January 6, 2010

The location of the Rosetta Stone doesn’t need to be set in stone.

Posted at 3:02 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

A response to the Daily Telegraph’s article on the location of the Rosetta Stone.

Modern Ghana

By Kwame Opoku, Dr.

“The time has come when the British Museum should recognise the change in relative status between Britain and the rest of the world. We are no longer the imperial masters and increasingly need to build constructive working relationships as between equals.”
Peter Groome (1)

It is indeed really remarkable that so many Western writers seem to have great difficulty in keeping to logic and facts when it comes to writing about restitution of cultural objects which have been looted, stolen or illegitimately acquired from non-Western peoples. A recent example of this type of writing is an article by Ben Macintyre, entitled “Where the Rosetta belongs can’t be set in stone”, published in the British daily, The Times, of 10 December 2009. (2) The article may appear at first sight to contain convincing arguments but a cursory examination of the statements by the author shows that it is not well argued; it is mainly intended to support the stubborn refusal of the British Museum to return the Egyptian Rosetta Stone as the Egyptians have been demanding. We comment briefly on some of the statements in the article to examine some of the weaknesses of this line of thought.

“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 196 BC, 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”.

Macintyre asks what Zahi Hawass, the dynamic Egyptologist, and Secretary of the Egyptian Supreme Council on Antiquities, meant when he stated: “We own that stone.” With all due respect, when Zahi Hawass uses, “we” in this context he can only mean “we the Egyptian people. What else could he mean? The author goes on to repeat the rather doubtful argument, favoured by James Cuno and others that modern Egypt did not exist in 1799, let alone in 196 BC when the Rosetta Stone was carved. If we apply the logic involved here, namely that you cannot own something which was created at a time when you were not born, the basic unsoundness of the argument becomes clear. Has Macintyre heard something about the law of succession? How many persons own property in objects which were created some hundreds of years before they were born? How many of the present existing States, including Great Britain, United States, France and others, were in existence when the properties and cultural objects they now claim to own were created? How old is the United States? Macintyre quite correctly states that the Rosetta Stone was handed over by the French to the British in accordance with the treaty signed by the French, British and the Ottoman Government in Egypt. Does he realize that the Ottoman Government was a foreign occupying-power and that such transfers by occupying forces are of questionable legal validity?

“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”.

Macintyre calls the Rosetta Stone an “emblem of universality”. Some of us were taught that it is an important evidence of Egyptian civilization and a crucial element in understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics which are by no means universal mode of communication. In other words, the stone is inevitably linked to Egypt and Egyptian culture but not to any vague “universal” culture. The attempt here to displace an object linked to a particular culture, from the land of that particular culture into an undefined culture, with the aim of reducing the strong claim of Egypt to that object, is a failure from the start. It is an echo of the dishonest theory presented by the discredited infamous Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums (2002). (3). This Declaration, initiated by the British Museum which cunningly did not sign it, proclaimed that the cultural artefacts of others which are now in the so-called universal museums, have become part of the culture of those countries where they are now. But everyone knows that the average person in those countries is most likely not aware of the presence of these objects in the museums and definitely would reject any suggestion that these African and Asian objects in the museums are part of his culture.

Macintyre again follows the dishonest line of thinking of Cuno and others who accuse those seeking restitution of their objects in Western museums as “nationalists”. What about the British, Americans, French and Germans who seek to keep these objects in their national museums, are they not nationalists? (4) Political scientists in the Western world should clarify for the museum directors and their supporters, the concept of nationalism, its history and development, so that they may recognize the excessive nationalism in the Western world and the absence of strong nationalism in many countries outside the Western world. To accuse Zahi Hawass of having chosen the Rosetta Stone in order to fight a narrow, nationalistic political campaign for “repatriation” is a baseless accusation which assumes that only nationalists seek the return of the cultural objects wrongfully detained in the West. This is a serious mistake and shows how little many Westerners know about the rest of the world and its peoples. There are many who support repatriation of cultural objects but would strongly object to any suggestion that they were nationalists. Some of us have supported restitution to Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Italy, Mali, Turkey, Kenya and other States. Are we nationalists of no particular nation or international nationalists? A short reflection would show the accusation of nationalism is devoid of serious basis. In any case, nationalism is, by itself, is no enemy of culture, as the history of the West clearly shows.

