Should the British Museum Return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt?

When last we saw our intrepid blogger participate in a Heritage Key challenge, the topic was the most important ancient site in London. Now challenge 3 looms, and this time the topic is a controversial one: should the British Museum give the Rosetta Stone back to Egypt?

The Rosetta Stone is a carved granodiorite stele made during the reign of Ptolemy V in 196 B.C. The text carved upon it is a single proclamation written in three languages: ancient hieroglyphic, Demotic and classical Greek.

Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, picture by Hans Hillewaert It was discovered in 1799 by French troops in Fort St. Julien, Rosetta (today known as Rashid), Egypt. When I say it was discovered in Fort St. Julien, I mean it was actually a part of the fort. It was found during construction work. At some point in its lifetime, the stone had been re-purposed as building material.

French officer Pierre Francois Xavier Bouchard immediately recognized its archaeological value and packed it off to the French Institute of Egypt in Cairo. When Napoleon’s troops got spanked by the British in 1801, the stone was one of the spoils the victor claimed. It has been on display at the British Museum since 1802, interrupted only twice: once by World War I (1917) and once by loan (October 1972, to the Louvre).

What makes this hunk of volcanic rock worth launching international incidents over is not so much the object itself, but the fact that the juxtaposition of the three languages allowed British polymath Thomas Young and French scholar Jean-Franรงois Champollion to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in the early 1800s for the first time since the language died out in the 5th century A.D.

So should the Rosetta Stone be returned to Egypt? Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Council of Antiquities, certainly thinks so. He considers it an icon of Egyptian identity that was “raped” by French invaders and as such it belongs in Egypt, its homeland.

His position isn’t quite as firm as it seems, however. He originally asked the British Museum to loan the Rosetta Stone (and several other iconic pieces) to Egypt for the opening of the new Grand Museum at Giza in 2013. The BM’s response was a less-than-felicitous questionnaire about security conditions in the new museum. It was only after that that Hawass shifted approach to demanding repatriation.

The British Museum, for its part, considers the Rosetta Stone to be one of the jewels in its crown. It is the second most visited item (the first is a bog mummy) and most profoundly, it is a nucleus around which the great universal museum grew from modest beginnings as a glorified curiosity cabinet in 1753.

The museum makes some questionable claims, in my opinion, to justify its retention of the Rosetta Stone: that more people can see it in London than would in Egypt, that it has added value in the context of the encyclopedic museums because their vast displays tie together history and culture from many places, that it’s too old and fragile to be moved, that one repatriation would open floodgates that would in short order sweep every last scrap of colonial spoils out the museum doors, that Egypt won’t secure it properly, that Egypt might even be so bold as to keep it once they have it on loan.

The utilitarian argument of the number of people who get to see it doesn’t address the underlying ethical questions at all. The value of its context within the British Museum pales in comparison to its cultural value to the Egyptian people. In this day and age, secure transportation even of extremely fragile antiquities is not a barrier to movement. If the Terracotta Warriors can travel the globe for years, a big slab of rock should be just fine. The floodgates argument is hyperbolic at best given that even Hawass himself only has 5 items on his ideal repatriation wish list, only this one in the BM. The latter two points are just offensive, frankly, hence Hawass’ reaction of going from asking for a loan to demanding repatriation.

But — and my regular readers here might be surprised to see me say this — I don’t actually think the Rosetta Stone should be returned forthwith to the bosom of mother Egypt. Many’s the time I’ve inveighed against looters and the museums, dealers, auction houses and collectors that have enabled the vicious, almost unbearable despoliation of archaeological sites, but once you go back a few hundred years, things are not so cut and dried.

Do the victors get to keep the spoils forever, even when centuries later they have a whole new relationship with the source country which wasn’t even the country they were fighting at the time? Legally, there is no issue here. The question is an ethical one, and although as a point of general principle I tend to side with source countries on these issues, the sticking point for me with the Rosetta Stone is the fact that it has become the premier icon of Egyptology due to the French and British scholarship that followed its discovery.

That is why it is a household name, not because it’s a piece of exceptional beauty and rarity like the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin (also on Hawass’ short list), not because it played a key role in the history of Egypt itself, not because of what it proclaims in those three languages. The Rosetta Stone was the key to unlocking the words of the pharaohs, so of course Hawass is entirely correct that it is an essential piece of Egyptian identity. However, it’s also an emblem of decipherment, a cultural byword recognized around the world as the ultimate key to a past so long obscured.

