December 26, 2009

Where would the Rosetta Stone go to if it was returned?

Posted at 3:41 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

If the British Museum did relinquish ownership of the Rosetta Stone, some parties claim that there are still reasons why it would not necessarily return to Egypt as other countries also potentially have claims of ownership on the artefact.

The Times Blogs

December 11, 2009
Should the Rosetta Stone go back….where?

What is the best selling post-card in the British Museum?

The last time I inquired — admittedly more than a decade ago, but was told that it was the permanent “number one” — it was a rather dreary image of the Rosetta Stone. That outsold its major rivals by several thousand. If you are interested, the main post-card rivals were: various views of the Museum itself, the (also Egyptian) bronze “Gayer Egypt Anderson” cat (displayed on the card plus or minus a real live tabby cat) and an original drawing of Beatrix Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies.

There is no doubt that the Rosetta Stone (seen a few years back above) is a major icon of the British Museum — and in fact, its post-card celebrity is backed up by its presence on best selling umbrellas, duvet covers and mouse mats (remember them?), all especially popular, I am told, in Japan.

I was once very puzzled about all this. After all, it is a rather uninspiring lump of black basalt, inscribed at the beginning of the second century BCE, recording an agreement between the Greek king of Egypt and a group of Egyptian priests, concerned among other things with tax breaks for the said priests. It came to London, as spolls of war in the early nineteenth century, captured from the French.

So why so charismatic?

Presumably because it was the key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphs, as the inscription was trilingual — in hieroglyphs, Greek and Egyptian demotic. Whether you think that the key work was done by Thomas Young (British) or Jean-Francois Champollion (French) depends partly on your national prejudice.

And now, again, Zahi Hawass (Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt) wants it “back”? Does he have a point?

In my view, no — not at all. And I am not just talking here about the British Museum’s claims to be a centre of world culture, symbolically at least owned by the whole world (the current Director is very fluent and convincing on this subject). On this Egyptian issue I feel a bit more jingoistic than usual.

For a start, lets be honest, if this boring lump of basalt has become an icon, it was because of the linguistic work or either a Brit or a Frenchman. It wasn’t born an icon, it became an icon by a lot of hard academic grind (with huge “impact” if we are going to talk Hefce talk). At that time, the state of Egypt did not exist and “Egyptians had nothing to do with its decipherment. Sad but true.

If it should go back anywhere, it should be to France (as it seems pretty clear to me that, national prejudices apart, Champollion was the key figure here).

But more that I find myself suffering from an increasingly severe allergy to Zawi Hawass. he might once have been a good archaeologist, but he has become a nationalist media showman (complete with mad theories about famous ancient Egyptian graves, and a tv crew, plus a book signing, at his back). He appears to have a checklist of some icons he wants ‘back’ to Egypt — as if they has been stolen.

I remember him on the Today programme a few years ago in discussion with some female descendant of Howard Carter (excavator of Tutankhamun). He was in full flow complaining about how the Brits has ripped everything off, when she politely pointed out that actually the whole Tut treasure had been left in Egypt (which did then exist).

Today, you can go an visit his fiefdom in the Antiquities Service of Egypt. It is truly amazing stuff ad no one is remotely suggesting removing it. But an awful lot in the marvellous Egyptian museum in Cairo is in a truly dreadful conservation stae (take a look at the Fayum portraits disintegrating there.). Now the truth is that in a global culture, we should all be paying to preserve this material for all of us, the world over, for the next few centuries. But that can only happen if Hawass stops making a media splash by demanding the Rosetta Stone and stops ignoring the much more exciting treasures crumbling on his watch.

If you want a good introduction to the Stone, can I recommend a book by John Ray in my edited Wonders series, available from your local bookshop or online from Blackwells/Heffers.

Modern Ghana

Angry Egypt demands Britain returns Rosetta Stone
Africa | Fri, 11 Dec 2009

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.


Egypt to ask British Museum for Rosetta Stone
Mon Dec 14, 2009 4:15pm GMT
By Harpreet Bhal

LONDON (Reuters Life!) – The head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities said he plans to ask the British Museum to hand the Rosetta Stone over to his country.

The ancient stone was the key to deciphering hieroglyphs on the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs and is one of six ancient relics that Egypt’s chief archaeologist Zahi Hawass said his country wants to recover from museums around the world.

“I did not write yet to the British Museum but I will. I will tell them that we need the Rosetta Stone to come back to Egypt for good,” Hawass told Reuters this weekend.

“The British Museum has hundreds of thousands of artifacts in the basement and as exhibits. I am only needing one piece to come back, the Rosetta Stone. It is an icon of our Egyptian identity and its homeland should be Egypt.”

The 3-1/2 foot high Rosetta Stone was unearthed by Napoleon’s army in 1799 and dates back to 196 BC. It became British property after Napoleon’s defeat under the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria.

Hawass, whose flamboyant style and trademark hat have led some to liken him to film character Indiana Jones, has in the past said he wanted to acquire the stone for Egypt and now wants to go about it through official channels.

His wish list for relics also includes the bust of Nefertiti from Berlin’s Neues Museum, a statue of Great Pyramid architect Hemiunu from the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, the Dendera Temple Zodiac from the Louvre in Paris, Ankhaf’s bust from Boston’s Museum of Fine Art and a statue of Rameses II from the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy.

The Rosetta Stone, which has inscriptions in hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek, has been housed at the British Museum since 1802 and forms the centerpiece of the museum’s Egyptian collection, attracting millions of visitors each year.

Hawass had previously asked to borrow the stone for the opening of a new museum in Giza, near Cairo in 2012, but said he would no longer settle for just a loan.

The British Museum said in a statement that its collection should remain as a whole to fulfill the museum’s purpose, and it would consider the request for a loan to Egypt in due course.

David Gill, reader in Mediterranean archaeology at Swansea University, said the British Museum would be cautious about handling the request as it could lead to increased pressure over other items in its collection, such as the Parthenon marbles.

“The whole issue for the British Museum is if they say we’re going to give you back the Rosetta Stone, it sets a precedent,” he said. “They’re worried that countries like Italy, Greece and Turkey are going to demand large numbers of objects back.”

Masako Muro, a 34-year-old tourist in London from Japan, said she felt that the Rosetta Stone should remain in London, at least for the benefit of visitors.

“It is easy to travel here especially for tourists compared to traveling to Egypt. And that makes it open to everybody,” she said.

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