“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”.

Macintyre exceeds himself in this statement. I leave it to the experts to decide whether the text on the Rosetta Stone is “insignificant, and very boring.” What we cannot let go is this idea implicit in the statement that the British Museum is a “world museum” whereas the new Grand Museum at Giza, to be completed in 2013 is not. What the new Egyptian museum would be can only be definitely determined when it is completed but from all that we have read, it will be a first class museum, comparable to the best in the world.(5) We know, at least since the completion of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, that the British Museum and its supporters throw in the argument about the quality and security of museums outside the Western world only when there is a demand for repatriation but in reality, they are not at all concerned by this aspect. They were not impressed by the new museum in Athens and will equally not be impressed by the new museum at Giza.

Macintyre and others should stop confusing the world by telling us that the British Museum is a world museum. It is not. It is a British institution, no doubt with first class standards but that does not make it a world museum. (6) Those in the so-called universal museums keep saying they are world museums but they would be the very first to object to any suggestion or proposal to create a world museum where every people and State would freely make their contribution and have a say in the presentations in the museum and its governance. British Museum and other such museums, such as the Louvre and the Berlin State Museums, can only be described as “world museums” in the sense that they have in their inventories, large numbers of stolen/looted articles from every corner of the world. Is that what Macintyre means?

“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.”

Macintyre, like many of those who oppose restitution, does his best to convince the rest of the world that the question of location of cultural objects is not important. When a museum has so many stolen or looted cultural objects, it is logically not interested in discussing the question of location of objects. When you are in possession of looted objects, the question of ownership becomes tiresome. This is very similar to the aversion of many rich persons to discussions on money and property. They seek quite enjoyment and not, what they consider, unnecessary and useless discussions. Is there an iota of evidence that the rich museums and States are genuinely interested in “how to bring the world’s cultural riches to the widest possible audience, regardless of where they physically reside”? I have not seen any such signs and the recent statements about the Rosetta Stone, Nefertiti and the Benin Bronzes give the impression that most Western museums have not moved from the position of their predecessors in previous centuries that all that is best in the world can only be properly located in the West.

The dismissal of the importance of the location of objects is another version of the theory of decontextualization favoured by some museum directors, dealers and grave robbers, tombaroli. They all work on the assumption that the social and archaeological context of objects is not very decisive. The objects can be admired independently of the functions and origins. That they deprive others of objects made for definite functions or as records of events in a given context does not worry them greatly. They ignore the insistence of archaeologists that such removal of objects from their contexts deprive us of possibility of further knowledge.

“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.”

Again, arguments based on the availability of internet are not very serious in so far as internet is not available to many persons in the towns and villages from which the cultural objects were stolen or looted by Western States. Can Macintyre explain to people in Africa and elsewhere, how the presence of internet affects the absence of the objects they need for cultural activities and performances? How do you dance in a masquerade with a mask in the internet?

Does Macintyre really believe that “the internet enables every object in a public collection to be seen and appreciated anywhere on the planet.”? Somebody should inform him that not all the objects on public display are shown in the internet.

“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.”

Macintyre, like many opponents of restitution, deliberately overstates the arguments of the supporters of restitution. Nobody, including Zahi Hawass, has ever argued that “all cultural artefacts must stay in the country of discovery”. Many people argue that some significant objects. among the thousands of objects that were stolen, looted or otherwise illegitimately acquired in the heyday of Western imperialism, should be returned. Hawass has recently insisted on the fact that he is only asking for the Rosetta stone, the bust of Nefertiti and a few other objects that are significant for Egyptian culture and identity. He is not asking for the return of the 100.000 Egyptian objects in the British Museum nor the several thousands that are in the Berlin State Museums. The Benin Royal Family has appealed orally and in writing to Western museums and their governments to return some of the Benin Bronzes stolen in the nefarious British invasion of Benin in 1897. This appeal has fallen on the deaf ears of those who have the audacity to keep repeating that there has been no such request. (7) But Macintyre and other Western writers keep on giving the impression that those seeking restitution seek to empty Western museums. They know this is not true but do they really care for the truth? They talk about sharing the rich cultural heritage of the world but keep quite on the astonishing imbalance that exists and the fact that most objects are lying in depots of Western museums, unused and undisplayed. Are they worried by the fact that the best of the arts of most African countries are to be found in Western museums? The best places for seeing African arts are Berlin, London, Lisbon, New York and Paris and not Abidjan, Accra, Bamako, Lagos, Luanda or Yaoundé. Have many thought of the implications of this situation for the development of the cultures of those countries?

