July 29, 2003

British Museum rejects calls for Rosetta Stone return

Posted at 9:42 am in British Museum, Similar cases

The British Museum has stated that they will not consider any return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, whether permanently, or in the form of a loan.

Mail & Guardian

Tuesday, July 29, 2003
The Rosetta Stone will stay in London, and that’s final
29 July 2003 10:34

Egypt’s antiquities chief will continue to press the British Museum to loan the 2 200-year-old Rosetta Stone to Cairo for a limited time, though British curators say they can’t let a piece central to their collection go.

“The trustees do not consent to the loan of what might be called “iconic” objects …. To loan such pieces would result in our disappointing the five-million or so visitors who come to the museum every year,” British Museum officials said in a statement issued on Monday in London.

“The Rosetta Stone, which has been in the collection of the British Museum since 1802, is central to the museum’s collection.”

Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said on Tuesday he hopes to get the museum to change its mind and send the stone for three to six months so the trilingual tablet can be the centrepiece at the opening of a new wing at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. The opening is planned in 2005.

The Rosetta Stone unlocked the mystery of the hieroglyphics. The Egyptian Museum has only a reproduction.

In contrast to the British Museum’s policy, Hawass said, Egypt would only baulk at lending fragile items. He said items that might be considered central to the Egyptian Museum collection are part of a 50-piece show of Tutankhamen relics being lent to the British Museum for an upcoming exhibit.

British Museum officials “should not be selfish, they should be fair,” Hawass said.

Hawass, who is leading a campaign for the return of pharaonic relics and other antiquities spirited out of Egypt, is not lobbying for the permanent return of the Rosetta Stone.

The real thing “should be in Egypt’s possession permanently, but I want to be realistic and I don’t want to get into a fight with the British Museum,” Hawass said.

The British Museum, which celebrated its 250th birthday last month, has long resisted Greek attempts to return the Parthenon Marbles, the 2 500-year-old frieze depicting an Athenian procession that Britain acquired in 1811 from Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Other countries also have lobbied for the return of artifacts.

Hawass said Egyptian antiquities officials have good relations with the British Museum, “and I want them to see our good will”. In their statement, British Museum officials also spoke of “excellent relationships with all our professional colleagues in Egypt”, but said: “The Rosetta Stone will stay in London to be seen by the widest possible constituency of international visitors.”

The Rosetta Stone was discovered by French soldiers in 1799 in the Nile Delta town of Rashid — known as Rosetta to the English — but handed to the English two years later after the French surrendered in Egypt. It has been in the British Museum since 1802.

Inscribed on the basalt tablet, which is less than a metre long, is an ancient profile of an Egyptian pharaoh written in three languages — hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek. It was this text, and more than two decades of labour by several archaeologists, largely Thomas Young of England and Jean-Francois Champollion of France, that led to the stone’s deciphering and the subsequent unravelling of the mystery behind the hieroglyphs.

“The Rosetta Stone is the icon of the Egyptian identity,” Hawass said. “Without it there is no understanding of all our monuments.” – Sapa-AP

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