Egypt demands the return of the Rosetta Stone: the story of how it got to the British Museum

The Rosetta Stone. (gettyimages)

The debate over the ownership of antiquities is a growing challenge for museums in Europe and the United States, and the focus is now on the most visited piece in the world. British museum: the rosetta stone.

The inscriptions on the black granite stone led to a breakthrough in the understanding of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, after it was removed from Egypt by British Empire forces in 1801.

Now, as Britain’s largest museum commemorates the bicentenary of the decipherment of hieroglyphicsThousands of Egyptians demand the return of the stone.

“That the British Museum preserves the stone is a symbol of the western cultural violence against Egypt,” said Monica Hanna, dean of the Arab Academy of Sciences, Technology and Maritime Transport, and organizer of one of the two petitions demanding the return of the piece.

The acquisition of the Rosetta Stone is linked to the battles between the British and French empires. Following the military occupation of Egypt led by Napoleon Bonaparte, French scientists discovered the stone in 1799 in the northern town of Rashid, known to the French as Rosetta. When British forces defeated the Gauls in Egypt, these and a dozen other antiquities were turned over to the British under the terms of the surrender agreement reached in 1801 by the generals of both sides.

It has been in the British Museum ever since.

Rosetta Stone Studies
Image of the translation of the stone.

Hanna’s petition, with 4,200 signatures, claims the stone was removed illegally and is “spoils of war”. There is another almost identical petition started by Zahi Hawass, a former Egyptian minister of antiquities affairs, with more than 100,000 signatures. Hawass argues that Egypt had no say in the 1801 agreement.

The British Museum denies this. In a statement, the center said the 1801 treaty includes the signature of a representative of Egypt. It refers to an Ottoman admiral who fought alongside the British against the French. The Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul was officially the ruler of Egypt at the time of the Napoleonic invasion.

The museum also said that the Egyptian government has not filed a request for the piece to be returned. He added that there are 28 known copies of the same recorded decree, 21 of which remain in Egypt.

The dispute over the original copy stems from its unique importance to Egyptology. The stone, engraved in the 2nd century BC, contains three translations of a decree about an agreement between the then Ptolemaic rulers and a sect of Egyptian priests. The first inscription is in classical hieroglyphs, the next in a simplified version of the hieroglyphs known as demotic, and the third in ancient Greek.

Through existing knowledge about the latter, scholars were able to decipher the hieroglyphic symbols. French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion interpreted the language in 1822.

“Scholars of the earlier 18th century aspired to find a bilingual text written in a known language,” explained Ilona Regulski, director of Egyptian Written Culture at the British Museum. Regulski is the lead curator of the museum’s winter exhibition, “Hieroglyphics, Unlocking Ancient Egypt,” commemorating the bicentennial of Champollion’s milestone.

Champollion-Rosetta Stone
French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion who interpreted the language in 1822.

The stone is one of more than 100,000 Egyptian and Sudanese relics housed in the British Museum. A large percentage was obtained during the British colonial rule over the region between 1883 and 1953.

It is increasingly common for museums and collectors to return artifacts to their country of origin, with new cases reported every month. Often they are the result of a court ruling, while other cases are voluntary and represent an act of contrition for historical wrongs.

The New York‘s Metropolitan Museum returned 16 antiquities to Egypt in September after a US investigation concluded they had been illegally trafficked. The London’s Horniman Museum sent a batch of 72 objects to Nigeria on Mondayincluding 12 Benin Bronzes, following a request from his government.

Nicholas Donnell, a Boston-based attorney specializing in art and antiquities cases, said that there is no common international legal framework for these disputes. If there is no clear evidence that an item was obtained illegally, repatriation is largely at the discretion of the museum.

“Given the treaty and the date, the Rosetta Stone is a difficult legal battle to win,” Donnell said.

The British Museum has admitted that several countries have made repatriation requests, but did not give details to The Associated Press about their number or status. He also did not confirm if he has ever repatriated a piece from his collection.

Rosetta stone - Nefertiti bust - Dendera zodiac
Part of the ancient objects of Egypt.

For Nigel Hetherington, an archaeologist and managing director of the Past Preserves academic forum, the museum’s lack of transparency suggests other reasons.

“It’s about money, staying relevant and the fear that if some items are returned, people will stop going,” he said.

Western museums have long pointed to their better-quality facilities and large numbers of visitors to justify holding on to world treasures. The chaos in Egypt following the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak coincided with a surge in antiquities smuggling, which cost the country some $3 billion between 2011 and 2013, according to the US-based Antiquities Coalition. Joined.

In 2015, it was revealed that cleaning workers at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo had damaged the funerary mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamen when they tried to reattach the beard with glue.

But the government of the current president, Abdul Fatah el Sisi, has invested heavily in its antiquities. Egypt has successfully reclaimed thousands of pieces that had been smuggled internationally and plans to open a new, modern museum that can house tens of thousands of objects. The Grand Egyptian Museum has been under construction for over a decade and its opening has been delayed several times.

Egypt’s abundant ancient monuments, such as the pyramids of Giza and the colossal statues of Abu Simbel, on the border with Sudan, are a magnet for a tourism industry that brought in $13 billion in 2021.

Grand Egyptian Museum of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities
Grand Egyptian Museum of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

For Hanna, the right of Egyptians to access their own history must be the priority. “How many Egyptians can travel to London or New York?” she asked.

Egyptian authorities did not respond to a request for comment on the Egyptian position on the Rosetta Stone or other Egyptian artifacts on display outside the country. Hawass and Hanna said they didn’t have high hopes the government would get them back.

“The Rosetta Stone is the icon of Egyptian identity”Hawass said. “I will use the media and the intellectuals to tell the (British) Museum that they have no right.”

(with information from AP)

Keep reading:

They discover fragments of the first philosophical text of humanity, which asks about life and death

200 years after the decoding of the Rosetta stone, archaeologists demand its return to Egypt

Nefertiti: announce the discovery of the lost tomb of the mythical Egyptian queen