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.
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.