed editions. Ptolemy, forgotten since antiquity, suddenly became insanely influential. And Ptolemy put north at the top.

(That wasn’t a universal thing in antiquity, either, by the way: Ptolemy makes a careful argument for his choice. We don’t know which way the maps of Eratosthenes or Marinus of Tyre were oriented.)

Ptolemy’s map, designed in the 2nd century, may look a bit shonky to modern eyes -- India and China are badly misshapen, most of Africa is missing, Scotland is completely misplotted. But for the Mediterranean world Ptolemy’s latitude and longitude data, based on Roman survey work, are pretty accurate, and very convenient. As a result, renaissance-era European mapmakers followed both his data -- until explorers improved on it -- and his design choice about which way north is.
Table 1 from the 1477 Bologna edition of Ptolemy’s Geography. The projection used to represent the curved surface of the earth isn’t rectilinear, unlike the maps of Marinus of Tyre and Mercator. This is the first projection Ptolemy outlines in his theoretical introduction (Geog. 1.24); many renditions of Ptolemy’s data use the second projection instead.
In 1406 Jacopo d’Angeli translated the Geography into Latin, from the Greek text assembled by Maximus Planudes. After the advent of the printing press, the translation appeared in several print editions -- four in a space of seven years: first the 1475 Vicenza edition, with just the raw data; then with the data plotted onto maps in accordance with Ptolemy’s directions, in the 1477 Bologna edition, the 1478 Rome edition, and the 1482 Ulm edition. Reprints followed quickly. Ptolemy was hot stuff.

One exception, by the way, is Fra Mauro’s map, made around 1450. Fra Mauro had access to data from further afield, about southern Africa and eastern Asia, but he still draws on Ptolemy for some things like the enormous island of Taprobana (far larger than Sumatra or Sri Lanka, the two islands that Ptolemy’s defenders try to identify it with). Fra Mauro doesn’t follow Ptolemy’s choice about orientation, though. Bear in mind that Fra Mauro lived before the spate of Ptolemy editions in the 1470s and 1480s.

You will occasionally find that an online ‘expert’ is aware of Ptolemy as the real reason. But even then, they’ll be blissfully unaware of why Ptolemy made that choice. Ptolemy explains, directly and explicitly, why he puts north at the top. And though his reasoning is arbitrary to an extent, it’s also data-driven.

It’s probably worth taking note, for a start, that Ptolemy was neither European nor a Roman citizen, and that because of axial precession, the North Star was several degrees away from the pole in the 2nd century when Ptolemy was alive. So a lot of the usual speculative reasons don’t apply (it’s all eurocentrism, or European colonialism, or the North Star is ‘up’). That said, here’s his explanation in his own words:
We have selected the arrangement for convenience of design, taking everything into consideration. It is based on the principle that we move to the right, with transitions from things that are already set down, to those that are not yet taken in hand. This will be the case if northern parts are drawn before southern parts, and western parts before eastern parts. So, to those designing or viewing the map, the north lies up, and the east of the world lies to the right, on both the globe and the map. Therefore we shall begin with Europe and divide it up; then we move to Africa via the Strait of Herakles; then to Asia, after covering the sea in between ...
-- Ptolemy, Geography book 2, prologue, §§4-6
In other words, maps have north at the top because ancient Greek was written left-to-right and top-to-bottom.

Ptolemy’s sudden popularity in the late 1400s has positive and negative sides to it. It certainly fed Columbus’ misapprehensions about the size of the earth. You might feel that the impact on map orientation is a good thing, because a universal standard is good, or a bad thing, because there’s no very good reason to have maps as standardised as all that.