So my solution to the brouhaha is as follows: the British Museum needs to knock it off with that offensive pukka attitude it takes towards loan requests for culturally sensitive objects, work out the mechanics of the loan like a grownup and act as part of a global community of museums instead of insisting that the world come to them.

29 thoughts on “Should the British Museum Return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt?

  1. Surprisingly, I too (despite my proclivity to supporting repatriation) would veto a return to Egypt for the stone – for exactly the reason you cite. It’s essential importance has nothing to do with the object, per se, and clearly the Egyptians recognized this, hence their use of it for building rubble. Its importance is based purely on the research done by the French and British – therefore, they get to keep it.

    That logic aside, and maybe I’m being a bit of a culturist snob here (though I would actually like to hear an argument against what I’m about to say) – isn’t there something to be said for keeping pivotal pieces of art and history away from “unsteady” geographical areas? The strong and consistent possibility of upheaval in some of these countries does pose a distinct danger to such artifacts. While ideally the countries would of course have the money, resources, and stability to provide a “safe” home for such artifacts and be able to reclaim this cultural heritage – does that change they fact that, often, these things are lacking?

    1. There is something to be said for it, but I don’t think you can reasonably call Egypt an “unsteady” area. They’ve got their own messes going on, no doubt, but the government is basically stable and their heritage aggressively protected.

      On the general question of whether antiquities should be repatriated to war-torn, poverty-stricken countries, I’m going to have to wuss out and go with an “it depends”. The underlying problem I have with the idea is that it’s highly convenient for countries that benefited from exploiting an area to get to keep all their booty because that area has been screwed up ever since.

      The stability standard is also, I suspect, applied unevenly. For example, Israel is in constant fighting trouble, but I’m quite certain that by default it gets put in the Britain/US category, not the Nigeria/Egypt category.

      1. I’m going to go with a ‘no’ on this question, but for another reason entirely. I am opposed to the idea of repatriations, and for two reasons. First, objects like the Rosetta Stone are part of the historical fabric of humanity, and need to be seen by as great an audience as possible. I wholeheartedly support tours, and feel that the Stone should be loaned to Egypt. I find the idea that the Stone has never left London just as offensive as the idea that it will never leave Cairo. Personally, I do think, given Hawass’ reputation, that the Egyptian government may decide not to return the Stone if it is loaned out. But in that case the world will have learned something valuable, and the Stone will still be viewable in Cairo. My second objection is that I don’t believe that demands for repatriation are viable given the differences in culture between today and then. Modern, Islamic, Arabic Egypt is so far removed from ancient, polytheistic, hieroglyphic Egypt as to be almost unrecognizable. There has to be more to a repatriation claim than geographic proximity.

        1. I don’t find either argument persuasive. The “greatest number of viewers” argument fails with any inter-museum comparison. If viewership is the standard, then the British Museum should just pack up shop and send its permanent collections to the Louvre where 8.5 million people visited in 2009 to the British Museum’s 5.9 million. The Met got a mere 4.82 million visitors last year, so if the historical fabric of humanity must be palpated by the most people, then the Temple of Dendur needs to be sent to Paris so it can double its stats instantly.

          I’m not sure what exactly you refer to when you say that Hawass’ “reputation” suggests that he would violate a legal and ethical contract he entered into with another museum. As he put it, this isn’t Pirates of the Caribbean. He has an excellent collegial relationship with the British Museum and many others. They arrange exchanges, tours and loans all the time.

          On your second argument, I think it’s simplistic to the point of absurdity to suggest that the only connection modern Egyptians have with their ancient past is geographical proximity. Egyptians are enveloped in their ancient culture from birth. It is an intrinsic part of their cultural identity and an extremely powerful unifying bond.

          I grew up in Rome. I’ve been gone 20 years and I’m not even Italian by birth or citizenship, but the link I have to that antiquity that was as much a part of me as my lungs is still so powerful I can weep at a picture. The fact that I don’t speak the same language or believe in the same deities as the people who lived there before me doesn’t make that bond insignificant. Cultural identity is a complex thing. You can’t just handwave it out of existence by calling it an accident of geography.

