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Jaren Wilkey, BYU
Lincoln Blumell, BYU associate professor of ancient scripture, poses with a 3-D printed copy of an ancient epitaph he translated in this September 2016 photo. The 1,700-year-old ancient Greek inscription on the small limestone epitaph, found in Egypt, might be the world's oldest obituary. The epitaph is part of a collection of Greek and Coptic artifacts in the Rare Books Department at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library.

PROVO — Brigham Young University Greek expert Lincoln Blumell is baffled by an anonymous letter to the university that alleged he is preparing to publish a translation of ancient Iraqi artifacts illegally obtained by arts-and-crafts retailier Hobby Lobby.

Hobby Lobby president Steve Green earlier this month agreed to forfeit thousands of cuneiform tablets and pay a $3 million fine. Soon afterward, a letter purportedly from eight past and present BYU scholars accused Blumell of violating professional standards by translating some of the tablets and preparing them for publication.

"Adding value to these artifacts and legitimizing their seizure by publishing them, even in reputable presses by trained scholars, contravenes professional standards of ethics," the letter stated. BYU's reputation would be damaged if Blumell did so, the authors wrote.

However, Blumell said he can't read cuneiform, never looked at the Iraqi tablets and isn't preparing anything about them for publication.

He did visit the Museum of the Bible, which Hobby Lobby and Green plan to open later this year in Washington, D.C., but he visited a different collection.

"I looked at some Greek paypri from a different find and provenance," he said. "The larger question, of course, is if Hobby Lobby obtained an Iraqi collection under dubious circumstances, what else has been obtained under dubious circumstances in the museum, which is a fair question to ask. My involvement in it was looking at some Greek texts, nothing involved with the scandal about Iraqi material and cuneiform texts. I looked at a totally different find and language."

The anonyous letter, first sent to the Salt Lake Tribune, called for BYU to conduct an investigation of Blumell, an associate professor of Ancient Scripture.

"To be honest, I'm not sure what you'd investigate," he said. "All I've done is gone and looked at some Greek documents."

University spokesman Todd Hollingshead confirmed BYU received the letter.

"We did receive an anonymous letter," he said, "and we will consider it as we do with all other feedback to the university."

Blumell is a noted expert on Greek papyri in Egypt from the Roman period. He regularly travels to visit collections all over the world.

Last year, his translation of a Greek epitaph in a collection at the University of Utah drew international attention. One news outlet suggested it might be the world's oldest obituary. Written on limestone, the inscription was about a woman named Helene who lived in Egypt around 200 A.D.

The epitaph had been mislabled as Coptic when donated to the U's library in 1989.

"That is how we described it for the next twenty-seven years, and we were wrong," Luise Poulton, managing curator of rare books at the library, said at the time. "Professor Blumell's work on this piece, then, is as satisfying as it is fascinating. Dr. Blumell not only brought fact to surmisal regarding the piece, he has given us a very personal story to put to cold stone."

His findings were published in the Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period.

Blumell said he understood the connection between the news about Hobby Lobby's Museum of the Bible and his visit to a collection there, but not the allegations.

"I don't quite understand the sensationalism here," he said. "I'm one of dozens of scholars who have gone there and looked through the collection. I never counseled on acquisitions. I looked at some Greek stuff. The Iraqi artifacts are something I haven't even looked at or even dealt with or even could look at based on my training."

He said neither he nor an academic journal would waste time moving forward with work on possible publication of a translation until they established provenance, the record of ownership of an antique or work of art.

"If I were to publish anything here, I would ensure that I adhere to scholarly convention and provenance," he said. "And if I went to a scholarly journal, they would demand the same of me. Anything that were to be published would have to meet standards of legal provenance. I would not publish anything if it wasn't shown that it was obtained legally."

Blumell said illegally obtained artifacts should be returned and fines should be imposed.

Blumell translated an ancient Egyptian love spell involving Horus and Isis found on papyrus in BYU's collection and presented it at a lecture in March. He has translated Biblical commentary of a famous Christian theologian from the 400s, which will be published later this year as "Didymus the Blind's Commentary on the Psalms 26:10-29:2 and 36:1-3." He plans to publish a second volume in 2020.