Egyptians appeal to British Museum to return Rosetta Stone

This undated photo, provided by the British Museum, shows the Rosetta Stone, the centerpiece of a new exhibition at London's biggest museum, titled: "Hieroglyphs Unlocking Ancient Egypt," celebrating 200 years since the decipherment of the stone, at the British Museum in London.  Thousands of Egyptians are calling for the British Museum to return the Rosetta Stone.  The bilingual stone carvings proved to be a breakthrough in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics after they were unearthed by colonialists in Egypt in 1799. (British Museum via AP)

This undated photo provided by the British Museum shows the Rosetta Stone, the centerpiece of a new exhibition at London’s top museum, titled ‘Hieroglyphics Unlocking Ancient Egypt’, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the stone’s decipherment, at the British Museum, from London. Thousands of Egyptians are calling for the British Museum to return the Rosetta Stone. The bilingual stone carvings proved to be a breakthrough in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics after they were unearthed by colonialists in Egypt in 1799. (British Museum via AP)


The debate over who owns ancient artefacts has been a growing challenge for museums in Europe and America, and the spotlight has fallen on the British Museum’s most visited piece: The Rosetta Stone.

The inscriptions on the black granite slab became the fundamental advance in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics after it was taken from Egypt by British Empire forces in 1801.

Now, as Britain’s biggest museum marks the 200th anniversary of the decipherment of the hieroglyphs, thousands of Egyptians are demanding the return of the stone.

“The British Museum’s possession of the stone is a symbol of Western cultural violence against Egypt,” said Monica Hanna, dean of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport and organizer of one of two petitions calling for the return of the stone.

The acquisition of the Rosetta Stone was linked to the imperial struggles between Britain and France. After the military occupation of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte, French scientists discovered the stone in 1799 in the northern city of Rashid, known to the French as Rosetta. When British forces defeated the French in Egypt, the stone and more than a dozen other antiquities were handed over to the British under the terms of an 1801 capitulation agreement between the generals of the two sides.

Since then it has remained in the British Museum.

Hanna’s petition, with 4,200 signatures, says the stone was seized illegally and constitutes “spoils of war”. The claim is echoed in an almost identical petition by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former antiquities minister, which has more than 100,000 signatures. Hawass claims that Egypt had no say in the 1801 agreement.

The British Museum rejects this. In a statement, the Museum said the 1801 treaty included the signature of a representative of Egypt. It refers to an Ottoman admiral who fought alongside the British against the French. The Ottoman Sultan of Istanbul was nominally the ruler of Egypt during Napoleon’s invasion.

The museum also said the Egyptian government had not submitted a return request. He added that there are 28 known copies of the same engraved decree and 21 of them remain in Egypt.

The controversy over the original stone copy stems from its unparalleled significance to Egyptology. Carved in the second century BC, the slab contains three translations of a decree concerning an agreement between the then Ptolemies and a sect of Egyptian priests. The first inscription is in classical hieroglyphs, the next is in a simplified hieroglyphic script known as Demotic, and the third is in ancient Greek.

Through knowledge of the latter, academics were able to decipher the hieroglyphic symbols, the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion finally cracked the language in 1822.

“Earlier 18th-century scribes longed to find a bilingual text written in a known language,” said Ilona Regulski, head of Egyptian Written Culture at the British Museum. Regulski is the lead curator of the museum’s winter exhibit, “Hieroglyphs Unlocking Ancient Egypt,” which celebrates the 200th anniversary of Champollion’s discovery.

The stone is one of over 100,000 Egyptian and Sudanese relics housed in the British Museum. A large percentage was obtained during Britain’s colonial rule over the region from 1883 to 1953.

It has become increasingly common for museums and collectors to return artifacts to their country of origin, with new cases reported almost monthly. It is often the result of a court decision, while some cases are voluntary, symbolizing an act of atonement for historical wrongs.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art returned 16 antiquities to Egypt in September after a US investigation concluded they had been smuggled. On Monday, the Horniman Museum in London signed over 72 objects, including 12 bronzes from Benin, to Nigerians following a request from its government.

Nicholas Donnell, a Boston-based lawyer who specializes in cases involving art and artifacts, said there is no common international legal framework for such disputes. Unless there is clear evidence that an artifact was illegally acquired, repatriation is largely up to the museum.

“Given the treaty and the time frame, the Rosetta Stone is a tough legal battle to win,” Donnell said.

The British Museum acknowledged that it had received several repatriation requests from various countries for the artifacts, but did not provide The Associated Press with any details on their status or number. He also did not confirm if he ever repatriated an artifact from his collection.

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

“It’s about money, it’s about staying relevant and the fear that by returning certain items, people won’t come back,” he said.

Western museums have long pointed to superior facilities and larger crowd draws to justify their holdings of world treasures. Amid turmoil following the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has seen a surge in artifact smuggling, which cost the country an estimated $3 billion between 2011 and 2013, according to the US Antiquities Coalition. In 2015, it was discovered that cleaners at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo had damaged the burial mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun by trying to reattach the beard with super glue.

But the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has since invested heavily in its antiquities. Egypt has successfully recovered thousands of internationally smuggled artifacts and plans to open a newly built, state-of-the-art museum that can house tens of thousands of objects. The Grand Egyptian Museum has been under construction for over a decade and there have been repeated delays to its opening.

Egypt’s multitude of ancient monuments, from the pyramids of Giza to the towering statues of Abu Simbel on the border with Sudan, are the magnet for a tourism industry that attracted $13 billion in 2021.

For Hanna, the right of Egyptians to have access to their own history should remain a priority. “How many Egyptians can travel to London or New York?” she said.

Egyptian authorities did not respond to a request for comment on Egypt’s policy on the Rosetta Stone or other Egyptian artifacts on display abroad. Hawass and Hanna said they are not pinning their hopes on the government to ensure their return.

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

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