An Oxford professor has been arrested by police investigating the mysterious theft of ancient papyri, The Oxford Blue has discovered.

Christ Church professor Dirk Obbink was arrested on 2nd March 2020 for alleged theft of ancient papyrus from the Sackler Classics Library in Oxford. Professor Obbink was suspended from his duties at the University in October 2019 following allegations that he had stolen up to 120 pieces of ancient papyrus owned by the Egypt Exploration Society collection, housed in the Sackler Library.

These alleged thefts rocked the heart of Oxford’s classics department, where Obbink is an Associate Professor in Papyrology and Greek Literature. He is also a Fellow and Tutor in Greek at Christ Church, Oxford.

In November 2019, the chairman of the Egypt Exploration Society said that following investigation into the Society’s collection of Oxyrhynchus papyri, 120 pieces had been identified as missing.

So far, 13 of the missing pieces have been located in the Museum of the Bible in Washington and another 6 in the collection of Mr Andrew Stimer in California. Both collections are returning these fragments to the Society.

Speaking to The Oxford Blue, Thames Valley Police said:

“Thames Valley Police is carrying out an investigation in relation to a report of theft of papyrus from the Sackler Library in Oxford. This was reported to the force on 12 November, 2019.

“A 63-year-old man from Oxford was arrested on 2 March on suspicion of theft and fraud. He has been released under investigation.”

Oxford University and the Egypt Exploration Society declined to comment further.

A spokesperson for Christ Church told The Oxford Blue: “Professor Dirk Obbink is on leave from Christ Church. He is not teaching any students at present, nor attending meetings of Governing Body.”

An investigation by The Guardian revealed the extent of the mystery surrounding these precious fragments. One fragment, from the Gospel of Mark, has been dated to the first century AD, potentially copied less than 30 years after it was originally written.

Obbink’s students received an email that there had been a “change in teaching arrangements” on 19th October 2019. Tutorials were rescheduled with a different tutor, but students were given no further information. One of Obbink’s former students commented to The Blue: “I was quite surprised that there was such a sudden change [in tutors]. We did not know why Dirk left, but the college did all it could to make sure tutorials were rescheduled promptly.”

Obbink was previously one of three general editors of the Oxyrhynchus project run by the Egypt Exploration Society, with 24-hour-access to the collection. In August 2016, the Egypt Exploration Society decided not to reappoint Obbink a general editor of the Oxyrhynchus series, stating this was “because of unsatisfactory discharge of his editorial duties, but also because of concerns, which he did not allay, about his alleged involvement in the marketing of ancient texts.” Obbink had his access to the EES collection removed in June 2019.

Obbink has only issued one public statement, in October 2019. “The allegations made against me that I have stolen, removed or sold items owned by the Egypt Exploration Society collection at the University of Oxford are entirely false,” he said. “I would never betray the trust of my colleagues and the values which I have sought to protect and uphold throughout my academic career in the way that has been alleged. I am aware that there are documents being used against me which I believe have been fabricated in a malicious attempt to harm my reputation and career.”

Lois Heslop

Lois Heslop is the co-founder of The Oxford Blue and was Editor-in-Chief for HT20 and TT20. She is in her second year studying Physics at Lady Margaret Hall, and hails from South London. Her other interests include classical music and opera, and she is currently a choral scholar.

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