December 26, 2009

The Rosetta Stone – Should the UK return it to Egypt?

Posted at 3:25 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Zahi Hawass’s comments about the Rosetta Stone have provoked a lot of discussion in the UK – but as yet, no signs of any actual progress towards resolving the issue.

The Independent

The Big Question: What is the Rosetta Stone, and should Britain return it to Egypt?
By Cahal Milmo, Chief Reporter
Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Why are we asking this now?

Dr Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the high priest of all matters archaeological in the Land of the Pharaohs, arrived in London yesterday to further his demand for the return of the Rosetta Stone from the display rooms of the British Museum, where it has been on show since 1802. Dr Hawass has embarked on an international campaign to secure the return of a host of renowned artefacts which he claims were plundered by colonial oppressors and assorted brigands from Egypt’s ancient tombs and palaces before ending up in some of the world’s most famous museums.

What is so important about a 2,200-year-old slab of granite?

Carved in 196BC, the Rosetta Stone is the linguistic key to deciphering hieroglyphics and probably the single-most important conduit of understanding between the modern world and ancient Egypt. The 1.1m-high stele was covered in carved text bearing three translations of the same written passage. Two of the languages were Egyptian scripts, including one in hieroglyphics, and the remaining text was classical Greek.

Its discovery by a French army engineer in 1799 near the post of Rashid or Rosetta allowed western scholars to translate for the first time a succession of previously undecipherable hieroglyphs using the Greek translation and thus unlock many of the secrets left behind in the myriad carvings and frescos of the pharaonic era. Ironically, the meaning of the text on the stone itself was less than rivetting – it describes the repeal of various taxes by Ptolemy V and instructions on the erection of statues in temples.

What’s Dr Hawass’s case for returning the Stone?

As with the Greeks and the Elgin Marbles, he considers the stele to be stolen goods and has made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that he considers its continued presence in the British Museum to be a source of shame for the United Kingdom. Speaking in 2003, when his campaign began, Dr Hawass said: “If the British want to be remembered, if they want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity.” The archaeologist, who has established a fearsome reputation as the self-appointed guardian of Egypt’s antiquities since he was made head of the SCA in 2002, claimed this week that Britain had under-valued the stone and kept it in a “dark, badly-lit room” until he expressed an interest in its repatriation.

So was it stolen?

The Rosetta Stone’s journey from the sands of an 18th-century desert fort to the hushed halls of the British Museum is indeed clouded by colonial skulduggery. The stone was discovered in July 1799 by Captain Pierre-Francois Bouchard, an engineer in Napoleon’s army sent to conquer Egypt a year earlier. The arrival of the British in 1801 and their subsequent defeat of Napoleon’s forces led to a dispute between the team of French scientists sent by Paris to collect archaeological finds and the commander of Britain’s occupying army, who insisted they be handed over as the spoils of victory. General Jacques-Francois Menou, the French commander, considered the stone to be his private property and hid it.

There are conflicting stories about how it then fell into British hands. One version is that it was seized by a British colonel who carried it away on a gun carriage. Another version is that a British Egyptologist, Edward Clarke, was passed the stone in a Cairo back street by a French counterpart. Either way, there is little or no record of any consultation with the Egyptians. When the stone eventually arrived back in Britain, it bore an inscription painted in white: “Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801.”

Why is Dr Hawass so important?

Described by New Yorker magazine as sitting “at the intersection of archaeology, showbusiness and national politics”, Dr Hawass is no shrinking violet when it comes to publicising his causes. Clad in his trademark stetson, widely interpreted as a nod to the wardrobe of Indiana Jones, the doctor regularly takes to the airwaves, newspaper columns and cyberspace to outline the latest discoveries in Egypt and maximise the mystique of a past that is worth at least $11bn (£6.7bn) a year to the Egyptian economy. He also likes to batter home his point that “for all of our history our heritage was stolen from us”. To date, he has appeared in four feature-length documentaries, written 16 books and likes to tease Omar Sharif, a close friend, that he is the far better known of the two men.

What do other archaeologists think of him?

For a man who makes no secret of relishing controversy, it is unsurprising that he has some detractors. Critics accuse Dr Hawass of being autocratic and harnessing serious archaeology to the yoke of media and popular entertainment. Under his leadership, the SCA has acquired a fearsome reputation for withdrawing accreditation from foreign Egyptologists accused of breaking the organisation’s rules, effectively banishing them from making further discoveries. But there is also grudging respect for his efforts to improve the standards of homegrown archaeologists, invest in Egyptian museums and generally gain a greater share of Egypt’s past for its own people.

What else does Egypt want back?

Dr Hawass insists he is not looking for the repatriation of every artefact, but his shopping list includes some of the most famous items of Egyptian art held abroad. They include the elegant bust of Queen Nefertiti held by Berlin’s Neues Museum, the Dendera Temple Zodiac in the Louvre and a bust of the pyramid builder Ankhaf kept in Boston’s Museum of Art.

Are there any precedents for returning artefacts to Cairo?

Dr Hawass claims to have secured the return of some 5,000 artefacts during his SCA tenure. His power was underlined in October when, under threat of the removal of Egyptian co-operation for archaeological expeditions, the Louvre agreed under the direct orders of the French culture minister to return some fragments of written text which were allegedly stolen in the 1980s.

What does the British Museum say?

