CAIRO — The debate over who owns ancient artifacts is posing an increasing challenge to museums across Europe and America, and the spotlight has been placed on the British Museum’s most-visited piece: the Rosetta Stone.
The inscriptions on the dark gray granite slab became a seminal breakthrough in the decoding of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs after they were conquered from Egypt by British Empire forces in 1801.
Thousands of Egyptians are demanding the stone’s return as Britain’s largest museum celebrates the 200th anniversary of the deciphering of the hieroglyphs.
“The possession of the stone in the British Museum is a symbol of Western cultural violence against Egypt,” said Monica Hanna, dean of the Arab Academy of Science and Technology & Maritime Transport and organizer of one of two petitions calling for the stone’s return.
The acquisition of the Rosetta Stone was linked to the imperial struggles between Britain and France. Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s military occupation of Egypt, French scientists discovered the stone in 1799 in the northern town of Rashid, known to the French as Rosetta. When British forces defeated the French in Egypt, the stone and over a dozen other antiquities were turned over to the British as part of an 1801 surrender agreement between the generals of both sides.
Since then it has been in the British Museum.
Hanna’s 4,200-signature petition says the stone was illegally confiscated and represents “spoils of war.” The claim is echoed in a nearly identical petition by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former antiquities minister, that has more than 100,000 signatures. Hawass argues that Egypt had no say in the 1801 agreement.
The British Museum refutes this. In a statement, the museum said the 1801 treaty includes the signature of a representative of Egypt. It refers to an Ottoman admiral who fought alongside the British against the French. The Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul was nominally the ruler of Egypt at the time of Napoleon’s invasion.
The museum also said the Egyptian government had not submitted a request for its return. It added that there are 28 known copies of the same engraved decree and 21 of them remain in Egypt.
The dispute over the original stone copy stems from its incomparable importance to Egyptology. In the 2nd century B.C. The slab carved in 300 BC contains three translations of a decree relating to a settlement between the then ruling Ptolemies and a sect of Egyptian priests. The first inscription is in Classical hieroglyphs, the next in a simplified hieroglyphic script known as Demotic, and the third in Ancient Greek.
Knowledge of the latter enabled academics to decipher the hieroglyphic symbols, with French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion eventually cracking the language in 1822.
“Scholars from the previous 18th century longed to find a bilingual text in a known language,” said Ilona Regulski, head of the Department of Egyptian Written Culture at the British Museum. Regulski is the senior curator of the museum’s winter exhibition, Hieroglyphs Unlocking Ancient Egypt, which celebrates the 200th anniversary of Champollion’s breakthrough.
The stone is one of more than 100,000 Egyptian and Sudanese relics held at the British Museum. A large percentage was preserved during British colonial rule over the region from 1883 to 1953.
It has become increasingly common for museums and collectors to return artifacts to their country of origin, with new cases being reported almost monthly. Often it is the result of a court decision, while some cases are voluntary and symbolize an act of atonement for historical wrongs.
New York’s Metropolitan Museum returned 16 antiquities to Egypt in September after a US investigation concluded they had been trafficked. On Monday, London’s Horniman Museum handed over 72 objects, including 12 Benin bronzes, to Nigeria at the request of its government.
Nicholas Donnell, a Boston-based attorney who specializes in art and artifacts cases, said there is no common international legal framework for such disputes. Unless there is clear evidence that an artifact was acquired illegally, repatriation is largely at the museum’s discretion.
“Given the contract and the timeline, the Rosetta Stone is a tough lawsuit to win,” Donnell said.
The British Museum has confirmed that it has received several requests for repatriation of artifacts from different countries, but has not provided The Associated Press with details of their status or number. It also did not confirm if it ever repatriated an artifact from its collection.
For Nigel Hetherington, an archaeologist and CEO of online academic forum Past Preserves, the museum’s lack of transparency suggests other motives.
“It’s about money, maintaining relevance, and the fear that if people return certain items, they’ll stop coming,” he said.
Western museums have long pointed to superior facilities and larger crowd pullers to justify their ownership of world treasures. Amid the turmoil following the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Egypt experienced a surge in artifact smuggling that cost the country an estimated $3 billion between 2011 and 2013, according to the US-based Antiquities Coalition. In 2015, it was discovered that cleaners at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum had damaged Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb mask by attempting to reattach the beard with superglue.
But President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s government has since invested heavily in its antiques. Egypt has successfully recovered thousands of internationally smuggled artifacts and plans to open a newly built, state-of-the-art museum capable of housing tens of thousands of objects. The Grand Egyptian Museum has been under construction for well over a decade and there have been repeated delays in its opening.
Egypt’s wealth of ancient monuments, from the pyramids of Giza to the towering statues of Abu Simbel on the Sudan border, are the magnet for a tourism industry that brought in $13 billion in 2021.
For Hanna, the Egyptians’ right to access their own history should come first. “How many Egyptians can travel to London or New York?” she said.
Egyptian authorities did not respond to a request for comment on Egyptian policy towards the Rosetta Stone or other Egyptian artifacts on display abroad. Hawass and Hanna said they have no hopes of the government to ensure their return.
“The Rosetta Stone is the symbol of Egyptian identity,” Hawass said. “I will use the media and the intellectuals to tell the (British) museum that they have no right.”