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Can the location of the Rosetta Stone be set in Stone?

Following recent requests, the British Museum predictably has come up with a long list of reasons why they believe the Rosetta Stone [1] is better of in their institution than it would be in Egypt. With each new raft of reasons though it begins to look more & more as though they are grabbing at straws, desperately trying to preserve the status quo whilst ignoring the fact that the world has changed significantly in the last two hundred years since many of their artefacts were acquired.

Daily Telegraph [2]

The Rosetta Stone can be shared where it is
Despite Egypt’s overtures, the British Museum is the artefact’s natural home, suggests Roy Clare.
Published: 6:24AM GMT 10 Dec 2009

It’s a staple question at dinner parties or job interviews: if your house or office was burning down, what’s the one thing you would save? For the staff of the British Museum, the question might seem almost impossible to answer, given the wonderful riches contained in its collection. Yet if you pressed them, they would probably have to admit that the answer would be simple: the Rosetta Stone.

Discovered in Egypt by the French during Napoleon’s expedition, and acquired by the British as part of a peace settlement, the Rosetta Stone is a priceless and extraordinary item. The three languages displayed on it, translations of the same text, enabled us to make the first interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is no surprise, then, that each year, millions of visitors to London seek out this exceptional artefact (and the thousands of others) in the galleries that present the world’s cultures in the British Museum.

And it is equally unsurprising that a distinguished academic should come to London from Cairo on a mission to retrieve what he sees as rightfully Egyptian. Dr Zahi Hawass argues that the stone is an icon of the Egyptian past, and the Egyptian identity, and belongs in the country of its creation. As secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, he points to the historical material he has recovered from other countries – why should Britain be different?

When dealing with any artefact acquired in the imperial past, there are bound to be sensitivities, and demands for repatriation – witness the controversy over the Elgin Marbles, another gem of the British Museum’s collection. But in this case, the law is not on Dr Hawass’s side. The Rosetta Stone was properly acquired and its provenance within Britain’s national collections is beyond dispute. The trustees of the British Museum could decide to loan it out – although to date, no such request has been received – but their deliberations would take account of the conditions in which the item would be displayed, the risks to its safety and security, and the likelihood of its return. Dr Hawass’s recent public statements would also be considered – which could present an unusual backdrop to any judgment the trustees might reach.

But the decision as to whether to return the stone is not just about the technicalities of ownership. Through its scholarship, the British Museum has developed our understanding of the significance of the Rosetta Stone enormously. Because its entire collection is subject to study and detailed examination, we have a resource for research that is greater than the sum of its parts, home to a process of study, discussion and peer review which helps breathe life into these inanimate objects.

Museums and cultural organisations throughout Britain are actively engaged in scholarly exchange with partners around the world – helping to build the global understanding of the world’s cultural heritage. In this way, cultures are bonded, nations drawn together and divides bridged. Indeed, the British Museum is an impressive proponent of international cultural dialogue and growth. Its director, Neil MacGregor, has rightly won praise for reaching out to museums threatened by war in Iraq, for example: his expertise, and that of his curators, was of great significance in Baghdad in particular.

In other words, it’s not about keeping the objects, but sharing their stories. The ownership of particular artefacts is now far less significant than the fact that people can enjoy them, be enlightened, entertained and brought closer to a real understanding of the inheritance that binds us all. And nowhere is that better achieved than in the galleries of the British Museum.

Roy Clare is chief executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council

The Times [3]

From The Times
December 10, 2009
Where the Rosetta belongs can’t be set in stone
Great cultural artefacts and great intellectual ideas are no respecters of national boundaries. Everyone must share them
Ben Macintyre

In July 1799, during Napoleon’s brief occupation of Egypt, Captain Pierre-François Bouchard, an army engineer supervising the reconstruction of the Ottoman fort near the port of Rosetta, extracted a lump of dark granite from under the crumbling walls, covered in ancient writing.

The first sight of the Rosetta Stone was so remarkable that the Napoleonic Army, it was said, immediately snapped to attention: “It halted itself and, by one spontaneous impulse, grounded its arms.”

An edict in honour of Ptolemy V, the Macedonian-Greek Pharaoh, written in three scripts, deciphered by a British and a French scholar, the stone not only unlocked the written secrets of Ancient Egypt, but stands as a vivid symbol of how intellectual changes move with physical artefacts, by conquest, colonisation and trade, but also through the free, borderless exchange of ideas.

