CAIRO — The debate over who owns ancient artifacts is an increasing challenge for museums across Europe and America, and the spotlight has fallen on the most visited piece in the British Museum: The Rosetta Stone.
The inscriptions on the dark gray granite slab became the groundbreaking breakthrough in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics after it was taken from Egypt in 1801 by British Empire troops.
As Britain’s largest museum celebrates the 200th anniversary of the decipherment of hieroglyphics, thousands of Egyptians are demanding the stone’s return.
“The possession of the stone by the British Museum is a symbol of Western cultural violence against Egypt,” said Monica Hanna, dean of the Arab Academy of Science, Technology. & Maritime Transport, and organizer of one of two petitions calling for the return of the stone.
The acquisition of the Rosetta Stone was involved in the Imperial battles between Britain and France. After the military occupation of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte, French scientists discovered the stone in 1799 in the northern city of Rashid, known to the French as Rosetta. When British forces defeated the French in Egypt, the stone and more than a dozen other antiquities were turned over to the British under the terms of an 1801 surrender agreement between the generals of the two sides.
It has been in the British Museum ever since.
Hanna’s petition, with 4,200 signatures, says the stone was seized illegally and constitutes “spoils of war”. The claim is echoed in an almost identical petition from Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former antiquities minister, which has more than 100,000 signatures. Hawass argues that Egypt had no say in the 1801 agreement.
The British Museum denies this. In a statement, the museum said the 1801 treaty contains 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 has not filed a request for its return. It added that there are 28 known copies of the same engraved decree and that 21 remain in Egypt.
The claim about the original stone copy stems from its unparalleled significance to Egyptology. Carved in the 2nd century BC, the slab contains three translations of a decree regarding a settlement between the then-ruling Ptolemies and a sect of Egyptian priests. The first inscription is in classical hieroglyphs, the next is in a simplified hieroglyphic script known as Demotic, and the third is in Ancient Greek.
Knowledge of the latter allowed academics to decipher the hieroglyphic symbols, with French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion finally cracking the language in 1822.
“Scholars of the last 18th century were looking for a bilingual text in a known language,” said Ilona Regulski, head of Egyptian Written Culture at the British Museum. Regulski is the chief curator of the museum’s winter exhibit, “Hieroglyphs Unlocking Ancient Egypt,” celebrating the 200th anniversary of Champollion’s breakthrough.
The stone is one of more than 100,000 Egyptian and Sudanese relics housed in the British Museum. A large percentage was obtained during British colonial rule of the region from 1883 to 1953.
It has become increasingly common for museums and collectors to return artifacts to their countries of origin, with new cases appearing almost monthly. Often it is the result of a court order, 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 found they had been illegally traded. On Monday, London’s Horniman Museum signed more than 72 objects, including 12 Benin Bronzes, to Nigeria at the government’s request.
Nicholas Donnell, a Boston-based attorney specializing 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 obtained illegally, repatriation is largely at the discretion of the museum.
“Given the treaty and time frame, the Rosetta Stone is a hard legal battle to win,” Donnell said.
The British Museum has acknowledged that there have been several repatriation requests for artifacts from different countries, but has not provided The Associated Press with details of their status or number. Nor has it confirmed whether it has ever repatriated any artifact from its collection.
For Nigel Hetherington, an archaeologist and CEO of the online academic forum Past Preserves, the museum’s lack of transparency suggests other motives.
“It’s about money, maintaining relevance and the fear that when people return certain items, people won’t come back,” he said.
Western museums have long pointed to superior facilities and bigger crowd pleasers to justify their holdings of world treasures. Amid turmoil following the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Egypt saw an increase in artifact smuggling, which 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 the Egyptian Museum in Cairo had damaged Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb mask by attempting to reattach the beard with superglue.
But the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has since invested heavily in the antiquities. Egypt has successfully recovered thousands of internationally smuggled artifacts and plans to open a newly built, state-of-the-art museum that will house tens of thousands of objects. The Grand Egyptian Museum has been under construction for more than a decade and its opening has been repeatedly delayed.
Egypt’s abundance of ancient monuments, from the pyramids of Giza to the towering statues of Abu Simbel on the Sudanese border, are the magnet for a $13 billion tourism industry by 2021.
For Hanna, the right of Egyptians to access their own history must remain the priority. “How many Egyptians can travel to London or New York?” she said.
Egyptian authorities did not respond to a request for comment about Egypt’s policy on the Rosetta Stone or other Egyptian artifacts exhibited abroad. Hawass and Hanna said they have no hope for the government to secure the return.
“The Rosetta Stone is the icon of Egyptian identity,” Hawass said. “I will use the media and the intellectuals to tell the (British) museum that they have no right.”