        2. Livius, many thanks for your rebuttal! However, I am sorry, but I hear you making my arguments for me. If you agree that the great monuments and touchstones of our past should be seen by the greatest number of people, then sending the Stone to Cairo (except on tour) will reduce its impact, not heighten it. Send it to Cairo, New York, and Paris!

          Second, if you, who were not born in Italy and haven’t been back in a generation, can feel a cultural affinity that powerful, why should you have to visit Rome to see the Victorious Youth? (Which is Greek anyway! Oddly, that doesn’t seem to bother the Italian government.) I believe you are making my point that these artifacts are the property of all humanity, and should not be concentrated solely in their place of geographic origination.

          However, I also want to make the point that repatriations do have their place, if private excavators, looters, and collectors are colluding to ransack sites. That type of behavior needs to be punished harshly, as the loss is not only artistic and financial, but historical.

        3. Well, if you support repatriations of looted and smuggled antiquities, then you support the return of the Victorious Youth since Italy’s claim is an entirely contemporary legal one, not a moral one.

          I’m not sure where you imagine me saying that I agree that monuments and touchstones should be seen by most people possible. Like I said, I think the utilitarian argument fails upon the first comparison. It would be great if everybody could get to Paris, London, Rome, Cairo, Tehran, Beijing, everywhere in the world, but I don’t think museums can rationalize withholding disputed artifacts because more people will see them.

          In fact, I guarantee you that if the new museum at Giza where Hawass wants to display the Rosetta Stone gets more visitors than the British Museum, it won’t change the argument in the least. The BM wants to keep the Rosetta Stone, period. The rest is handwaving.

          I don’t really understand your second paragraph. Nobody is saying every object in the whole world should be repatriated, nor do I see how my profound connection to Rome suggests that the Getty should keep an object that it purchased in a dirty backroom deal only after J.P. Getty himself — who insisted on rigorously proved provenance — died.

      2. I’m not so certain of Egypt’s stability – Mubarak is a one-man regime, and in his 80s, and it’s uncertain that his son really has the talent to follow in his shoes. And social tensions are building.

        1. It’s still a functional state and has been a long time. Corrupt? Sure. On the cusp of big changes? Yup. But nobody’s looting the Cairo Museum and blowing up the Great Pyramid. If Somalia were requesting the repatriation of an artifact, stability would be a factor, but I don’t see it with Egypt.

          Besides, social tensions are pretty damn scary in the US right now, what with the people demanding violent overthrow of the socialists and whatnot. We might need to hire Blackwater to protect the National Archives pretty soon. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. I have always found it interesting that countries don’t really have an interest in their history, and are willing to sell it, or not put up a fight for it until modern day. Italy is a good example selling some of their ancient Roman artifacts to Americans. I really don’t care where it ends up, as long as it can be protected as a key piece of history.

    1. That’s not really an accurate depiction of Italy’s current or past attitude. There have been anti-export laws on the books in Italy since the 1930s. What are they supposed to do, however, when something is smuggled out of the country? It wasn’t until the UNESCO Convention in 1970 that other countries began to agree to return antiquities without a history of ownership.

      I’m also not sure what you mean by “Italy” selling antiquities to Americans. If you can point me to a single instance of the Italian government selling antiquities to US individuals or institutions, I’d appreciate it. If you’re referring to individual dealers who sell items in contravention of national and international law, then really that’s on them, isn’t it?, not on the nation as a whole.

      On the general point, Italy, Egypt, Greece, all the major source countries have had an immense interest in their history since what is now ancient history was current events.

      1. I am not sure if you have heard of Hearst Castle located in Southern California. William Randolph Hurst was one rich guy and he actually purchased, and then imported an entire Roman Temple. He apparently kept tearing it down, and rebuilding it to his tastes.

        1. I’m familiar with Hearst Castle. Hearst’s purchases made up something like 25% of the world’s antiquities market in the teens and twenties, before anti-export laws were established by Mussolini in Italy. What makes you think he bought them from the Italian government, though, rather than individual sellers? Europe was (and is) full of impoverished nobility looking to make a buck.

        2. I never said it was the Italian Gov’t persay, that did such a thing. I apologize if my wording made it sound as such. I also was not speaking specifically of Italy, as it happened in many areas. I still find it interesting how after the pieces are gone the governments try to (more or less) say that its ours, give it back.

