The return of the Rosetta Stone

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 25 Oct 2022

The Rosetta Stone, the basis for our understanding of ancient Egypt, is an important part of Egyptian identity and must be returned to Egypt, writes Zahi Hawass

Rosetta Stone
Rosetta Stone


Now is the time for the British Museum to return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, so that it can be shown in the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). There is currently an awakening among the European countries that they must return African art to African countries. 

The Rosetta Stone was taken from the Delta city of Rosetta, and according to the Alexandria Treaty of the time it was given to the British. But how can anyone give a piece of the history of a country to someone else? The stone has stayed at the British Museum since it arrived there over 200 years ago. It is the icon of our Egyptian identity. Therefore, it should come back to us.

The story of efforts for its return began in 2009 when we were planning to open the GEM to the public in 2015. I thought at the time that it would be a good idea to have five unique pieces that are currently outside of Egypt shown at the opening of the GEM for three months. These pieces included three pieces that had left Egypt illegally: the bust of Nefertiti, currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin in Germany, the Rosetta Stone, currently exhibited at the British Museum in London, and the Dendera Zodiac, currently at the Louvre in Paris. 

Also included were two objects that had left Egypt legally, which are the bust of Ankhaf, currently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the US, and the statue of Hemiunu, the architect of the Great Pyramid, currently at the Roemer und Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim in Germany. The bust of Ankhaf was given to Egyptologist George Reisner because he had found the intact tomb of queen Hetepheres, the mother of king Khufu. The law at the time was that if the tomb was intact, there was no division and no artefact from the tomb could leave Egypt. Instead, the Egyptian government gave Reisner this statue, which he then gave to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. 

The statue of Hemiunu has a similar story. Junker, a German archaeologist, excavated west of the Great Pyramid in Giza and found many tombs. The Egyptian government of the time gave him this statue as a gift, which he then gave to the museum in Hildesheim.

All the five museums refused to lend the artefacts for the opening of the GEM. I wondered how they could refuse. We had given them free exhibits to be shown in their countries. Scholars from their countries are excavating in Egypt and study ancient Egyptian civilisation. I was angry and did not see that they had any right to refuse us.

Then, I found statements from the director of the Museum in Berlin at the time saying that “if we send the statue to Egypt and marches happen in Tahrir Square to ask for Nefertiti to stay, [she] will stay in Egypt.” 

I made a statement saying that we are not “the pirates of the Caribbean”. If we sign a contract with any museum, we will respect that contract. Dietrich Wildung was the director of the Museum in Berlin at the time. He stated that the statue was too fragile to be shipped to Egypt. At the same time, he took the bust of Nefertiti in hand, went to the studio of an artist in Berlin who carved a body for Nefertiti, and put the head on the body. All international scholars and Egyptologists criticised that act.

As a result, we began to collect evidence to prove that the bust of Nefertiti had left Egypt illegally. The bust was found at Amarna in 1912 by Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt. At that time, the law stipulated that if anyone discovered a limestone statue of a king or a queen, he could not take it out of Egypt. However, if they discovered a statue made of gypsum, it could leave Egypt. 

Borchardt wrote in his private diary that he had found a royal statue of Nefertiti made of limestone, but in the public register the statue was listed as a non-royal statue made of gypsum. In 1913, when the head of antiquities in Egypt came to make the division of the finds, he found a box containing artefacts. On the box was a description and list of objects that were supposedly inside. 

There were not any important objects on the list that should stay in Egypt, and so the inspector did not take items from the box. This is how the Germans cheated the law.

RETURN REQUEST: I wrote a letter to the Museum in Berlin to ask for the return of the Nefertiti bust. The letter was as follows.

“As you are already well aware, Egypt has for many years wished to have returned the painted limestone bust of Nefertiti that is currently held in the collections of the Neues Museum in Berlin. There exists ample evidence to demonstrate that this object was taken out of Egypt illegally after its excavation and that its excavator, Ludwig Borchardt, acting with malice, committed fraud by signing a deliberately inaccurate protocol in order to conceal the true nature of the object he desired to send to Germany. Furthermore, the majority of the Egyptological community shares with the Egyptian government and people the opinion that this magnificent treasure should be returned to her homeland.” 

