CAIRO — The debate over who owns the artifacts has become an increasing problem for museums in Europe and America, and attention has fallen to the most visited piece in the British Museum: the Rosetta Stone.
The inscriptions on the dark gray granite slab were a seminal breakthrough in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs after they were taken from Egypt by the forces of the British empire in 1801.
Now, as Britain’s largest museum celebrates the 200th anniversary of the deciphering of the hieroglyphs, thousands of Egyptians are demanding the return of the stone.
“The British Museum’s holding of the stone is a symbol of the West’s cultural violence against Egypt,” said Monica Hanna, dean of the Arab Academy of Science and Technology. & Organizer of one of the two petitions for Sea Freight and the return of the stone.
The purchase of the Rosetta Stone was tied to the imperial wars between Britain and France. After Napoleon Bonaparte’s military invasion of Egypt, French scientists uncovered the stone in 1799 in the northern town 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 the 1801 surrender agreement between the generals of the two sides.
It has remained in the British Museum ever since.
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, which has more than 100,000 signatures, by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former minister of antiquities. Hawass argues that Egypt had no say in the 1801 treaty.
The British Museum denies this. The museum said in a statement that the 1801 treaty included the signature of the Egyptian representative. It refers to an Ottoman admiral who fought on the side of the British against the French. The Ottoman sultan in Istanbul was supposedly the ruler of Egypt at the time of Napoleon’s occupation.
The museum also said that the Egyptian government has not requested extradition. He added that there are 28 known copies of the same decree, of which 21 remain in Egypt.
The controversy over the original stone copy stems from its unrivaled importance to Egyptology. Engraved in the 2nd century BC, the plate contains three translations of a decree concerning an agreement between the then-ruling Ptolemies and a sect of Egyptian priests. The first inscription is in classical hieroglyphics, the latter in simplified hieroglyphic writing known as Demotic, and the third in Ancient Greek.
Thanks to the knowledge of the latter, scholars were able to decipher the hieroglyphic symbols, and the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion finally deciphered the language in 1822.
“Scholars from the last 18th century have longed to find a bilingual text written in a known language,” said Ilona Regulski, head of the British Museum Egyptian Written Culture. Regulski is chief curator of the museum’s winter exhibition, “Hieroglyphs Unlocking Ancient Egypt,” celebrating the 200th anniversary of Champollion’s invention.
The stone is one of more than 100,000 Egyptian and Sudanese relics housed in the British Museum. A large percentage was obtained during Britain’s colonial rule in the region from 1883 to 1953.
Returning artifacts to their countries of origin has become increasingly common for museums and collectors, with new cases reported almost every month. Most often, they are the result of a court order, but some cases are voluntary and symbolize an act of penance for historical wrongs.
New York’s Metropolitan Museum returned 16 artifacts to Egypt in September after a US investigation concluded they were illegally abducted. On Monday, the Horniman Museum in London signed more than 72 objects, including 12 Benin Bronzes, to Nigeria at the request of his government.
Nicholas Donnell, a Boston-based attorney specializing in litigation related to art and historical artifacts, said there is no common international legal framework for such disputes. Repatriation is largely at the discretion of the museum, unless there is clear evidence that an artifact has been obtained illegally.
“Given the deal and time frame, it’s a tough legal battle for Rosetta Stone to win,” Donnell said.
The British Museum acknowledged that it received several return requests for the artifacts from various countries, but did not give the Associated Press any details on their status or number. He also did not confirm whether he had repatriated an artifact from his collection.
The museum’s lack of transparency points to other purposes, according to Nigel Hetherington, an archaeologist and CEO of the online academic forum Past Presserves.
“It’s about money, it’s about maintaining interest, and the fear that people won’t come any more when returning certain items,” he said.
Western museums have long pointed to superior facilities and larger crowds to justify their holding of world treasures. Amid the turmoil that followed the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt saw a surge in artifact smuggling, costing the country an estimated $3 billion between 2011 and 2013, according to the US-based Coalition of Antiquities. In 2015, it was discovered that cleaners at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo damaged the funerary mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun by attempting to reattach his beard with superglue.
But President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s government has since invested heavily in antiquities. Egypt has successfully recaptured 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 in its opening.
Egypt’s many ancient monuments, from the pyramids of Giza to the towering statues of Abu Simbel on the border with Sudan, act as magnets for a tourism industry that attracts $13 billion in 2021.
According to Hanna, the Egyptians’ right to access their own history should remain a priority. “How many Egyptians can travel to London or New York?” said.
Egyptian authorities did not respond to a request for comment on Egypt’s policy towards the Rosetta Stone or other Egyptian artifacts on display abroad. Hawass and Hanna said they did not put their hopes on the government to secure his return.
“The Rosetta Stone is symbolic of Egyptian identity,” Hawass said. “I will use the media and intellectuals to tell the (British) museum they have no rights.”