What makes the Rosetta Stone so special and why it might be time to return it to Egypt

The Rosetta Stone has been the British Museum’s star attraction virtually since it was installed in 1802 – AFP

For an object that has been around for more than 2,200 years — and has been largely forgotten for some 1,400 of them — the Rosetta Stone has a wonderful newsmaking ability.

And although it has barely moved over the last 220 years – there it is, as we speak, in the British Museum’s Gallery of Egyptian Sculptures – it is once again hotly debated. Not bad for what was effectively a government press release, ignored by most who saw it.

Not that the conversation around this precious artifact ever cools down. This was reaffirmed this week with the launch of two petitions calling for her repatriation to her birthplace, Egypt. One comes from Zahi Hawass, the country’s former Minister of State for Antiquities, who has been at the forefront of Egypt’s battle to protect its heritage for much of this century. The second, the work of Monica Hanna – dean of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport based in Alexandria – supports her thesis in clear and angry terms. “The British Museum’s possession of the Stone is a symbol of Western cultural violence against Egypt,” said the respected Egyptologist.

If the debate around the Stone has long been heated, perhaps it has only become a little more heated.

From here, the conversation usually follows set lines. A question and answer on the appropriateness and feasibility of Asian, African and Middle Eastern treasures still stationed in the cavernous museums of London, Paris, Berlin and New York in the first decades of this new millennium. The well-tested answer that the great cities of the West are the ideal places to keep these treasures, ensuring their safekeeping in state-of-the-art institutions, where millions of people can admire them from a respectful distance. The counter-argument that such a position is not only patronising, but increasingly redundant, as epic museums spring up in the countries from which said treasures were taken – the Acropolis Museum which opened in Athens in 2009 (in Europe, yes, but still missing the “Elgin Marbles” he loves so much); the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is due to open on the outskirts of Cairo next year. Finally, the usual hand-wringing and blurring — mutterings that deportations require government action and legal frameworks — until all talk dies down for another year or two.

The Great Egyptian Museum under construction - AFP

The Great Egyptian Museum under construction – AFP

But this time the conversation may have a different tone. The blunt defensive tactics that cultural authorities have previously relied on are no longer the default position. In 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned the coffin of Nedhemankh – a 2nd-century BC gilded marvel that once contained the mummy of a high priest – to Egypt after it was shown to have been looted during the political turmoil that led to the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. And earlier this week, the Horniman Museum in London announced it would return 72 objects to the Nigerian government, including the fabled ‘Benin Bronzes’. Most of these artifacts were seized by British soldiers in 1897, during the destruction of the royal palace in what was then the Kingdom of Benin. A new Edo Museum of West African Art is expected to open in Benin City in 2026.

The cutting of the red ribbon at the Grand Egyptian Museum – which has been under construction since 2012, and is now several years overdue (its “imminent” opening was first mooted in 2019) – will see the Rosetta Stone transported back across the Mediterranean? Almost certainly not. But his position has rarely been in question anymore. “It would be great to have the Rosetta Stone back in Egypt, but this is something that will still require a lot of discussion and cooperation,” Dr. Tarek Tawfik, director of the museum, said in 2018. Four years later, and with the project he’s in charge of finally coming to fruition, his calling will carry more weight than ever.

There is, of course, an emotional and moral side to the debate: can it ever be right for one country to preserve another’s cultural treasures, especially those considered “sacred”? But a key part of the Rosetta Stone question is whether its initial removal from Egypt can be considered legal. Hanna’s petition refers to the artifact as “spoils of war”. The British Museum claims it was removed fairly and with permission; the 1801 agreement permitting the transfer of the Stone to London features the signature of an Ottoman admiral who had fought alongside British troops in their regional battles with French forces. Egypt was, at the time, under the hegemony of the Ottoman Empire. Hawass counters that Egypt was occupied in 1801; that he had no say in the future of Rosetta Stone.

Even deeper, at the heart of the matter, there is a pure, essential, inevitable truth. That the Rosetta Stone is extraordinary and changed our understanding of the ancient world. There is no museum in the world that wouldn’t want it in its collection.