There’s no doubt that map orientation has fed colonialist impressions about which bits of the world are important and which ones aren’t. That’s one thing that you will regularly see pointed out in response to this question -- thanks to a memorable episode of the TV series The West Wing.
Dr Fallow. When third-world countries are misrepresented, they’re likely to be valued less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere, and the bottom is given to the southern, then people will tend to adopt ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ attitudes.
C.J. But ... wait, h- -- where else could you put the northern hemisphere but on the top?
Dr Sales. On the bottom.
C.J. How?
Dr Fallow. Like this.
C.J. Yeah, but you can’t do that.
Dr Fallow. Why not?
C.J. ’Cause it’s freakin’ me out.

Tuesday 2 July 2019

The ‘FCM’ scandal: a timeline

Last week several statements emerged about various under-the-table dealings concerning ‘FCM’. This is the papyrus formerly known as ‘First Century Mark’, published last year as P. Oxy. 5345, and also known to New Testament scholars as P137.
P. Oxy. 5345
We now know that the papyrus actually dates to the second century. So while it is the oldest copy of Mark, it is not the oldest New Testament papyrus. Its text is not significantly different from the standard received text.

The recent revelations relate to a purchase contract that was agreed in 2013 between Dirk Obbink and Hobby Lobby, which owns the Green Collection and which established the Museum of the Bible. According to the contract, Obbink sold four papyri in his own name, including the Mark papyrus, to Hobby Lobby. It seems he did this without the knowledge or consent of the Egypt Exploration Society, which was and still is the owner.

Various parties over the last seven years have said that the Mark papyrus had been sold from one unnamed party to another unnamed party. It now seems they had good reason to believe that. However, after 2013 the purchase remained shrouded in obscurity, and there are still open questions over who had a hand in keeping the story obscure and why they did so. Some of the actions documented below do not seem like actions with honest motivations.

The main public pieces of information in this saga emerged in 2012 (the Wallace-Ehrman debate); 2018 (the publication of the papyrus, and statements from Scott Carroll, Dan Wallace [1, 2], and the Egypt Exploration Society): and 2019 (statements from Michael Holmes, the Egypt Exploration Society, Jerry Pattengale, and Scott Carroll).

A few points are worth making clear in advance:
  • ‘Egypt Exploration Society’ is abbreviated as EES.
  • The EES has a vast backlog of unpublished papyri. Over 100,000 papyri were excavated at Oxyrhynchus in the 1890s and 1900s. If all of them were to be published, the backlog would take several centuries to clear. In that context, decades-long delays are unsurprising.
  • In 2013-2015, much of the public discussion focused on the practice of retrieving papyrus from mummy cartonnage, which is a destructive process, heavily used at the Green Scholars Initiative. Some of the people involved in that scandal are also involved in this story, but with the information that is currently public there is no particular reason to suppose that P. Oxy. 5345 came from cartonnage.
Addenda, written a day later:
I had misreported the catalogue number of the papyrus in some places: this is corrected now. Mike Holmes has contacted me to clarify a point relating to a photo taken on 24 Nov. 2017, and with a correction of another point.

Also, a belated thank you to Theo Nash for casting his eye over this to make sure it was reasonably impartial.


1903: papyrus found at Oxyrhynchus

According to the EES (24 May 2018), this is the most likely date for when Grenfell and Hunt found the papyrus at Oxyrhynchus.

Early 1980s: preliminary dating to 1st century

According to the EES (24 May 2018), this is when Dr Revel Coles provisionally dated the papyrus to 'I/II' (i.e. first or second century CE), but without identifying it.

2011: papyrus identified as Mark

According to the EES (24 May 2018), this is when ‘a researcher working for Professor Obbink’ identified the papyrus as the gospel of Mark.

2011: Obbink shows the papyrus to Carroll and Pattengale

According to Dr Jerry Pattengale (28 June 2019), in 2011 Dr Dirk Obbink showed four papyri to Pattengale and Scott Carroll in his rooms at Christ Church, Oxford, which later became part of a purchase agreement (see below, 17 Jan. 2013). On 1 Dec. 2011 Carroll tweeted that P. Rylands 457 (P52) was no longer the earliest known NT manuscript.

