Now, as Britain’s biggest museum celebrates the 200th anniversary of deciphering hieroglyphics, thousands of Egyptians are demanding the stone be returned.
“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 and Maritime Transport and organizer of the one of two petitions asking for the return of the stone.
The acquisition of the Rosetta Stone was linked to the imperial battles between Britain and France. After 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 more than a dozen other antiquities were turned over to the British under an 1801 surrender agreement between generals from both sides.
It has remained in the British Museum ever since.
Hanna’s petition, with 4,200 signatures, says the stone was seized illegally and is “spoils of war”. This claim is echoed in an almost identical petition by Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former Minister of Antiquities Affairs, which has over 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 of 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 claim for restitution. He added that there are 28 known copies of the same engraved decree and 21 of them remain in Egypt.
The controversy over the original stone copy stems from its unparalleled importance to Egyptology. Carved in the 2nd century BC. AD, the slab contains three translations of a decree relating to a settlement between the Ptolemies then in power 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.
Thanks to the knowledge of the latter, scholars were able to decipher the hieroglyphic symbols, with the French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion having finally deciphered the language in 1822.
“Scholars of the previous 18th century had longed to find a bilingual text written in a known language,” said Ilona Regulski, head of Egyptian written culture at the British Museum. Regulski is the lead 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 over the region from 1883 to 1953.
It has become increasingly common for museums and collectors to send artifacts back 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, symbolizing an act of atonement for historic wrongs.
The Metropolitan Museum in New York returned 16 antiquities to Egypt in September after a US investigation concluded they had been illegally trafficked. On Monday, the Horniman Museum in London transferred more than 72 objects, including 12 Beninese bronzes, to Nigeria following a request from its government.
Nicholas Donnell, a Boston-based attorney who specializes in cases involving art and artifacts, 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 discretion of the museum.
“Given the treaty and the timeline, the Rosetta Stone is a tough legal battle to win,” Donnell said.
The British Museum acknowledged that it had received several repatriation requests from various countries for artefacts, but it did not provide The Associated Press with any details of their status or number. He also did not confirm if he had ever repatriated an artifact from his collection.
For Nigel Hetherington, 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 fear that by returning certain items people will stop coming,” he said.
Western museums have long touted higher quality facilities and higher visitor numbers to justify their holdings of world treasures. Amid the unrest following the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has seen an increase in the smuggling of artifacts, which cost the country an estimated $3 billion between 2011 and 2013, according to the United States-based Antiquities Coalition. In 2015, cleaners at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo were found to have damaged Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s burial mask while attempting to reattach the beard with super glue.
But the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has since invested heavily in its antiquities. Egypt has successfully recovered thousands of internationally smuggled artifacts and plans to open a new state-of-the-art museum where tens of thousands of items can be kept. The Grand Egyptian Museum has been under construction for more than a decade and its opening has been repeatedly delayed.
Egypt’s plethora of ancient monuments, from the pyramids of Giza to the towering statues of Abu Simbel on the Sudanese border, attract a tourism industry that brought in $13 billion in 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 says.
Egyptian authorities did not respond to a request for comment regarding Egypt’s policy regarding the Rosetta Stone or other Egyptian artifacts on display abroad. Hawass and Hanna said they put no hopes on the government to secure his return.
“The Rosetta Stone is the icon of Egyptian identity,” Hawass said. “I will use the media and intellectuals to tell the (UK) museum they have no rights.”