Squabbling over the Rosetta Stone

Among the objects on sale at the British Museum shop in London are miniature reproductions of the Rosetta Stone, along with Rosetta Stone bags, Rosetta Stone neckties, Rosetta Stone mugs, Rosetta Stone teatowels, even Rosetta Stone umbrellas.

All that could stop if Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, gets his way. He wants the famous stonereturned to Egypt where it was inscribed more than 2,000 years ago and eventually discovered in 1799.

"It is an icon of our Egyptian identity and its homeland should be Egypt," he says.

Personally, I don't care where it's kept and, apart from curiosity value, I can't see a lot of point in going to view the stone, as it were, in the flesh. It's an important artefact, certainly, but not in any sense a beautiful object.

Describing it as "an icon of Egyptian identity" entirely misses the point (though the claim has given Dr Hawass some welcome publicity at a time when he is promoting his latest book). True, the stone's inscription does cast some light on the Ptolemaic period in Egypt (tax concessions for temple priests) but that is a minor matter.

The stone's real significance is that its text is written in three scripts: Greek, hieroglyphic and demotic (the script used for everyday purposes in ancient Egypt). The British Museumexplains:

Soon after the end of the fourth century AD, when hieroglyphs had gone out of use, the knowledge of how to read and write them disappeared. In the early years of the 19th century, some 1400 years later, scholars were able to use the Greek inscription on this stone as the key to decipher them. 

Thomas Young, an English physicist, was the first to show that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone wrote the sounds of a royal name, that of Ptolemy. The French scholar Jean-François Champollion then realised that hieroglyphs recorded the sound of the Egyptian language and laid the foundations of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian language and culture.

This was a major French-British achievement and a noble example of international cooperation.

In the light of that, claiming that the stone rightfully belongs in Egypt or Britain, or even France, seems narrow-minded and petty. In a sense, the stone is no longer of any value: it has yielded up its secrets and the knowledge thus provided is the property of the world.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 December 2009.