December 02, 2022
Buried in the back of the front section of today’s local newspaper I found an article about a request to have the Rosetta Stone returned to Egypt. The debate over who owns ancient artifacts has been an increasing challenge to museums across Europe and America. It has grown increasingly common for museums and collectors to return artifacts to their country of origin. This is often the result of a court ruling but, in some cases, it is voluntary and serves as an act of atonement for past wrongs. Nicholas Donnell, an attorney specializing in cases concerning art and artifacts, said no common international legal framework exists for such disputes. Unless there is clear evidence an artifact was acquired illegally, repatriation is largely at the discretion of the museum. As Britain’s largest museum celebrates the 200-year anniversary of the decipherment of hieroglyphics, all eyes have turned to the question of the ownership of the Rosetta Stone.
When I looked online, I found the Rosetta Stone is a stele composed of granodiorite inscribed with three versions of a decree issued in Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BCE. This was during the Ptolemaic dynasty and on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. The Rosetta Stone is 3 feet 8 inches (1,123 mm) high at its highest point, 2 feet 5.8 inches (757 mm) wide, 11 inches (284 mm) thick, and weighs 1,680 pounds (760 kg). The front surface is polished, and the inscriptions are lightly incised on it. The sides of the stone are smoothed, but the back is roughly worked, suggesting it would have not been visible when the stone was erected. The stella bears three inscriptions: the top register in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the second in the Egyptian Demotic script, and the third in Ancient Greek. The decree has only minor differences between the three versions, making the Rosetta Stone the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The stone was believed to have originally been displayed within a temple and was probably moved during the Mamluk period (13th or 14th centuries CE) and eventually used as building material in construction of Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (Rosetta in French) in the Nile Delta. It was found in July 1799 by French officer Pierre-François Bouchard during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt. When the British defeated the French, they took the stone to London under the Capitulation of Alexandria treaty in 1801. In a statement, the British Museum said the 1801 treaty includes the signature of a representative of Egypt, referring 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 stele has been on public display at the British Museum since 1802.
THOUGHTS: The Rosetta Stone was the first Ancient Egyptian bilingual text recovered in modern times, and it aroused widespread public interest with its potential to decipher the hieroglyphic script. Since its discovery, three other copies of the same decree have been located, the Nubayrah Stele (limestone), the Elephantine Stele, and the Philae obelisk. All three remain in Egypt. The article suggested the reason for not repatriating the Rosetta is the vast popularity and tourist dollars it brings to the Museum. This is also behind the reason for bringing it home. Egypt’s antiquities along the Nile act as a tourist magnet that netted US$13 billion in 2021, a pandemic year. The fact the stone was discovered in Egypt and removed as the result of war might also have something to do with the request. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.