Rosetta Stone to star in British Museum exhibition about the mysteries of ancient Egypt

The event in London comes amid pressure from some Egyptologists to hand the stone back to Cairo

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The Rosetta Stone will star in an exhibition opening on Thursday at the British Museum in London to mark one of the most significant dates in Egyptology — 200 years after a French scholar cracked its code and deciphered ancient hieroglyphs.

The exhibition comes as the British Museum faces pressure from some Egyptologists to hand the Rosetta Stone back to Cairo at a time when UK institutions are beginning to return to other countries artefacts looted during the colonial era.

Once regarded as magical symbols unrelated to spoken language, Egyptian hieroglyphs were shrouded in mystery for centuries until philologist Jean-Francois Champollion revealed their meaning in 1822.

French troops discovered the stone in the walls of an Egyptian fort in 1799 and gave it to British forces as part of a surrender agreement. The British Museum has displayed it since 1802.

The basalt slab dating from 196 BC was crucial because it has inscriptions of identical meaning in three languages: hieroglyphs, an ancient Egyptian vernacular script called Demotic and Ancient Greek, which provided the translation key.

"We decided because the Rosetta Stone was such an important key to that decipherment that we will do this properly: with an exhibition that also features our star objects," said Ilona Regulski, curator of Egyptian written culture at the museum.

"It's a wonderful moment to celebrate."

A British Museum member of staff poses next to the Rosetta Stone during a photocall for the coming Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt exhibition in London on Thursday. EPA

However, the anniversary exhibition is controversial to some.

Egyptian archaeologist and former antiquities minister Zahi Hawass recently released a petition for the return of the stone and other foreign-held treasures he considers "stolen".

The British Museum told AFP that Egypt has never made a formal request for the Rosetta Stone's return.

'Muddied legacy'

Ms Regulski said it was a "universal object" and "it doesn't really matter where it is, as long as it's available to people".

Activists from a group called Culture Unstained protested in the museum on Tuesday, calling for Cairo to release political prisoners including British activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, and criticising sponsorship by oil giant BP.

The exhibition, Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt tracks the characters' fall into obscurity after Egyptians switched to other scripts.

It explores the rich discoveries about life in ancient Egypt that came from unlocking the symbols.

"For the first time in 3,000 years, ancient Egyptians spoke directly to us," said Hartwig Fischer, the museum's director.

The exhibition does acknowledge attempts by non-Europeans to grasp the symbols but focuses on the race between Western scholars to crack the code.

"Our travellers ... went to Egypt and were amazed by all these intriguing picture-like signs on the temple walls," Ms Regulski said.

This led to their "interpretation as magical signs, as secret knowledge, the idea that if you would be able to decipher hieroglyphs, you will understand the meaning of everything".

Champollion was the first to fully grasp the logic of hieroglyphs, outdoing an English rival, Thomas Young, who was in correspondence with him.

The exhibition suggests the French scholar has a "muddied legacy", however, and "often relied on the work of others", including Mr Young.

It also depicts the more bizarre side of Egyptology including special events where enthusiasts unwrapped a mummified body and took lengths of bandages home as souvenirs.

Updated: October 12, 2022, 6:38 AM