The Rosetta Stone, an ancient Egyptian artefact that unlocked the secrets of hieroglyphic script and birthed Egyptology, has been part of the British Museum’s plundered collection since 1801. Prominent Egyptian archaeologists have renewed calls for its return.
One of Archaeology’s Greatest Treasures, the Rosetta Stone and other valuable Egyptian artefacts, was handed over to Anglo-Ottoman forces as part of the Alexandria treaty of 1801, negotiated and signed by Ottoman, French, and English forces.
The irregularly shaped stone of black granite 3 feet 9 inches (114 cm) long and 2 feet 4.5 inches (72 cm) wide, and broken in antiquity, was found near the town of Rosetta (Rashīd) northeast of Alexandria in August 1799.
Britannica explains that the inscriptions on the stone were allegedly composed by the priests of Memphis to summarise contributions made by Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205-180 BCE). They were written in the ninth year of his reign in commemoration of his accession to the throne. The inscribed two languages, Egyptian and Greek, and three writing systems, hieroglyphics, demotic script (a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphics), and the Greek alphabet, provided a deciphering key.
The trilingual script in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (top), Demotic (middle), and Greek (bottom) that tells the same story meant that by understanding one script French scholar Jean-François Champollion could eventually translate Egyptian hieroglyphs. Although credited for it, Okasha El Daly, an Egyptologist at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, argues that there were deciphering efforts by Medieval Arabs long before the 19th century.
The critical role the Stone had in deciphering ancient Egyptian scripts has led to the proliferation of the term “Rosetta Stone” as a generic reference to anything that decodes, deciphers, or reveals hidden mysteries. The phase is ubiquitous in modern culture despite a common lack of knowledge about the source or cultural, political, and academic significance of the object.
Return the Rosetta Stone
When the British seized the Rosetta Stone from the French, they vandalised it by painting self-aggrandising tags on the left, and the right. The former reads ‘CAPTURED IN EGYPT BY THE BRITISH ARMY IN 1801’, and the latter proclaims, ‘PRESENTED BY KING GEORGE III’. It was then transported to the British Museum, where it has been on display since 1801.
An online campaign called ‘Repatriate Rashid’ launched by a group of Egyptian archaeologists is demanding the repatriation of the archaeological treasure. The petition has garnered thousands of signatures, stating “We, the signatories of this petition, demand that Dr. Mostafa Madbouly, the Prime Minister of Egypt, submits an official request to repatriate the Rosetta stone and the other sixteen artefacts and objects that came out of Egypt by illegal means.”
“Not only was Egypt under the occupation of the Ottoman Empire and had no say nor sovereignty on its own cultural heritage, the articles of the treaty of Alexandria are in violation of the law of nations, customary international laws, and Islamic laws applicable at the time.”
Sternly adding, “This means the sequestration of the Rosetta Stone is a spoil of war and an act of plunder that has been already prohibited in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.”
The archeologists go on to say that they believe the “confiscation of Rosetta Stone, among other antiquities, is an act of transgression on culture property and cultural identity, and a direct result of a long history of colonial violence. “
Many academics have discussed the global significance of the stone, but the Rosetta Stone is more than its contributions. To Egyptians, it is a piece of heritage and a portal to their rich history- to keep it is to continue an injustice that has spanned generations.
“Its presence in the British Museum supports past colonial violence endeavours, and deprives its country of origin, not only of the material repatriation of the artefacts, but also of any form of reparation to the intangible damage occurring from centuries of violence, occupation, and an unjust balance of power.”
More to the point, the arguments that dissuade reparation of cultural artefacts use involuntary stewardship as an excuse for theft and profiteering.
“Keeping the monuments and artifacts ripped from their homes through violence and unlawful treaties is proof that decolonisation is not a simple story from the past, but a very contemporary issue that needs to be addressed and rectified. This is a powerful opportunity for Britain to demonstrate moral leadership, and to choose to follow moral principle over profit and support the healing of the wounds inflicted by colonial powers.”