A Reflection on Repatriation

In Year 11, Ascham Ancient History students complete a Historical Investigation on a topic of their choice. Student Georgia Shelley tackled the following question, and wrote an engaging and thoroughly researched essay on the repatriation of one very important Ancient Egyptian antiquity. 

Should antiquities acquired for western museums during the colonial era be returned to their lands of origin? (Ranfrew/Bahn)
Discuss this question in relation to the Rosetta Stone.

When considering the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, a variety of factors, perspectives and contexts must be considered. The Rosetta Stone symbolises the ancient heritage and culture of Egypt, however this importance was derived from its profound significance and contribution to western archaeological and philological circles. Further, Britain’s legal ownership of the stone under both the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria and the UNESCO 1970 Convention prevents its immediate lawful return to Egypt without British consent and solidifies the legitimacy of the British’s claim over the stone. Moreover, the numerous positive benefits associated with the British Museum’s custody of the Rosetta Stone, including preservation, conservation, protection, and education, encourage its enduring presence in the British Museum. These considerations are all instrumental in the debate of the Rosetta Stone’s repatriation.

Foremost, the cultural significance of the Rosetta Stone is heavily allied with and embedded within the Western archaeological community. It is acknowledged invariably that the stone is significant to Egyptian history, however it is through the contributions of French philologist Jean-François Champollion and British Egyptologist Thomas Young in deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs in the 1820s that this symbolic importance is derived. The Egyptian government argues that the stone is ‘the icon of our Egyptian identity’ (Hawass 2009), and it is pertinent to the preservation of their ancient culture that it is returned immediately to Egyptian soil. However, for Egypt, the actual Rosetta Stone itself is not noteworthy, as ‘seventeen more three script stelae recording the same proclamation (the Decree of Memphis) have been discovered’ and all remain within Egypt (Robertson 2019, p. 180). Instead, Egypt’s claims of the Rosetta Stone’s significance are argued by contemporary academics to rely upon ‘a national claim of distinction on culture… a nationalist fantasy based on the accident of geography and enforced by sovereignty’ (Cuno 2012, p. 34). They maintain that the outdated notion of claiming an ancient pedigree on culture as a form of modern distinction in the political sphere is inherently wrong and impossible to maintain (Cuno 2012, p. 34). To western archaeological circles, the stone represents the height of human achievement and intellectual discovery, as prior to the decoding of the hieroglyphs, the comprehension of ancient Egypt remained inaccessible to contemporaries (Ray 2007, p. 16). Preceding its discovery by the Napoleonic Armies in Rosetta in 1799, the Rosetta Stone was in disrepair: chunks of the stone had been removed and repurposed as building materials, and its original purpose as a stele had been neglected. The stone would have been abandoned and eventually destroyed if the French ‘savants’ hadn’t ‘saw its significance’ (Robertson 2019, p. 180). This significance is not explicitly found within its content, but what the comprehension of its content allowed academics to unlock. It is apparent that the determinants of the Rosetta Stone’s significance vary greatly between Egypt and Britain, however both parties highly value and desire its possession.

Further, the British Museum is legitimate in its possession of the Rosetta Stone, as the stone was not illegally taken, and the legal standards of the UNESCO 1970 convention are satisfied. Following the French discovery of the stone in 1799, the British diplomatically obtained the Rosetta Stone via the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria, which ceased the French expansion into Egypt and relinquished the French’s ‘Arabian manuscripts, statues and other collections’ into British ownership. (Wilson 1803, p. 351). Additionally, the circumstances of both the Rosetta Stone’s initial possession by the French and withstanding British ownership align with the legal standard of antiquities, the UNESCO 1970 standard, consequently legitimising the British Museum’s defence of their possession. The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property stipulates that if ‘an archaeological object is documented as being outside of its country of origin’ before 1970, and even ‘if the object is classified as stolen property or illegally exported or imported…any action to recover it will be barred by the statute of limitations.’ Therefore, as the Rosetta Stone was in British possession for an extensive period prior to 1970, regardless of how it came into the British’s possession, it is documented as having met the standard, thus preventing the possibility of unwilling repatriation. It is evident that the Rosetta Stone is wholly in the legitimised legal possession of the British and unable to be forcefully repatriated to Egypt.

Moreover, the British Museum’s custody of the Rosetta Stone has facilitated preservation, conservation, protection, and education to a standard that could not be guaranteed if repatriated to Egypt. Accomplished conservators employed by the British Museum have preserved and attempted to restore the original appearance of the Rosetta Stone through regular extensive cleanings and the application of protective treatments including carnauba wax, which aided in ‘preserving the surface’ of the stone (Parkinson 1999, p. 23). This attentive, advanced consideration would likely not have been possible if the Rosetta Stone was held in a smaller museum in Egypt. Additionally, the British Museum’s central location of London, a developed, safe, and accessible city, significantly encourages the visitation and subsequent opportunity to learn firsthand about the Rosetta Stone. If the stone was to be housed in Egypt, travel bans due to terrorism and dangerous military zones, in addition to political instability, make the region difficult for tourists to access (ABC 2009). Further, persevering corruption within the Egyptian government and the presence of militia groups question the hypothetical safety of the stone if it was repatriated to Egypt, as ‘lax security at archaeological sites and storerooms throughout the country’ have left antiquities vulnerable to targeted attacks (National Geographic, 2013). Evidently, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, one of Egypt’s most prominent and secure museums, was looted by rebel groups in 2011, and approximately 50 priceless artefacts remain unrecovered. However, the ongoing construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, which promises the upmost sophisticated security for both contents and visitors, could potentially house the Rosetta Stone in a stable manner as security measures are strengthened. It is acknowledged that the Rosetta Stone’s displayal in the British Museum has been advantageous in ensuring its protection and conservation, and maintaining its accessibility to the public, however emerging alternative museums within Egypt present new possibilities for the housing of the stone.

To conclude, a variety of factors, perspectives and contexts are pertinent when examining the debate of the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt. The Stone’s profound significance to both Egyptian culture and Western archaeology, the British Museum’s entirely legal possession of the stone ratified by the 1801 Treaty of Alexandra and the UNESCO 1970 convention, and the benefits of its presence in a highly respected, ascendant institution all perform instrumental roles in examining this situation.

A full bibliography was supplied with this essay.

Georgia Shelley | Year 11

11 May 2022

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