Returning the Rosetta Stone to Egypt

The Rosetta Stone, carved in 196 BCE, discovered in the foundation of a wall at the Borg Rashid, Fort Julien, Rosetta, July 1799 by Lt Pierre Bouchard

The status of antiquities such as the Rosetta Stone continues to have considerable impact on the way in which Britain is perceived abroad – particularly by those ancient nations whose treasures are currently on display in the British Museum. The question of whether the Rosetta Stone should be repatriated to Egypt affects the political as well as the popular relationship between Egypt and Britain, and could have positive consequences in relations with the Islamic world.

It is clear that the Rosetta Stone falls into a unique category of controversy, quite different to the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles, owing to the complexity of its past. It sits in London largely as spoils of war, a trophy of a victory by Britain over France in Egypt in 1801. It was not excavated and subsequently looted, as in the case of the bust of Nefertiti. There are many common misconceptions surrounding the stone’s discovery but it has long been proven and accepted that it was used as a building-block in the foundations of a fifteenth-century wall at Fort Julien in Rosetta, and discovered by chance during renovations by the French army in 1799. Had it been removed to France without the intervention of the British army in 1801, it could have been considered a clear case of theft: Napoleon in no way declared war on Egypt, or the Ottoman Empire (which governed Egypt at the time) and indeed did his best to avoid this. Instead he invaded Egypt in 1798 as a ‘friend’ of the Ottomans, to liberate it from the clutches of its corrupt Mameluke governors. Had he made a legal declaration of war, he could have taken whatever he chose under the internationally recognised rights of conquest – but no such declaration was made, in order to avoid direct confrontation with the largest military force in the Middle East.

The French were defeated in Egypt by an allied British and Ottoman army, but the British dictated the surrender terms. The Articles of Capitulation of Alexandria, signed in 1801 was the result: Article 16 stipulated that all treasures recovered by the French in their three-year stay were to be handed over to the British. The French at first refused, claiming these items were personal souvenirs of various officers – the Rosetta Stone was supposedly the property of the French general, the universally despised Jacques-François Menou. Fearful of it falling into British hands, Menou hid it amongst his baggage in the back-streets of Alexandria. It was only through the cooperation of French scholars and British agents that the Rosetta Stone was recovered and the negotiations successfully concluded. The surrender document legitimised British ownership of the stone and all of the other artefacts confiscated at Alexandria, elevating them from stolen goods to legally untouchable spoils of war. It is for this reason that the Rosetta Stone rests in London, and not Paris.

Enhanced inscription view., hieroglyphs at the top, demotic Egyptian in the middle and Greek at the bottom. Note hieroglyphs and demotic to be read from right to left, Greek at bottom to be read from left to right. Note also absence of punctuation in Greek text. Hieroglyph of the original shape of the stone is visible to the right in the last line of hieroglyphs, shaped much like a tombstone - from this it was deduced original stone was nearly half as tall again.

Dr Zahi Hawass, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, first requested the stone’s return in 2002. It was not until 2005 that the British Museum could confirm its legal ownership of the object: archivists consulted the original surrender treaty of 1801 and found that it had indeed been signed by the Ottoman and Mameluke commanders, the legal representatives of the government of Egypt at the time. Apparently Egypt accepted this legal position. But this is not what should be at issue. What is now argued is the morality of the ownership of the stone, not its legality. Few commentators have addressed the question that it is not whether European nations had the right to recover artefacts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but whether today they have the right to retain them.

The Rosetta Stone stands alone in the hoard of sculpture and statuary taken from Alexandria, in that it is not a great work of art, taken from a temple or mosque. It is a functional item, a statement concerning the taxation of the priesthood. It was unimportant to the Egyptian builders who used it and much other useful rubble as masonry to support a wall, a common practice. Many Europeans cite this as ammunition against Egypt’s claim for its return: though carved in the last days of the pharaohs, the stone’s value was appreciated only by the European scholars who worked to decipher it, their subsequent successful efforts thereby making it a priceless object. But the political world has changed dramatically since those days – the state of Egypt has gone from being a mismanaged province in the Ottoman Empire to becoming a modern nation, very much aware of its cultural identity and heritage, which rightly includes the Rosetta Stone as the key to its most ancient script. Discovered and deciphered by the French and preserved by the British, the Rosetta Stone has an overlapping cultural and historical significance for all three nations. To claim it belongs more in one than another does not answer today’s problem.

Although the repatriation of artefacts to their lands of origin holds justifiable fears for museums across the globe, the Rosetta Stone, by its very nature, could lead the way to a positive solution: rather than the current tug-of-war between Britain and Egypt, the stone could become the subject of a tripartite international ownership agreement, on a rotational display basis – from the British Museum to the Louvre, and to the new Grand Museum of Gizeh planned for 2012. Such an arrangement could be administered by an appropriate UNESCO committee to be agreed by all parties, and is certainly not beyond the scope of that body, which already acts as an arbiter and forum for the repatriation of artefacts to their lands of origin.

Of all the prime antiquities in the British Museum’s Alexandria collection, the Rosetta Stone is the most portable, durable and popular, and would suffer little from its new ambassadorial role. It was created in 196 BC to communicate a decree to a population divided by culture and language; let it now be used once more for a similar, higher purpose, and forge a link between these three nation-states as never before.

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10 responses to “Returning the Rosetta Stone to Egypt

  1. Congratulations on your well-deserved challenge win. Your tripartite solution is innovative and I believe holds real promise for the future not just of the Rosetta Stone, but of many other disputed artifacts.

    Bravo, sir!