It has been the British Museum’s star attraction practically since it was installed in 1802. It is nothing more than a touchstone of language translation: a metaphorical Tower of Babel in reverse, if you will. The basic physics are simple: the Rosetta Stone is a piece of granodiorite (a type of igneous rock similar to granite), just over a meter high. But it is the words engraved upon it that are of such importance. The writing it carries is in three different languages: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script (a written form of the Egyptian language used in documents from about 650 BC to the 5th century AD), and Ancient Greek. The fact that the message it conveys is (largely) the same in every language – direct translations of one another – is what makes it invaluable. Its discovery in 1799 would unlock modern understanding of hieroglyphs and trigger a great expansion of modern knowledge of life and rituals in ancient Egypt.

A close-up of the script - AFP

A close-up of the script – AFP

In this context, his real message, stated three times, is something of a sideshow, albeit a sideshow that serves as a fascinating window into the state of Egyptian politics in 196 BC.

In the year the Stone was carved, Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty; a line of pharaohs of Greco-Macedonian descent (hence the use of Ancient Greek) who had ruled since 305 BC (and would continue to do so until the Romans arrived in 30 BC). The Stone finds them nearly halfway through their time in power, with the fifth ruler of their bloodline – Ptolemy V Epiphanes – on the throne, but struggling to assert his authority.

With good reason. Although he had been monarch for eight years in 196 BC, he was only 14 years old. His father, Ptolemy IV Philopator, had been assassinated in 204 BC, with the assassins dealing with part of the next decade of regency and chaos. The Rosetta Stone was an attempt to strengthen his position: a decree, issued by the priests of Memphis (the ancient Egyptian capital), perhaps on March 27, which threw the intellectual weight of the religious hierarchy behind the young man and his right to rule. It was a statement that sought to quell a period of uncertainty. Thus it was published in three languages, to ensure that it was read and understood by as many people as possible.

It would be more accurate to describe this crown missive as the “Memphis Stone”, or perhaps the “Sais Stone”. His accepted name is an accident of history. “Rosetta” – also known as “Rashid” and “Rasheed” – is a port on the Nile Delta, just inland from the Mediterranean, 40 miles northeast of Egypt’s second city, Alexandria. It was here that the Stone was found on 15 July 1799 by French soldiers conducting renovations to Fort Julien, an Ottoman stronghold which, although in a state of disrepair, had been captured at the outset of Napoleon’s infamous invasion of Egypt a year earlier.

Napoleon in Egypt - Bettmann

Napoleon in Egypt – Bettmann

The fort had been built around 1470, in part using blocks from ancient sites. One of these may have been near Sais, 45 miles upriver, where scholarly opinion holds that the Rosetta Stone may have been in a temple. If so, it would have been doomed to dust and decline in AD 391, when the Roman emperor Theodosius I ordered the closure of all non-Christian places of worship. Whatever its precise route to Fort Julien, it was spotted by Lieutenant Pierre-François Bouchard, who quickly realized it could be a great find. The works were interrupted, the Pietra recovered and its modern history began.

Bouchard’s sharp eyes plunged the Stone into an era of turmoil as problematic as the Egyptian dynastic crisis into which it was conceived: the Napoleonic Wars. By March 1801, British forces had landed on the Egyptian coast at Abukir Bay, and by early summer, Alexandria – and the French troops therein – was under siege. As well as the Rosetta Stone. The city fell on 30 August and, after a period of nervous negotiation and noisy recriminations, the Stone was delivered into British hands, taken from the possession of Jacques-François Menou, the French general, possibly with a tank.

France knew what had been lost, but with the Ottoman authorities in Egypt siding with the British, it was unable to prevent the transfer. The final insult was that the Rosetta Stone was transported to the UK on a captured French vessel, the HMS Egyptiennewhich had delivered its rare cargo to Portsmouth in February 1802. It was installed in the British Museum, by order of George III, as early as March 11, 1802. And it has remained there ever since, except for one month when it spent on loan in the Louvre in Paris in October 1972 and his years were preserved underground during the two world wars.

During that time, it has been scanned and studied, examined and probed. Not just from historians, who wrought deep meaning out of its inscriptions, but also from thousands of 19th-century museum-goers, who were allowed to get their fingers on what craftsmen had created 20 centuries earlier. It was only in 1847 that the Stone was placed in a protective frame. Since 2004 it has been exhibited in a glass case in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery. A replica, in the King’s Library, allows visitors to touch the ‘Stone’ as the Georgians did.

Will this ancient wonder still be in the British Museum in 10 years time? In 50? In 100? It would be foolish to make predictions. But if you haven’t seen the Rosetta Stone yet, you definitely should. It is a conduit to ancient yesterdays, taking us back two millennia, to an era of gods and pharaohs. And it always will be, wherever it’s on display.

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