Macintyre refers to the system of “partage” and suggests it should be “universalised”. It is the system which allowed directly or indirectly the departure of many cultural objects such as the bust of Nefertiti and other objects to the West. It undoubtedly enabled the former colonial powers to deprive others of their cultural objects. The system was rejected by many States when they regained their independence. I wonder if Macintyre has read the writings of those who support that system. They indirectly or directly point to the unfair nature of that system. (8)

“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”.

What should we make of the above statement? Macintyre tries to turn an Egyptian cultural object into an international object because of the usage of its name in Western languages. Current Western popular linguistic usage surely cannot displace facts of Egyptian history and culture. (9)

Western writers should move away from defending the unjustified colonialist and imperialist looting of the cultural objects of peoples they disrespected and sometimes even considered as people without culture whilst at the same time stealing their cultural objects. The past generations of colonialists and imperialists may have acted according to their own beliefs and standards but what are the justifications of our Western contemporaries who defend the murderous and nefarious colonial past of slavery and oppression by insisting that the looted objects are best kept in the former colonial capitals? Do they need to add insults to injuries? In many ways, the present upholders of colonial and imperialist loot are worse than the original looters and their assistants. Whereas the latter may have acted under pressure, the former are acting in leisure.

Kwame Opoku, 1 January, 2010.


(1) “It’s time to gracefully relinquish the Rosetta Stone”, http://www.independent.co.uk


2. http://www.timesonline.com See also comments on a similar article by Ben Macintyre: Kwame Opoku, “Tickets for all to the “Universal Museums” but without the Africans?”

3. K. Opoku, “Is ICOM becoming an instrument of the so-called universal museums? Comments on statement by the Director-General of ICOM that the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles should stay in the British Museum”. http://www.modernghana.com

4. K. Opoku, “Is nationalism such a dangerous phenomenon for culture and stolen/looted cultural property?” http://www.modernghana.com

5. See the links below for information on the Grand Egyptian Museum http://www.kenseamedia.com

6. K. Opoku, “When will everybody finally accept that the British Museum is a British institution? Comments on a lecture by Neil MacGregor.” http://www.modernghana.com

7. K. Opoku, “Formal demand for the return of Benin Bronzes: Will Western museums return some of the looted/stolen Benin artefacts?” http://www.modernghana.com

8. See the annex below.


James Cuno, a vehement supporter of the partage system who has called for a return to that system, has some very interesting remarks on partage in his book Who Owns Antiquity? (Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2008)

“The question then is: should the fate of the archaeological record-and of antiquities alienated from their archaeological context-remain under the jurisdiction of national governments? Is there an alternative? Yes. And it was once in place and encouraged the scientific excavation of the archaeological record and the preservation and sharing of ancient artifacts between local governments and international museums. It is called partage. Under that policy, foreign-led excavation teams provided the expertise and material means to lead excavations and in return were allowed to share the finds with the local government’s archaeological museum. That is how the collections of archaeological museums at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard and Yale Universities were built; as well as important parts of the collections of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was also how the collections in archaeological museums in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey were built. Foreign museums underwrote and led scientific excavations from which both the international archaeological and local political communities benefited. While local tensions increased over time as nationalist aspirations took hold, partage served both communities well. It was only with the flood of nationalist retentionist cultural property laws in the second half of the twentieth century that partage all but disappeared. The collections of the university museums mentioned above now could not be built, and the directors and faculty curators of those museums, many of whom are the loudest proponents of national retentionist patrimony/cultural property laws,.could not teach and research as they do now. Much of their work is dependent on a policy no longer legal in the countries with jurisdiction over the archaeological materials they study.” pxxxiii (Preface).

