The Rosetta Stone should return to Egypt

The number of stolen artefacts being repatriated is growing, and Egypt could be the next beneficiary

The ancient inscriptions of the Rosetta Stone. AFP
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A good museum helps bring the past to life. That mission is what makes the Parthenon Gallery in Greece's Acropolis Museum so famous. The almost 2,500-year-old sculptures it displays on the top floor are among the greatest achievements of world art. They wrap around the gallery in the same sequence that used to adorn the Parthenon, an ancient Greek temple that stands 900 feet away from the museum. They depict a festival in honour of the goddess Athena.

But they are incomplete. Half the sculptures are in Britain, something the room poignantly reminds visitors by filling vacant slots with bright white plaster replicas. They are absent because about 200 years ago British nobleman Lord Elgin hewed them from their original structure. The story that the Parthenon Gallery tells, therefore, is not just about the brilliance of the Ancient Greeks, but also the far newer controversy over the stealing of cultural heritage.

Just a few years before the marbles were taken, Egypt lost the Rosetta Stone, a crucial part of its heritage, in similar circumstances. It dates from 200 BC and contains a message written in hieroglyphic, with translations in Ancient Greek and demotic. This allowed scholars to finally read hieroglyphics.

Experts inspecting the Rosetta Stone during the Second International Congress of Orientalists, 1874. Wikimedia Commons

It was found in the the northern city of Rashid, or Rosetta, by French soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1801, it eventually ended up in British hands following France's defeat. It now sits in the British Museum.

Campaigns to get both back to their countries of origin seem to be gaining momentum in 2022. In Egypt's case, archaeologist Zahi Hawass, sometimes referred to as the "Egyptian Indiana Jones", is launching a new push.

Dr Hawass and his colleagues cite what appears to be changing public opinion in western countries that hold these pieces. In July, Germany handed over two Benin bronzes to Nigeria, as well as more than 1,000 items from its museums. The bronzes are some of the most famous examples of African art. At the signing of a restitution agreement, Nigeria's culture minister, Lai Mohammed, said the moment was "one of the most important days in the history of celebrating African heritage". In the UK, the Horniman Museum in London said it would return 72 objects to Nigeria that were looted in 1897.

It is indeed a great win for Nigeria. Hopefully Egypt gets a similar one.

For its part, the British Museum says it is approaching the situation by investing in making the Rosetta Stone as accessible as possible by publishing a 3D scan online, continuing to work with Egyptian experts and organising a new exhibition on the country's heritage.

Dr Hawass is not convinced. He says that even if he fails in his lifetime, his colleagues will carry on: “This is a case that you cannot stop.”

His determination reflects the drive of many campaigners across the globe. They do not operate in ancient tombs, but offices. Nonetheless, from Nigeria to Egypt, they are the modern-day Indiana Jones, and they are winning the argument.

Published: August 22, 2022, 3:00 AM
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