Leading Egyptian archaeologists have again called for the return of the British Museum’s Rosetta Stone to Egypt, 200 years after its decipherment unlocked the secrets of hieroglyphic writing and marked the birth of Egyptology.
The archaeologists’ online campaign has so far gathered 2,500 signatures and aims to “tell Egyptians what has been taken from them,” said Monica Hanna, acting dean of the College of Archeology in the Egyptian city of Aswan.
The Rosetta Stone dates from 196 BC and was unearthed by Napoleon’s army in northern Egypt in 1799. Following his defeat, it became British property under the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria, along with other antiquities found by the British. French, and was sent to the United Kingdom. Since 1802 it has been in the British Museum.
Inscribed with the same text in hieroglyphics, demotic, and ancient Greek, it was used by Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher hieroglyphics in 1822, opening up the understanding of ancient Egyptian language and culture.
Egyptian archaeologists have already called for their return, but they hope that increasing efforts by Western museums to return artifacts that were taken from countries under colonial rule will help their cause.
“I’m sure all these objects will eventually be returned because the museum’s code of ethics is changing, it’s just a matter of when,” Hanna said.
“The stone is a symbol of cultural violence, the stone is a symbol of cultural imperialism,” he added. “For this reason, relocating the stone is a symbol that things are changing: that we are no longer in the 19th century but that we work with a 21st century code of ethics.”
A British Museum spokesman said there had been no formal request from the Egyptian government for the return of the Rosetta Stone.
In an emailed statement, the spokesman said that 28 stelae engraved with the same decree written by Egyptian priests had been discovered, starting with the Rosetta Stone in 1799, and that 21 remain in Egypt.
On October 13, the museum opens an exhibition titled “Hieroglyphics: Discovering Ancient Egypt,” which sheds light on the role of the Rosetta Stone.
“The British Museum greatly values the positive collaborations with its colleagues across Egypt,” the statement added.
Egypt claims that the return of the artifacts helps boost its tourism sector, a crucial source of dollars for its struggling economy. In the coming months, it will open a new, large museum near the Giza pyramids to showcase its most famous collections from ancient Egypt.
“Antiquities are one of the most important tourist assets that Egypt possesses and that distinguish it from tourist destinations around the world,” Tourism Minister Ahmed Issa said last week at a ceremony to mark the 200th anniversary of the Egyptology.