1 Feb. 2012: the Wallace-Ehrman debate

In the debate Professor Dan Wallace states:
The oldest manuscript of the New Testament is now a fragment from Mark’s gospel that is from the first century. How accurate is the dating? Well, my source is a papyrologist who worked on this manuscript, a man whose reputation is unimpeachable. Many consider him to be the best papyrologist on the planet. His reputation is on the line with this dating and he knows it. But he is certain that this manuscript was from the first century.
Wallace goes on to say, later on in the Q&A:
I’m afraid I can’t tell you [the extent of the manuscript or who dated it], and the reason is because this whole project is rather hush-hush right now until the publisher comes out a year from now. I can tell you the publisher is E. J. Brill, and so it’s a reputable publisher, and I’ve been sworn to secrecy on the rest of the data.
In a later statement (11 June 2018) Wallace says that he understood Obbink to be the source of the 1st century dating.

Elsewhere (23 May 2018) Wallace states that, just prior to the debate, a representative of the purchaser ‘urged me to make the announcement at the debate’ and assured him that the date was reliable. He adds that ‘at some point along the line’ he learnt that the representative already knew that the source of the date was not as certain as all that, and ‘that the rep knew, two weeks prior to the debate, that the papyrologist had changed his views. But I was told none of this.’

Pattengale (28 June 2019) identifies this representative as Scott Carroll. In Carroll’s version of the conversation (29 June 2019), Carroll only mentioned the papyrus to Wallace in passing; Wallace asked Carroll for permission to make the announcement; and Carroll told Wallace that Hobby Lobby did not own the papyrus.

Later in February and March similar reports came out, stated by Carroll, Wallace, and Wallace again, with certainty about the 1st century dating, but no new information.

2012: Wallace’s NDA and inspection of the papyrus

According to Wallace (11 June 2018), in 2012 he was informed that the papyrus was being sold, and was asked by the purchaser to vet it. For this purpose, he was informed by Pattengale that the seller required Wallace to sign a non-disclosure agreement. The NDA may have happened before the debate (above), since in the debate he mentions being sworn to secrecy. However, he also says (25 May 2018) that he only got to see the papyrus later, after the debate.

17 Jan.-4 Feb. 2013: purchase agreement signed

A scanned copy of the purchase agreement was made public by Dr Michael Holmes (June 2019). The agreement is signed by Obbink and a representative of Hobby Lobby. Six items are sold in Obbink's name, including four NT papyri dated to ‘circa 0100 AD’.

6 Sep. 2013: Carroll describing new papyrus finds

In a presentation, Carroll discusses recent finds of biblical papyri and refers to ‘a first-century text of the Gospel of Mark ... that dates between 70 and 110’, and shows a list of several papyri on screen. The list seems to have some overlap with the ones listed in the purchase agreement (above) and in Obbink’s handwritten list, kept by Pattengale (see below, 24 Nov. 2017).
Carroll’s list of recent finds of biblical papyri, 6 Sep. 2013 (my highlighting)

October 2015: Carroll reports Obbink’s dating

Carroll, interviewed by Josh McDowell, states that
  • Hobby Lobby tried to acquire the papyrus in 2012-2013 -- Carroll wanted it to be part of an exhibit for the Vatican Library -- ‘but they delayed and didn’t.’
  • ‘It has since been acquired, I can’t say by whom. It is in the process of being prepared for publication’, and in the publishing process ‘the most important person of note is Dirk Obbink.’
  • Carroll saw the papyrus twice; on both occasions ‘it was in [Obbink’s] possession’.
  • Obbink ‘was wrestling with dating somewhere between 70 AD and 120, 110’.

2015: Obbink’s statement to The Daily Beast

The Daily Beast reports (25 May 2018) that in communications dating to 2015, Obbink refused to discuss ‘FCM’ or the Green Collection, and told them that he was ‘not involved in the study of [the Green] collection’.