          I also wasn’t specifically narrowing in on Italy but I was using it as an example. I am taking a class on the Roman Empire at my university and my professor often speaks about these situations in his lectures but unfortunately in no real detail.

        3. Ah, I see. Well, I think you’re jumbling things up a little. It’s not all one thing. Governments don’t ask for antiquities back that were legally sold by their owners 100 years ago. Disputed items are disputed because the means of their removal were shady in some way, whether it’s spoils of war, smoky backroom deals or looting and smuggling.

          Italy’s recent successful campaigns are grounded in the 1970 UNESCO Convention. They got the Sarpedon krater back from the Met because they had solid legal proof that it was excavated illegally and smuggled out of the country, and that the Met blatantly knew about it. If they hadn’t had a strong case, the Met would never, ever have let go of the piece.

          I think you do the source countries an injustice to vaguely mush them all together and paint their claims as simplistic “mine, gimme back.” That’s really not what’s going on.

  3. I read your views on the repatriation of the Rosetta Stonw with great interest, and some of the comments which followed, and I can put a few minds to rest I think with several observations: the loan of the stone is by no means refused. I contacted the Director of Communications at the BM and she confirmed that no decision has been taken as there is plenty of time before the loan was to be made, i.e., 2012. The BM might even be waiting to hear that the new Grand museum will indeed open when it is projected though there are doubts about this (as with all major building projects).

    As to the niceties involved in the loan, the British Museum is well aware of the international controversy surrounding its ownership of certain artefacts, and this is one reason why the Partehnon Marbles have never visited Athens on loan – before any loan is made, the receipient museum must sign an undertaking that they accept the British Museum as the legal and rightful owner of the object in question. This of course flies in the face of the Greek position concerning the Marbles, and the new Acropolis Museum could never sign such a statement, nor in my opinion, should they. However, this is a standard legal formality, and one can see the BM’s point of view; if they lend something they want a legal safeguard that they can get it back again.

    In the case of the Rosetta Stone, the legality of its ownership is not under question, and Dr Hawass is well aware that the Articles of Capitulation of Alexandria 1801 vouchsafe the relic to the British Crown, which since donated it to the BM. As to the loan, to sign this BM undertaking would therefore not be an issue for Egypt. To suggest, as one commentator has done, that the stone would not be returned, is unworthy and serves only to highlight the general lack of respect and suspicion held for the Middle East by European nations. Considering Europe’s track record in the region, it would be more surprising if the Middle East ever trusted Britain, rather than vice-versa.

    One other point raised, concerning the origins of the British Museum, it was by no means considered the ideal home for the Rosetta Stone at all. The stone was displayed in the Society of Antiquaries at Somerset House for several months beforehand, and moved only with the arrival of the fifty tons of statuary taken from Alexandria. The British Museum was created specifically to house the 20,000 items sold to Parliament by sir Hans Sloane [note, not donated]. As such the museum in 1801 had only small curosities collected by this gifted antiquary and several foreign oddities such as mummies, sold by intrepid explorers. The defeat of the French in Egypt was the first major victory on land by the British army in a very long while – clean, dramatic, heroic, it forced Napoleon to sue for peace and yielded the Treaty of Amiens, albeit short-lived. For the museum to display the spoils of this conquest was a curatorial godsend. It was from this moment that the British Museum became known as the repository of great sculpture. The addition of the Parthenon Marbles and other notable pieces later sold by Egypt only continued to serve its purpose. The museum did not begin as a display-case for the works of humanity by any means, but grew into this role as its collections expanded, virtually in competition with the Louvre. The question is whether the BM should be allowed to maintain this role given the global relationships of nations today, for it is no longer 1801.

  4. I think he is wrong :giggle: :chicken: :notworthy: :giggle: ๐Ÿ˜ฎ :facepalm: :hattip: :confused:

  5. what i don’t get this is that i have been to a hole lot of and i can’t find the imformation that i need.

  6. ๐Ÿ™ ๐Ÿ™ ๐Ÿ™ ๐Ÿ˜€ :skull: :skull: :chicken: :boogie: :blush: :blankstare: :angry: ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ™ ๐Ÿ™‚ :shifty: :p :yes:

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  8. This Rosetta stone had a lot of issues for the controversy whether they should return it or not. I was imressed when reading this passage for the Mock U.N. I am thanking you for this one for the name of a Korean. :notworthy:

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