Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rosetta Stone back to Egypt?

by Salman Hameed

The Rosetta Stone should be back in Egypt. I had a chance to visit Luxor in late 2010 and was completely blown away by the remains of the temples there as well as the Valley of the Kings. You have to really be there to appreciate the richness of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The museum in Cairo is also great and has some spectacular objects older than four thousand years. However, the Valley of the Kings is vastly superior as we are seeing it in the same location as it was. The museum becomes a bit remote. And a museum in London holding an important Egyptian artifact is even worse. The Rosetta Stone was discovered by the French in 1799 and then handed over to the British as part of the treaty of Alexandria. It has been part of the British museum since 1802. Isn't it time to rest another colonial acquisition and send the Rosetta Stone back to its place of origin? Perhaps - but unlikely that it will actually happen.

In the mean time, here is a brief interview with Mohammed Ismail Khaled, the Egyptian official in charge of in charge of foreign archaeological missions. The last question is about the Rosetta Stone. From this week's Science:
    Q:What challenges did you face during the revolution?
    We had many difficult times, beginning with what happened at the [Museum of Egyptian Antiquities]. The same wrong information was just multiplied by the media. People didn't believe us when we said that only 54 pieces were stolen from the museum and that now only 29 are missing. All the masterpieces relating to King Tut, thank God, they are back.
    Q:Are all foreign archaeological missions back in the field again?
    The only missions that left Egypt were from the Cairo area, and they left because it was not safe. But missions in the Eastern and Western Desert, in Aswan, and in other areas, they did not see the revolution. They never stopped working.
    Q:Egypt's former minister of state for antiquities affairs, Zahi Hawass, campaigned for the return of Egyptian artifacts, such as the Rosetta Stone, from foreign museums. Is this still a priority?
    It is our cultural heritage. We will not leave the repatriation issues unsettled. But the problem now is that the Ministry of State for Antiquities is suffering from internal protests: people want jobs, increases in salaries. You have to solve these problems first and then think about the fight outside the country.
And as a bonus, here is Sagan talking about the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Champollion using the Rosetta Stone: 


Rainer said...

Modest question: In what sense is the Rosetta Stone the cultural heritage of today's Egypt any more than of any other part of the Old World? While there is undoubtedly some biological continuity (many Egyptians still refuse to see themselves as Arabs; I met an artist who instead defined himself as a 'Muslim Copt'), there is next to no cultural continuity - for centuries, early modern Egyptians used ancient papyri to make fire. I think we should stop this cultural essentialising. Alexandria in particular has always been at a crossroads in the Eastern Mediterranean, not especially 'Egyptian' (whatever that means)

Gary said...

many years ago I read a short story by Isaac Asimov. An expedition to Mars had not only found evidence of life, it had found evidence of a technologically advanced civilisation.

The expedition archaeologists were struggling to interpret the written records the Martians had left behind. Struggling that is until the expedition chemist walked into an ancient chemistry laboratory and on the wall he found a chart of the Periodic Table. He had found the Martian Rosetta Stone.

Carl Sagan was right about the universality of Science

Salman Hameed said...

Well, I think he is making the claim on the basis of geography. Yes, there is an interesting tension in Egypt when comes to Ancient Egyptians or Alexandria - but I'm not sure if that necessarily makes it heritage claim that much weaker (and we have to compare it with the fact that it is in the British museum). WIth your question, I was thinking about Indus Valley Civilization and Gandhara Civilizations in Pakistan. In both cases, the artifacts are considered to be Pakistan's cultural heritage (or may be just the heritage) even though the continuity may not be there or not admitted by most. I think geographical links should be fine...

Great - now you have ruined the ending :)
What story was this?

Asad M said...

a similar case is of the Parthenon (or Elgin) marbles which occupy a roomful in the British Museum. Beautiful as they are, the sculptures were lying in the ruins of Parthenon in late 18th century. Thomas Bruce (Earl of Elgin) was then the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and obtained a decree from the Sultan (who ruled over Greece then) allowing the British to enter the site and remove the marbles. It is still debatable whether the Sultan’s permission amounted to the removal of the sculptures.

Over the past decade or so, Greece has campaigned to have the marbles returned to Athens. Its claims are based on the reuniting them with other sculptures of the Parthenon and keeping them in their original cultural environment as well as questioning the legality of Elgin removing them over 200 years ago.

The British Museum argues that the sculptures are of international rather than just Greek significance and they should remain in a museum which is free for everyone and also located in one of the world’s most visited cities. Also had Elgin not brought them to London, the marbles would certainly have been destroyed or sold to individual collectors or simply lost.

I think It’s not that the French (in the case of Rosetta) or British had a better appreciation of these artefacts when they obtained them or that the geographic claims of Egypt and Greece are not valid; it’s just that keeping them in a place like the British Museum cannot be bad at all. It showcases Egyptian and Greek culture in a global context alongside those of other world cultures.

Gary said...


I must be too much of a fan of the late great Asimov. I grew up reading his remarkable SF writings. It turns out the story wasn't his.

It was a story called "Omnilingual" written in 1957 by H. Beam Piper.

Before discovering SF I was already turned on to science and collected my first mineral specimen at the age of 6. By about 12 I had read most of the works of Jules Verne and of course Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter series. Science Fiction really went hand in hand with my growing interest in science when I discovered both Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke in my teens. They showed the often factual potential of where science could take us.

I think science fiction has lost that inspiring edge today. The focus has gone off the science and is now on the fantasy of the Arthurian style quest. The knightly hero still battles dragons and the forces of darkness but the fantasy is set against a cosmic background.

Gary said...

Here is a link to the story

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Gary!

"it’s just that keeping them in a place like the British Museum cannot be bad at all. It showcases Egyptian and Greek culture in a global context alongside those of other world cultures."

Sure - but available only to those people who can afford to travel to London. This is a colonial legacy, and I think it would be better to have the locals access to their own artifacts - even at the expense of the lack of full global context...

By the way, it is fantastic that the museums in London are free...

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