After decades of diplomatic manoeuvring over disputed items such as the Elgin Marbles, the museum is well-practiced in the art of fending off requests for its most glittering treasures. Underlining its role as a global repository for humanity’s cultural achievements, it said: “The Trustees feel strongly that the collection must remain as a whole.” Officials also wasted no time in pointing out that Dr Hawass’s presence in London, which included a speech to an invited audience at the museum last night, is largely to publicise his latest book.

Is it time we surrendered the Stone?


* British ownership of the stone is the result of a colonial dispute, not a deal with the Egyptians

* Egypt has invested £110m on improving its museums and heritage sites

* 200 years of mismanagement and plundering has left Egypt denuded of its most important artefacts


* The British Museum is a global showcase for two million years of shared human history

* Concern remains that priceless artefacts are at risk of damage in Egyptian museums

* Returning it would open the flood gates to similar claims that would empty the BM’s display cases

Agence France Presse

Angry Egypt demands Britain returns Rosetta Stone
(AFP) – 2 hours ago

LONDON — A top Egyptian official pressed Britain Wednesday to return an ancient stone tablet seen as an icon of his country and denied his countrymen were “pirates of the Caribbean” seeking to steal it back.

Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt?s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said he had changed his mind after requesting a temporary loan of the Rosetta Stone from London’s British Museum due to their allegedly prickly attitude.

He now just wants the stone — a basalt slab seen as key to deciphering hieroglyphics — back for good.

“When I said… I want to have it on a short-term loan, the British Museum wrote a letter to say that (they) need to know the security of (the) museum that will host,” the stone in Egypt, the archaeologist told BBC radio.

He did not like the tone of the museum’s letter, he said, adding: “Even some people in the press began to say: ‘If the British Museum will give the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, maybe Egyptians will not return it back.’

“We are not the pirates of the Caribbean. We are a civilised country. If I… sign a contract with the British Museum, (we) will return it,” Hawass added.

“Therefore we decided not to host the Rosetta Stone, but to ask for the Rosetta Stone to come back for good to Egypt, because it’s a part of the icon of the Egyptian identity.”

The stone, which dates back to 196 BC, was discovered in Egypt by French forces in 1799 and given to the British under a treaty two years later.

Its discovery led to a breakthrough in deciphering hieroglyphics, since it includes the same text in the ancient Egyptian script plus two other languages, including ancient Greek, for comparison.

Roy Clare, head of Britain’s Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, said the stone must stay in London.

“This icon is an icon globally. What happens to an object is it inherits additional culture through its acquisition,” he said, adding that through scholarship it “becomes important in relation to other cultural iconography.”

He reiterated that the British Museum could be willing to loan the Rosetta Stone to Egypt on a temporary basis.

“If Dr. Hawass were to at some point request a loan, the trustees would clearly consider it. But it would be helpful not to have this in the climate of debate about recovery” of the stone on a permanent basis by Egypt, he said.

The British Museum in also home to the Elgin Marbles, removed from Greece at the start of the 18th century, which have long been the subject of dispute between London and Athens.

Daily Mail

‘Indiana Jones’ of Egyptian archaeology demands Rosetta Stone from British Museum
By Fiona Macrae
Last updated at 10:01 AM on 10th December 2009

His flamboyant and confrontational style has already secured the return of some 5,000 treasures.

Now, Zahi Hawass, the ‘Indiana Jones’ of Egyptian archaeology, has his sights set on the most glittering prize of all – the Rosetta Stone.

Dr Hawass has demanded that Britain return the 2,200-year-old stone tablet to its homeland.

Arriving in Britain to publicise his quest, he declared that a loan would not be good enough. Instead, the Rosetta Stone, which has resided in the British Museum since 1802, must be handed over on a permanent basis.

The Museum, however, is standing its ground, declaring its collections should not be broken up and it is the legal owner of the stone.

The stone, which dates back to 196BC, was discovered in Egypt by Napoleon’s French forces in 1799 and seized from them by the British two years alter.

Its value lies in its inscriptions, which in three different languages – Ancient Greek, heirogylphic and Demotic, an ancient Egyptian script – provided scholars with the key to deciphering ancient hieroglyphs and unlocking many of the secrets of the pharaohs.

Responding to suggestions that Egypt would be tempted to return the treasure if given it on loan, he said: ‘We are not the Pirates of the Caribbean.

‘We are a civilised country. If I sign a contract with the British museum, (we) will return it.’

He has also accused the British Museum of not looking after the treasure properly, saying: ‘They kept it in a dark, baldy lit room until I came and requested it. Suddenly, it became important to them.’

The Museum, however, is well-practised in fending off such requests.

It has long refused Greek treatise to return the Elgin Marbles to Athens, and has retained ownership of dozens of ‘Lewis Chessman’ – elaborately carved chess figures discovered on Scotland’s Outer Hebrides in the early 19th century despite calls for them to be returned to Scotland.

Roy Clare, head of the government-funded Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, said the stone must stay in London.

He told BBC Radio4’s Today programme: ‘This icon is an icon globally.

‘An object inherits additional culture through its acquisition.’

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1 Comment »

  1. George Crawford said,

    10.15.10 at 1:37 pm

    I believe that if egypt wants any artefacts back,that came from Egypt,it should be returned,from any where in the world, after all it was theres in the first place, how would we like it if someone stole artefacts from us.

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