October 12, 2008

The British Museum’s claims to the Rosetta Stone

Posted at 6:22 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Jonathan Downs, the author of Discovery at Rosetta, which I mentioned a few weeks ago, has kindly sent me the text of the concluding chapter of this book. This chapter looks at the case for the return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt – both its legality & the arguments surrounding it. The case for the restitution of the Rosetta Stone has a lot of parallels with the Parthenon Marbles – their acquisitions were roughly contemporaneous, they both came from outposts of what was at that time the Ottoman Empire, They both ended up in the British Museum.

The author has also offered to respond to any queries that people make in the comments on this message.

Jonathan Downs (by email)

The following is an extract from Discovery at Rosetta (by Jonathan Downs, Constable, 2008, pp.210-215) outlining the current status of the Rosetta Stone, the facts governing its legal ownership and its possible repatriation to Egypt:


Despite the Rosetta Stone’s public profile, historically its status as an exhibit in the British Museum has not been nearly as contested as that of the ‘Elgin’ or Parthenon Marbles. To many it is immediately recognizable and more memorable than the sculptures that were formerly part of the Athenian Acropolis. This is understandable; until the end of the 1990s the Rosetta Stone rested on an angled frame close to the entrance of the museum – unavoidable, it was one of the first objects to be encountered, and crowds of visitors have gathered round it for the past two hundred years. Cleaned by conservators, it now occupies an equally prominent position in the centre of the Egypt collection by the Great Court entrance, upright within a protective case, still one of the most famous objects in the world. Before the arrival of the antiquities from Egypt in 1802, the British Museum contained little grand sculpture, its halls filled chiefly with smaller curiosities. The acquisition of the Rosetta Stone and the cargo from the Alexandria victory was an important step in the development of the institution.

Since 1999 and the bicentenary celebration of its discovery, there has been a reawakening of Egyptian interest in the Rosetta Stone. In July 2003 an article in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper claimed that Egypt was calling for its return. The feature stated that negotiations for the repatriation of the stone were under way with Dr Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo. However, in early 2005 the British Museum confirmed that Britain’s legal title to the Rosetta Stone was indisputable – the Articles of the Capitulation of Alexandria show that Osman Bey and Hassan, the Kapudan Pasha, leaders of the Mameluke and Turkish forces representing the recognized government of Egypt in 1801, had signed the treaty with the British and the French, thereby accepting Article 16, that Britain had the right to the antiquities collected by Bonaparte’s expedition. In the circumstances, Dr Hawass apparently requested a replica of the stone, which was duly sent to Rosetta for display.

It seemed that Egypt had accepted the legality of British ownership of the stele; but at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin, Dr Hawass called for the return of key artefacts from around the world including the Rosetta Stone. In autumn 2007, a Bloomberg news report stated that Dr Hawass had made further representation to the British Museum for its return, be it permanent or by temporary loan, for the planned opening of the new Grand Museum at Gizeh, to be completed in 2012.

The restitution or repatriation of ancient artefacts to their native lands is a growing concern for the world’s museums for obvious reasons. According to reports, Dr Hawass has succeeded in reclaiming some 4,000 items since he took up the post of Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. It has been argued that to return the tens of thousands of Egyptian relics dispersed across the world would be virtually impossible; however, with prominent statuary, the political issues intensify through increased public awareness, stimulating powerful emotion – as witnessed by the case of the bust of Nefertiti currently displayed in Berlin, the cause of considerable public resentment in Egypt today. Such relics cease to be ancient artefacts and become instead a nebulous but much more contentious ‘cultural heritage’ – and there is little moral justification for any nation to possess or exploit the heritage of another against its wishes.

Technically the Rosetta Stone and all the relics confiscated by the British from the defeat of Alexandria were legally obtained, their release granted by representatives of the national government which ‘owned’ them. In the case of Egypt in 1801, this is not as clear-cut as that of Italian pieces from individual city-states such as Venice or Rome, whose native governments were displaced by Napoleonic conquest, their treasures looted and later restored upon liberation. The state of Egypt, as it is recognized today, took no hand in the decision to relinquish its historic antiquities because it did not exist.

The Ottoman Kapudan Pasha represented a foreign military dictatorship and Osman Bey exercised direct Mameluke rule ostensibly in the name of the sultan. Although the Mamelukes had become naturalized Egyptians over the centuries it could be argued they were still a foreign people – warrior-slaves and mercenaries from the remote plains of the Ottoman Empire, they had been rulers of the country since the Middle Ages, and contrary to Ottoman wishes exercised a rebellious independence and tyrannical military oppression of the general population. The question arises then whether Osman Bey and Hassan Pasha had the right to relinquish Egyptian antiquities. Perhaps those best qualified to dispose of Egyptian heritage in 1801 were the sheikhs of the Divan or the learned men of the Al-Azhar Mosque. However, there was no resistance to the collection of the ancient relics on cultural or religious grounds – after the tumult of the French defeat in 1801 and the accession of leader Muhammed Ali Bey similar treasures were exported with official sanction.