    • Thank you for your comments and yes you are quite right. The root of the problem facing museums and the native lands who wish the return of their cultural heritage is ownership. From this derives the even knottier problem of money i.e., who will pay – for insurance, security, exhibition, preservation, conservation, restoration etc. If the sting of the nationally sensitive matter of ‘ownership’ were removed from the equation, I believe many exhibits could in fact remain in situ, at least for a time, and later tour their homelands for some years as part of the arrangement, so that no single foreign institution could claim sovereignty over artefacts in order to generate visitor income. If, for example, the British Museum were to acknowledge a foreign nation’s right to ownership, it could be woven into a bargain that the museum collection would continue to benefit from the artefact’s presence, and the artefact would benefit from the museum’s care, yet with the native land satisfied that at last its concerns had been addressed. This could keep the burden of care off those nations which perhaps do not yet have the resources to sustain such treasures. This could, in effect, make museums true custodians of the past, rather than ‘owners’, with all the exclusion that implies. Museums could, at last, become ‘universal’.

      The real trick is how to apply the lessons of precedent, that is, if the Rosetta Stone were to be owned jointly by France, Britain and Egypt, what then follows for the Elgin Marbles? Or the Benin Bronzes? Of course, each artefact has its own unique history and the precedent would have to be adapted to accommodate this. More perhaps on Lord Elgin’s haul later, as this is an entirely separate conundrum in itself.

  2. Fantastic Jonathan! congratulations on your well deserved win. Fabulous idea, lets hope the powers and people that be can see past their silliness and get this plan rolling! it would be amazing to see the Stone back in Egypt, isn’t there a new library planned for Alex in the nearby future? imagine the Stone as the opening exhibit…

    • Thank you Helen – it’s a strange thing to consider why the stone is in the British Museum; it’s in London more as a war trophy than anything else, and in that respect should be at the National Army Museum: ‘Captured by the British Army 1801’ is marked indelibly on its side – looking at the evidence there can be little doubt that the soldiers who hurrahed as they dragged it out of French hands in Alexandria had very little conception of what they had ‘captured’ whatsoever. Of all the European capitals one could argue it deserves most to be in Paris, at least for intellectual reasons – which is the nub of the conflict: there are too many claims on different aspects of the stone’s history, hence a mutually agreed sharing makes all the more sense. First reports from Cairo suggest that the Rosetta Stone was wanted for the opening of the new Grand Museum at Gizeh, to open in 2012, (though this date may be more a target than a realistic projection) and the stone was to stand in the foyer in pride of place. The loan idea is still not necessarily out of the question and may come to pass: the Director of Communications at the BM told me that the decision has yet to be taken as there is still plenty of time to consider the logistics of the matter.

  3. Respected concerned,
    I am Shashaank, a junior research fellow working on a project of retrieving the information inscribed on stones way back in the tides of time. I have obtained some images of stone inscriptions, which are unclear and difficult to recognize. The images of rosetta stone and its enhanced inscription in this page was inspiring. Can you please help me with the enhancement details? Hope you will do the needful.

    • Hello Shashank – The enhancement of the original inscription was doubtless done by the commercial arm of the British Museum in the production of the various Rosetta Stone souvenirs they have on sale – many of these are laser-prints etc. of a stark black-and-white version of the stone’s face. The inscription on the Canopus Stone, older even than the Rosetta Stone, and found much later in the 1860s, is possibly as good – however, it is not a hard-wearing grainte rock, but limestone, and some of the detail may have crumbled over the centuries. The thing to remember about the Rosetta Stone is that one of the first acts of the French savants in Egypt was to print copies from its polished surface in pioneer lithography, hence the later proliferation of the image of the inscription across Europe. It seems that few stones discovered thereafter held as much popular excitement for the world. Let me know how I can help and I will be happy to try.

  4. Learn more on the Ancient Macedonic (middle) script from the latest and only exact transcription so far:

  5. Pingback: (Il)literacy in the United States | Julian Almeida

  6. patrickjames13

    Many thanks for your site. I would be very interested to know the source of the image that you used for the ‘enchanced inscription view’ . It seems to show a little more of the final lines of the Greek text than the other image that you have on display and indeed, than is visible to me on the Stone itself and reported in the various editions of the Greek text. Does it represent the Stone prior to some damage that caused some of the text to be lost?

    The enhanced view is also displayed at _of_viscom/images/alphabet/rosetta.html>, but without any indication of its source.

    Many thanks for any information that you can supply about the source of that image.
    — Patrick

    • Thank you for your query regarding the enhanced image. I’m afraid I can’t recall exactly where I stumbled on this, as it was some years back – I can only guess that it was generated by the British Museum as it is very similar to their merchandise ‘replica’ which used to be done in black and white. I believe they did this with laser tech, and produced other high contrast tidbits like the Rosetta Stone coffee mugs, t-shirts and the mouse mat etc. (very handy it was too. I once referred to it in a pinch when asked about demotic text by the Nat Trust. 🙂

      Carol Andrews (who wrote the BM’s pamphlet on the stone some decades ago) was known to have done some work on the stone to highlight the text for research purposes (you can have a look at this perhaps in ‘Cracking Codes’ by Richard Parkinson, essential reading. It was he who pointed out to interested amateur historians that the stone was never black, (the result of soot in the air settling on old carnauba wax and printing ink) and the writing never picked out in white – it was under his time as Keepr that the stone was cleaned and restored to its original grey finish, as it would have been, standing on the steps of the temple in Sais.) When you see the stone in its natural state, it suddenly becomes clear why the French had such trouble with the Greek; it was virtually illegible in places and of course it had been carved by an Egyptian scribe, who possibly knew only as much Greek as was put before him for copying – please see one of the appendices of my book ‘Discovery at Rosetta’ for Stephen Weston’s translation of the Greek, the first to be done. I hope this helps –
      Jonathan Downs

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