This object — partly Hellenic in origin, Ancient Egyptian in provenance, the subject of Anglo-French scholarship and an object of universal reverence and importance — is now the focus of a furious repatriation debate.

Zahi Hawass, the formidable secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, has demanded that the stone, which he calls an “icon of Egyptian identity”, be returned from the British Museum to Egypt. “We own that stone,” he told al-Jazeera television recently. “The motherland should own this.”

For Dr Hawass, and many others in so-called “source” countries, this is a simple issue of restoring looted cultural property: “For all of our history, our heritage was stolen from us. They [the British Museum] kept it in a dark, badly lit room until I came and requested it.”

There are several objections to this, beginning with what he means by “we” and “the motherland”. Modern Egypt did not exist in 1799, let alone in 196BC, when the stone was carved. Unlike some controversial items in Western museums, the stone was not smuggled away, but handed over to the British as part of a legal treaty, signed not only by the French and British, but by the Ottoman Government in Egypt.

As for the absurd notion that it was undervalued and poorly exhibited: the Rosetta Stone has been on almost continuous, prominent display since 1802, the single most visited object in the entire museum.

But more than that, the Rosetta Stone is an emblem of universality, and a product of the multiple cultures that existed in the 2nd century BC, in what we now call Egypt. Dr Hawass, a brilliant and inspiring defender of the past, has selected the wrong object over which to fight a narrow, nationalistic political campaign for “repatriation”.

If ever there was a genuinely global object, deserving of a place in a world museum, it is this: the text itself is insignificant, and very boring. Its importance lies in how it was moved outside Egypt, and deciphered: a chunk of builders’ rubble that changed the way we think.

The Rosetta Stone describes a tax amnesty for temple priests, essentially a tax break for fat cats 2,200 years ago. It is toadying in the extreme: “Ptolemy, the ever living, beloved by Ptah, the God manifest and gracious . . .” Blah, blah, ptah. But, crucially, it is sycophantic in three distinct languages: Ancient Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphs and the everyday language of the people.

The inscription was a reflection of cultural diversity and colonial politics, aimed at three separate constituencies: the Greek government, Egyptian locals and the Ancient Egyptian gods. Deciphering these parallel texts restored a lost chapter of history, enabling linguists to begin deciphering hieroglyphics and decoding 4,000 years of Egypt’s past.

It was extracted from the tangle of history through international rivalry, but it came to be understood through international co-operation. Thomas Young, British scientist and polymath, deciphered parts of the demotic text (mostly during weekends in Worthing) and offered up his findings in the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1819. Jean-François Champollion, the French Egyptologist, corresponded with Young, and produced his own breakthrough in 1822.

Instead of complaining about being pipped to the script, Young was delighted: “Were I ever so much the victim of the bad passions, I should feel nothing but exaltation at Mr Champollion’s success.” Young was a true son of the Enlightenment, fascinated by discovery for its own sake: in addition to the Rosetta code, he left us the word “energy”, as applied to science, “Young’s modulus” of elasticity and “Young’s principles” in life insurance.

But it is Young’s principles of openness to the intellectual riches of ancient objects that should inform the argument over cultural property. Instead of debating ownership and trying to impose modern notions of political sovereignty on ancient cultural patrimony, the argument should be about how to bring the world’s cultural riches to the widest possible audience, regardless of where they physically reside.

Arguments about “stolen” artefacts and national identity seem oddly old-fashioned in a world where the internet enables every object in a public collection to be seen and appreciated anywhere on the planet.

Some curators, fearful of the insistence that all cultural artefacts must stay in the country of discovery, argue for a return of the system of “partage”, whereby discoveries were shared between the source country and the finders. In a globalised world, this system should be universal, allowing the widest possible exchange of artefacts and the ideas that go with them, irrespective of national boundaries and political pride.

The Rosetta Stone is not a national icon, as Dr Hawass maintains, but an international symbol, as demonstrated by its idiomatic usage: the word “Rosetta” has come to mean not just unlocking ideas, but spreading them. Some ideas, and some objects, are so universally important that they demand that we stand spontaneously to attention.

The Herald (Scotland) [4]

Thursday 10 December 2009
Claim to historic artefact is anything but written in stone

He’s got a little list. Dr Zahi Hawass swept into Britain this week in his trademark Indiana Jones fedora. Since becoming Egypt’s head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in 2002, he claims to have secured the return to his country of 5000 artefacts, which he says were “looted” from his “motherland”.

