The British Museum has come under fire as pressure mounts for it to return the Rosetta Stone, an ancient Egyptian (196 BC) granodiorite script, back to its home country. The iconic artefact is made up of small pictures originally used in ancient Egypt for religious texts and holds the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Egypt’s high-profile archaeologist and former antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, has announced a new campaign to bring the Rosetta Stone back to its homeland from the British Museum. Hawass said that the Rosetta Stone, along with the bust of Nefertiti (in Berlin's Neues Museum), and the Dendera Zodiac ceiling (in the Louvre) should be returned permanently to Egypt.
As the story goes, the Rosetta Stone was found in Memphis, Egypt in 1799 by a French military officer before being seized by British forces in Alexandria and shipped to England two years later. In 1802, the stele, which enabled hieroglyphs to be deciphered, was given to the British Museum. Since then, the stone has been on display at the museum, with only one break during the First World War, in 1917, when the museum moved important objects to prevent damage from heavy bombing in London.
The archaeologist said that he plans to launch a petition in collaboration with a group of Egyptian intellectuals, which he will begin to send to the three European museums holding Egyptian artefacts in October. 'I believe those three items are unique and their home should be in Egypt,' he told Middle Eastern newspaper The National.
This campaign from Egypt follows similar demands for historical objects to be repatriated from Western museums and back to their countries of origin, such as the Horniman Museum in south London announcing the return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria this month.
Will the British Museum surrender? It doesn't seem to be willing to let the Rosetta Stone go just yet. But if it does: it could mark an important precedent for the institution and all the other ancient artefacts it holds, many of which were 'collected' (or looted, depending on who you ask) from across the world during the eighteenth century.