As we have seen more and more nations that were victimized by the theft and looting of colonial practices come forward with demands for the return of ill-gotten goods, it’s doubtless that we’ll be seeing more and more high-profile items in these claims. And few historical artifacts have more prestige than the legendary Rosetta Stone, which this past week has seen a demand for its return from the British Museum.
Zahi Hawass, a renowned Egyptian archaeologist, called for several artifacts to be returned from European sites that rightfully belong to Egypt. These were the Dendera Zodiac ceiling, a bust of Nefertiti, and the Rosetta Stone, each held at the Louvre, States Museums Berlin, and the British Museum respectively. This is not the first endeavour to attempt to have European leaders admit to historical wrongdoing and return stolen artifacts, Hawass having petitioned for it since 2003.
But there may be more hope for the desire two decades later. We’ve witnessed the return of artwork by way of the scandals that rocked the Louvre in relation to former director Jean-Luc Martinez, as well as the groundbreaking agreement between Nigeria and Germany for the return of their Benin bronze statues. The situation has also been discussed in lighter and more public light by virtue of James Acaster’s scintillating bit during a stand-up special on the British empire, perhaps swaying a more indifferent western public on this issue.
The Rosetta Stone is, of course, the legendary artifact that was used to understand the language of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs by linguists and archaeologists. Created in 196 BCE, the Napoleonic army happened upon it in 1799. It then transferred hands again to the British upon defeating the French and has remained in the possession of the British since 1802.
While there is no denying the importance of the Rosetta Stone and what wisdom has been gleaned from it, there is no denying that this piece of Egypt’s cultural identity was stolen. Especially given that the west has extracted the information of this piece, there truly is no reason for it to remain in their unjust possession any longer. With any luck, Zahi Hawass will finally see his decades of effort paying off and Egypt will once again house one of the world’s most stunning treasures of history.