Spring 2016: EES inventory of unpublished NT papyri

According to the EES (24 May 2018), this is when the EES decided to review NT fragments in their collection that had been identified but not published. They made this decision, they say, in response to social media discussion of the purchase of 'FCM'.

It was in the course of this review that the EES identified P. Oxy. 5345 as the ‘FCM’ being publicly discussed, and they instructed Obbink to prepare it for publication quickly.

In a later statement, the EES reports (7 Mar. 2019) that among the unpublished material they identified 20 NT papyri, 10 patristic texts, and 80 Septuagint papyri.

August 2016: Obbink steps down as general editor of the Oxyrhynchus papyri

This date is given in the EES statement of 25 June 2019.

14 July 2017: Carroll’s report made public

At this point Peter Curry posted online a transcript of Carroll’s statement in October 2015.

16 Nov. 2017: Pattengale realises there is a problem

Pattengale states (28 June 2019) that in November 2017 he realized that a serious ethical breach was being discussed at the opening gala of the Museum of the Bible. He took a photo of the people having the conversation, and he ‘immediately’ sent communications to the museum management.

Pattengale’s photo
(metadata removed)

24 Nov. 2017: Pattengale’s photo of Obbink’s list

Pattengale takes a photo of a handwritten list of four papyri, apparently the same ones listed in the 2013 purchase agreement. The handwriting matches Obbink's signature in the purchase agreement.

The photo was in the material that Mike Holmes released in June 2019. Holmes says that the hand holding the list is Obbink’s: this seems to be a misperception, perhaps coming from someone saying that the list was ‘in Obbink’s hand’ or similar, referring to the handwriting. [Addendum, a day later: Mike Holmes has contacted me directly to confirm this supposition.] Pattengale himself states that he took the photo (28 June 2019), and the file metadata show that the photo was taken on this date at 8.52 pm, in a residential area a few minutes from Indiana Wesleyan University, where Pattengale works.

Pattengale goes on to say that he carried the list with him for several years, and he sent the photo to the Museum of the Bible ‘before [his] retirement’ (in 2018). His motivations for taking his photos, and for his treatment of this list, are open to speculation.
The timestamp of Pattengale’s photo

May 2018: publication

The Mark papyrus is published as P. Oxy. 5345, edited by Obbink and Colomo.

23 May 2018: statement from Carroll

Scott Carroll states that
  • Obbink tried to sell the papyrus to the Green Collection in 2011 and 2013;
  • Obbink said that the papyrus was ‘in his possession’;
  • Obbink said it dated to the first century.

23 May 2018: statement from Wallace

Wallace states that, in 2012,
  • just before the Wallace-Ehrman debate, a representative of the organisation that he believed to be the owner ‘urged me to make the announcement at the debate, which they realized would make this go viral’ (this representative is identified as Scott Carroll in statements by Pattengale, 28 June 2019, and by Carroll himself, 29 June 2019 -- though Carroll describes the conversation quite differently);
  • he had been required to sign an NDA before being allowed to see the papyrus in 2012;
  • someone had told him that a collection had already bought the papyrus;
  • the same person had told him that ‘a high-ranking papyrologist had confirmed that FCM was definitely a first-century manuscript.’
Further details were added to all of these statements in Wallace’s second statement of 11 June 2018.

24 May 2018 (currently available version dated 4 June 2018): statement from EES

The EES states that
  • they have ‘never sought to sell this or any other papyrus’;
  • they have no knowledge of the NDA that Wallace describes, and ‘Obbink too says he has no knowledge of it’;
  • Obbink ‘insists that he never said the papyrus was for sale, and that while he did receive some payments from the Green Collection for advice on other matters, he did not accept any payment for or towards purchase of this text.'