It would be a mistake to view past incidences of archaeological collection purely as cultural theft. In the eighteenth century the collection of art and architectural fragments from remote rural sites in the Mediterranean was not seen as looting or vandalism, but as rescue and preservation. To the European antiquary, civilized nations cared for their art treasures – to find broken statuary and religious artefacts lying deserted in a state of ruination suggested a lack of civilized understanding – the ruins themselves evidence of a once-great culture since fallen into decay in the hands of a backward or barbarian government. The French savants in Egypt were presented with precisely this situation: the relics of a lost civilization lay neglected in the wastes of sand, ignored, if not feared, by locals. Before the arrival of collectors in the late eighteenth century, artefacts in Egypt were certainly in danger of destruction – as in the case of the Great Sphinx, which had been wilfully defaced, and the Rosetta Stone, buried in foundations, or Louvre stele C122, built into the threshold of a mosque.

The Napoleonic expedition had one other supreme right, internationally recognized since war began: the right of conquest. However, the legality of this right could also be challenged. Bonaparte invaded Egypt under the pretext of aiding the Ottoman sultan and did not officially declare war – far from it, he did his utmost to avoid such an open conflict for as long as possible. Theoretically, Bonaparte could not legally claim any treasure as spoils of war, even though he had defeated his enemies on the battlefield. Because of this neither had the savants [scholars attached to the expedition] been able to secure the legal rights from the ruling Ottomans to remove Egyptian antiquities – although there was no specific opposition to their scientific operations, the pieces had therefore been obtained without permission. In this regard, the artefacts standing in the British Museum from the fall of Alexandria could be considered plunder, just as Colonel Turner described them in 1810. The document that created a legal provenance of their ownership, and prevented Britain from becoming a receiver of stolen goods, was the Articles of the Capitulation of Alexandria. According to Article 16, the antiquities of Egypt – and the Rosetta Stone – had been transformed into spoils of war.

The Rosetta Stone falls into a different category from the other artefacts collected by the French expedition and captured by the British in Egypt. It was not a work of art, or religious icon, taken from a temple or mosque. Unlike the other antiquities, its value upon discovery arose from the potential information it could yield as a code-key in the decipherment of hieroglyphs. Herein lies the overlapping nature of its cultural importance: although a piece of Egyptian heritage, its function was fulfilled only by the Europeans who found it. It is therefore by no means clear to which people it should by rights ‘belong’ – to the British, by right of arms, and the pioneering work of Young; to the French, for its discovery and the success of Champollion – or to the Egyptians, to whose ancient past it owes its origin. For this reason it has been described as an exhibit of world heritage, part of the ‘universal museum’, which to many implies that it makes little difference where it is located so long as it is properly preserved and accessible to the majority of people. One might expect something of universal value to be shown liberally around the world, yet in the 206 years since it was brought to London, it has left only once, in 1972, for a special exhibition in Paris celebrating the 150th anniversary of Champollion’s historic ‘Letter to M. Dacier’ [in which he outlined his solution to the interpretation of hieroglyphs]. The French request for the stone for the occasion was initially refused by the British Museum and granted only after further consideration.

There is a strong case for rejecting the Ottoman right to dispose of Egyptian artefacts, but this is a moral judgement, not legal. However, the relevance of bills, receipts and treaties relating to the acquisition of artefacts by nations that no longer exist, such as Bonaparte’s France and the British and Ottoman Empires, must be questioned in the light of today’s modern world. Few historical or legal arguments address the relevant issue: it is not whether European nations had the right to acquire Egyptian antiquities, but whether today they should have the right to retain them.

Despite the Articles of the Capitulation of Alexandria and the binding nature of nineteenth-century Ottoman signatures, it would be difficult to argue that the Rosetta Stone belonged more in Britain or France than in Egypt. Yet, erected by the priests of the pharaoh, discovered by French savants, and preserved by British scholars, the Rosetta Stone unites two of the elder states of Europe with the most ancient of western civilizations. Two centuries later, still on the threshold of a new millennium, this unique cultural relationship could complete the cycle of discovery and decipherment, and herald a new era for the Rosetta Stone in the land of its creation. This ‘gem of antiquity’ could evolve beyond its original task – where once its message united a diverse culture, its renewed power could bind nations.

Jonathan Downs
‘Discovery at Rosetta’,
London: Constable, 2008

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  1. igor said,

    04.03.09 at 7:52 am

    I really enlarged my scope about the Egyptian culture 100 steps ahead.Thanks.

  2. Joel Freeman said,

    10.31.09 at 6:51 am

    I have learned a great deal from Jonathan Downs’ book, Discovery At Rosetta. I have had a tremendous interest in the Rosetta Stone. In fact, after over four years of research I have developed a full size, 3D replica that bears a remarkable resemblance to the real thing. After reviewing the website please feel free to share your unvarnished thoughts about the project — http://www.RosettaCrazy.com

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