As the good doctor made clear yesterday, he regards Egypt as its rightful home and has no intention of abandoning his goal of permanent repatriation. In the British Museum, it is seen for free by more of the institution’s 5.5 million annual visitors than any other object, but if the authorities there want to hang on to it, they have something of a, well, let’s call it a stonewalling job to do.

That is exactly what the Rosetta Stone was when a sharp-eyed French soldier spotted it in 1799 in the coastal town of al Rashid (Rosetta, in English), where it had been used as a recycled building block in a 15th-century fortress. It came to Britain as a spoil of war two years later.

To Enlightenment scholars searching for the key to the magic door into Ancient Egyptian culture, it had a double significance. It records a decree issued by the priests in Memphis in 196BC ordering the teenage Ptolemy V to be worshipped in recognition of his “establishing Egypt and making it perfect”. The outcome of a power struggle in the dying years of his dynasty (originally Greek), it was to be displayed in temples. So it was an early form of mass communication, asserting the ruler’s authority.

To emphasise this, the decree is written in three languages, including ancient hieroglyphs, written only by the priestly class, and Greek, the language of administrators. It was this that enabled European scholars – primarily the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion and Englishman Thomas Young – to crack the secret of hieroglyphics that had been lost for 2000 years and spark a love

of and fascination with Egyptology that continues to this day, and which accounts for millions visiting the ancient sites every year.

The 4ft-high stone, with its jagged top, is not spectacular but when my family first saw it a few years ago, we all felt the power of its history. It was the sense that such artefacts have important stories to tell.

The claims of Dr Hawass rest on the assumption that artefacts should remain in whatever country they

were found. (Other culturally protectionist nations include Turkey, Greece and, in the case of the Lewis Chessmen, Scotland.)

There are several stock reasons why this may not be true. First, they may not be safe because museums there cannot offer appropriate physical conditions or security. The celebrated Lydian Hoard was repatriated from the US to Turkey only for several of the most valuable bits to disappear. And they may be exploited by political leaders to legitimise their governments. The most disgusting recent example was Saddam Hussein using Iraqi archaeological museums to pass himself off as a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar.

Neither of these situations applies in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak has no pretensions to reinvent himself as Tutankhamun, and millions flock annually to Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, though last year my partner only avoided queuing for three hours to get in by bribing a taxi driver.

However, there is a much bigger point that needs to be made.

Dr Hawass justifies both his extensive shopping list and the ever-stricter controls and restrictions placed on foreign archaeologists in Egypt like this: “We are the descendants of the pharaohs. If you look at the faces of the people of Upper Egypt, the relationship between modern and ancient Egypt is very clear.” Frankly, this is nonsense. The stone derives from the Hellenistic era. At the time it was found, Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire and Egyptian historians were more interested in Islamic history. That’s why the Rosetta Stone was being used as building material.

Egyptology (and Egyptophilia) were western European inventions. The fame of the Rosetta Stone owes far more to the Enlightenment than 19th-century Egypt. Without it, the stone would be no more than a curiosity.

As Dr James Cuno puts it in his book Who Owns Antiquity?, without western discovery and study of artefacts such as the Rosetta Stone, “Egyptology would not exist and Egyptians would not know to claim it as theirs”. So, if anyone is guilty of cultural imperialism in this argument, it is Dr Hawass.

As in so many of these cases – the Elgin Marbles is another example – the current rulers of these countries have little in common with the creators of the objects they claim to own. Besides, it assumes a very fixed, false notion of culture, a 1066 and All That version of history in which one thing comes after another.

The reality is a continual process of migration, amalgamation and disintegration. It’s understandable that Greece, Italy and Egypt don’t want all and sundry despoiling their archaeological sites, which is why the 1970 UN agreement making newly unearthed artefacts the property of their country of origin was necessary.

Where objects such as the Sioux ghost shirt, once displayed in Kelvingrove, have a huge emotional significance, repatriation is simply the decent thing to do.

But it’s quite wrong to translate that as meaning that a country has sole rights to investigate its past and hoard its treasures. The notion that Egyptians understand their own past in a way others cannot is completely spurious. In fact, if there was ever an instance of an object that belongs to the world, rather than a country, the Rosetta Stone is it.

As Richard Parkinson, assistant keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, puts it: “It has turned from the booty of conflict into a symbol of cross-cultural understanding.” As Alan Price and Georgie Fame might have sung: “Rosetta, you are better where you are.”