Should the Rosetta Stone be returned to Egypt?

Senote Keriakes
4 min readApr 21, 2022
Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

In recent weeks, I have started watching the Marvel series ‘Moon Knight’, whose protagonist (at least one of them!) is an employee at the British Museum in London. As the protagonist walks around the museum’s Egyptian section and interacts with the various monuments, I began to consider the suitability of these monuments being placed in a foreign museum that shares little connection to the monuments on display beyond colonial rule almost a century ago.

After all, why is it that the sarcophagus of Nectanebo II, the last ruler of Egypt, currently resides in the British Museum? Why is it that the largest statue in the British museum is not one from the Roman occupation of Britain or from medieval England, but is a statue of Rameses II, one of the greatest rulers in Egyptian history?

Most importantly, why is it that one of the greatest discoveries in modern Egyptian archeology, which unlocked and unravelled the field of Egyptology, is located within the British Museum? I am, of course, talking about the Rosetta Stone.

I sought to find answers to these various questions, however I feel compelled to add that I am of Egyptian heritage, and that my views on this may perhaps be biased and emotionally driven in part.

To answer these questions we need to nail down some basics.

What is the Rosetta Stone?

The Rosetta Stone is a steele containing a royal decree from the pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes in 196 BCE. It was discovered in the year 1799 by a soldier of Napoleon’s French army, Pierre-Francois Bouchard. Prior to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, the ancient Egyptian language had been a complete mystery to scholars and as a result, knowledge on the ancient Egyptian civilisation was scarce.

The Rosetta stone helped unlock the ancient Egyptian language as it bore a parallel text written in three different languages: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic text as well as ancient Greek. Scholars scrambled to use the known Greek text to decipher the hieroglyphics and demotic text.

Famously, Sir Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion, the two pre-eminent polymaths and geniuses of their day were in competition for the glory of deciphering the perennial text. Ultimately, the frenchman emerged victorious and is widely credited for unlocking the ancient Egyptian language.

This, however, adds another layer of complexity to the question of where the stone belongs. It was discovered by a frenchman, deciphered by a frenchman, it belongs to an ancient Egyptian civilisation, why is it in a British museum?

Well, following Napoleon’s army’s defeated in Egypt by the British in 1801, the stone was seized and taken to London where it has been kept ever since.

Egypt’s claim to the Rosetta Stone

Whether or not the modern nation state of Egypt deserves to be in possession of the stone ultimately comes down to whether or not there is historical continuity between the population of ancient Egypt and modern-day Egyptians.

In that regard, the historical continuity is undeniable. Most of Egypt’s major cities today have been continuously inhabited for thousands of years since ancient times and various ancient customs and traditions have survived through the ages to the modern era. The Coptic language, the final stage of the ancient Egyptian language is still in use amongst Egypt’s Coptic Christians, albeit in a limited, liturgical scope.

It is therefore clear that the inhabitants of modern day Egypt are not a foreign population with no relation to the ancient Egyptians, but represent an active late stage in the continuum of Egyptian history.

Just as modern Greece would be considered the undisputed custodian of the heritage of ancient Greece, modern Egyptians should also be the undisputed benefactors of the history and heritage of ancient Egypt.

Any British claim to ownership of the stone does not hold up against the immense historical and cultural claim posed by Egypt.

Final Thoughts

I would like to clarify some points.

I am not totally opposed to the placement of Egyptian artefacts in foreign museums, quite the contrary. I believe that when people visit museums in Europe or North America or anywhere else for that matter and see beautiful Egyptian artefacts, it piques their interest and sparks a curiosity that may lead them to visiting Egypt to explore its rich history further.

However, custody of these monuments should be firmly with the Egyptian people, the rightful heirs to the heritage of ancient Egypt. Museums abroad should have the opportunity to request loan spells of the various monuments that the Egyptian ministry of antiquities considers to be available for loan. However, the Rosetta Stone, an iconic piece of history, deserves to be solely in the custody of the Egyptian people.

I welcome anyone who disagrees to share their views on this matter with me by leaving a comment or interacting with me on twitter!

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Senote Keriakes

Notes on philosophy, history and religion. I write to share my point of view and reinforce the concepts that I learn, enjoy:)