“For these reasons, I submit to you an Official Restitution Request regarding the painted limestone bust of Nefertiti, accessioned in the Neues Museum as Inventory No. AM 21300. I trust that your reply will not be long in forthcoming. I look forward to the ultimate, and rightful, resolution of this longstanding injustice.”

The only response that I received was that this letter would have to be signed by the minister. I became the minister of antiquities in 2011, but we had other troubles at that time which unfortunately took precedence over the return of the bust of queen Nefertiti. I was planning to start the campaign for the return of the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum right after dealing with the Nefertiti bust, followed by the Dendera Zodiac at the Louvre. 

I first began the campaign for the return of the Rosetta Stone when I went to give a talk at the British Museum. After the lecture, the director hosted a dinner for me in the Egyptian gallery among beautiful statues of the pharaohs. At my table was the director and Adel Al-Gazzar, the Egyptian ambassador in London at the time. The director gave a speech to welcome me after the dinner. I then stood up to make a speech. I thought that I should ask for the Rosetta Stone to be returned to Egypt in an indirect way. 

I said that I was the only one who could talk to the pharaohs. I said that Ramses Il had come to me and said “Zahi, I have been in London more than 100 years, I feel cold here, and I miss Egypt. I want to go back with you.” Then Thutmose III came to me and also said “Zahi, please take me with Ramses.” Later, both pharaohs came to me and said that “we have decided that you should take the Rosetta Stone instead of us because the Rosetta Stone is the icon of Egyptian identity.” I said all this as a joke, but the next day all the newspapers said that I was asking for the Rosetta Stone to come back to Egypt.

I led a campaign from 2002 to 2011 to return stolen artefacts to Egypt. My goal was not to see all objects from all museums throughout the world returned. Instead, it was, and is, only to see any recently stolen artefacts returned and to make sure that museums stop practising cultural imperialism.

We are now going to ask for each of the objects mentioned above separately. When Egypt was under the control of the French and the English, the country was looted and many antiquities were illegally sent abroad. Museums today still buy stolen artefacts. We need to stop this practice. We also need to ask for our unique artefacts to come back to Egypt and be shown in the GEM that we are hoping to see inaugurated at the beginning of next year. 

The Rosetta Stone has been outside of Egypt for over 200 years. It is the icon of our Egyptian identity, and it should come back. 

THE STONE: The history of the Rosetta Stone is as follows.

In July 1799, France was occupying Egypt after Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of the country. A troop of soldiers were in Rosetta and an officer named Bouchard was supervising the cutting of a trench around the San Julian Fortress, originally the Qaitbay Citadel, about 70 km east of Alexandria. During the digging, they found a black basalt stone 112 cm high, 75.5 cm wide and 28.5 cm thick. The stone was first sent to the Egyptian Institute in Cairo and later transported to the house of the French general Menou in Alexandria. 

Napoleon ordered copies to be made of the stone and the inscriptions on it were published in the Description de l’Egypte, a multi-volume French account of ancient and modern Egypt. The stone became known as Rosetta Stone and was the first artefact found that contained three scripts — ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic (14 lines), ancient Egyptian demotic (32 lines), and ancient Greek (54 lines).

According to the Alexandria Treaty in 1801 between the English and French, the French gave the British many Egyptian artefacts, including the Rosetta Stone. The stone was transferred to London in February 1802. When it arrived, it was first presented to the Society of Antiquaries in London and then sent to the British Museum. Scholars began to study the three scripts in 1802. 

The newspaper Courier de l’Égypte surmised that the Greek text was a translation of the other two scripts. The first translation of the Greek was by Weston in 1802, and some work had then already been done by Barthélemy and Zoëga towards understanding the hieroglyphic script. But the ones who succeeded in really solving the mystery were Akerblad and de Sacy. Then, in 1819, the Englishman Thomas Young improved the translation. Finally, the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) succeeded in deciphering the ancient Egyptian language.

The Rosetta Stone is the key to our present knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture. It is an important piece of our history as Egyptians, and it belongs in Egypt.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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