Cuno writes further as follows:
“For many decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archaeological finds were shared between the excavating party and the local,host country through partage.

This is how the great Ghandaran collection got to the Musée Guimet in Paris (shared with Afghanistan), the Assyrian collection got to the British Museum in London (shared with Iraq, before the formation of the modern, independent government of Iraq), the Lydian materials from Sardis got to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (shared with the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey), the Egyptian collection got to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a number of collections got to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and of course how the great collections were formed at the university archaeological museums, like the Peabody Museums at Harvard and Yale, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, and the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania.” But this principle is no longer in practice. With the surge in nationalism in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it has become almost impossible to share the archaeological finds. All such finds belong to the host nation and are its property. Only the state can authorize the removal of an archaeological artifact to another country, and it almost never does. Even when one lends antiquities abroad, it is for severely restricted periods of time.” p.14

Further in his book Cuno writes:
“The history of archaeology in Iraq has always been closely linked to the cultural and political ambitions of its governing authorities. During the late Ottoman period, Iraqi archaeology was dominated by teams of Europeans and North American excavators working on pre-Islamic sites at Babylon, Khorsabad, and Nippur. They had been drawn to the area intent on confirming the historical existence of Biblical events and places and with the view that the ancient history of what they called Mesopotamia was in fact part of the West’s subsequent Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian history. The term Mesopotamia itself was a classical Greek term used by Westerners to mark the lands known locally since the advent of Islam as al-‘Iraq in the north and al-Jazira in the south. Its use by Orientalists has been interpreted politically as a “reconstructive act severing ‘Mesopotamia’ from any geographical terrain in order to weave it into the Western historical narrative”: Mesopotamia as a pre-Islamic source for Western culture; Iraq as an Islamic, geographically determined – and thus limited – construction.

Under the British Mandate, from 1921 to 1932, archaeology in Iraq was dominated by British teams – including the British Museum working with the University of Pennsylvania at Ur, the fabled home not only of Sumerian kings but also the Biblical Abraham – regulated by British authorities. The Oxford-educated, English woman Gertrude Bell, who had worked for the British Intelligence in the Arab Bureau in Cairo, was appointed honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq by the British-installed King Faysal in 1922. A most able administrator, having served as the Oriental secretary to the High Commission in Iraq after the war, Bell was responsible for approving applications for archaeologists, and thus for determining where in Iraq excavators would work. She was also a major force behind the wording and passage of the 1924 law regulating excavations in Iraq, a result of which was the founding of the Iraq Museum and the legitimization of partage:

Article 22: At the close of excavations, the Director shall chose such objectsfrom among those found as are in his opinion needed for scientific completeness of the Iraq Museum. After separating these objects, the Director will assign [to the excavator]… such objects as will reward him adequately aiming as far as possible at giving such a person a representative share of the whole result of excavations made by him.

Article 24: Any antiquities received by a person as his share of the proceeds of excavations under the preceding article may be exported by him and he shall be given an export permit free of charge in respect thereof”. (Cuno, pp. 54-55).

After reading these extracts from Cuno’s book, one wonders how he could even think of recommending such a system to African and Asian countries, Greece and Italy. By his own account, the system of partage was dominated by the British and the Americans who determined where excavated cultural objects should be. So why should those countries which have experienced this system want to return to it? Cuno even urges Western archaeologists to boycott “source countries” that refuse to return to the partage system. This is very interesting. If the partage system was beneficial to both sides as Cuno tries to make it appear, why is it necessary to resort to threats of boycott to persuade those countries to continue with the old system? Surely, these countries must recognize where their interests lie. Cuno thinks one must threaten them to follow the path which is clearly in their interest! Macintyre and those who suggest that we return to the partage system should seriously ask themselves why the system came to an end with the independence of the so-called source countries.

(9) Readers may wish to visit http://www.blogcatalog.com/blog/elginism for an interesting article on attempts by a private Western commercial enterprise, the language teaching company, Rosetta Stone, to claim ownership and exclusive use of the designation “Rosetta Stone”.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

Tags: , , , , , ,

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away