11 June 2018: statement from Wallace

Wallace states:
  • His understanding was that the 1st century dating was Obbink's. (This corroborates that Obbink was the 'unimpeachable' papyrologist he was referring to in the 2012 debate.)
  • He was required to sign an NDA by ‘Jerry Pattengale, who represented a major collection that was interested in purchasing the papyrus.’ Pattengale was one of the ones who told Wallace that the papyrus was definitely for sale, and this is corroborated by Pattengale’s own statement (28 June 2019).
  • He was informed by Pattengale that the NDA ‘was requested by the seller’.
  • Wallace’s source for the 1st century dating wasn’t Pattengale, but another representative of the same collection, who is also the person who indicated that Obbink was certain of the date. Pattengale (28 June 2019) identifies Wallace’s informant as Scott Carroll.
  • Someone -- Wallace doesn't say who -- told Wallace that a ‘condition of the sale was that the seller ... would be free to choose who would edit it.’ That doesn’t appear in the purchase agreement made public by Holmes; [Addendum: in fact it does -- I missed this previously. Thanks to Mike Holmes for pointing it out] but the purchase agreement shows that Obbink himself was named as the seller.
  • It was Wallace's understanding that the sale continued to be treated as ongoing for some years after 2012.

23 June 2019: statement from Holmes

Brent Nongbri announces that he, and other papyrologists involved in a forthcoming conference panel on the papyrus, have been sent an e-mail about the papyrus from Michael Holmes at the Museum of the Bible. Nongbri publishes the e-mail, which explicitly gives him permission to do so.

Attached to the e-mail is a PDF file with a scanned copy of (part of) the 2013 purchase agreement, and Pattengale’s Nov. 2017 photo.

[Corrigendum, some time later: originally I mistakenly said that Holmes is at the Green Collection; he is not. Although the Greens established the Museum of the Bible, Holmes works for the museum, not for the Green Collection.]

25 June 2019: statement from EES

This states, ‘We note that Professor Obbink has not been a General Editor of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri since August 2016.’

28 June 2019: statement from Pattengale

Pattengale says many things, including:
  • Obbink had shown the four papyri to Carroll and himself in his rooms at Christ Church in 2011.
  • Obbink said on that occasion that the Mark papyrus was ‘very likely first century’.
  • The papyri were purchased in 2013 ‘at a fraction of their value’.
  • It was Carroll that ‘prematurely informed Wallace that it was okay to announce’ the Mark papyrus in the 2012 debate.
  • Pattengale ‘recruited Wallace’ and others who were not ‘willing to vouch with any confidence for a pre-second century date on any of the pieces’.
  • ‘[N]ondisclosure was a non-negotiable’ from the party selling the papyri in 2013.
  • Before the EES became aware that it possessed the ‘FCM’ being publicly discussed, ‘Obbink reported to Steve Green (chair of the Museum of the Bible’s board) and [Pattengale] that the EES gave him an ultimatum to sever all public ties with [the] museum or be fired’.
  • In November 2017, at the opening gala of the Museum of the Bible, Pattengale inferred from a conversation between Edwin Yamauchi and David Trobisch that illicit activity was about to be uncovered, and he took a photo of Yamauchi and Trobisch at the dinner table.
  • Following this incident, he communicated a version of these events to the Greens and the museum leadership.
  • ‘[B]efore [his] retirement’ from the Museum of the Bible (in 2018), Pattengale sent his photo of Obbink’s list to the museum.

29 June 2019: Carroll’s comment

In a comment on a blog post by Elijah Hixson, in the wake of Pattengale’s statement, Carroll writes:
  • Carroll repeats that Obbink showed him the Mark papyrus in his office in 2011, and told him that it dated to the late 1st or early 2nd century.
  • Carroll never signed an NDA.
  • He describes his conversation with Wallace in 2012 in a way that differs from Wallace’s account: he told Wallace that ‘the dating was based on the opinion of a renowned Oxford scholar’, and says that Wallace asked him if he could mention the papyrus in the debate; he told Wallace that Hobby Lobby didn’t own the papyrus, and that Wallace should use his own discretion. (In Wallace’s account, 23 May 2018, Wallace was ‘sworn to secrecy’, and Carroll urged him to make the announcement.)