Should the Rosetta Stone go back....where?
The last time I inquired -- admittedly more than a decade ago, but was told that it was the permanent "number one" -- it was a rather dreary image of the Rosetta Stone. That outsold its major rivals by several thousand. If you are interested, the main post-card rivals were: various views of the Museum itself, the (also Egyptian) bronze "Gayer Anderson" cat (displayed on the card plus or minus a real live tabby cat) and an original drawing of Beatrix Potter's Flopsy Bunnies.
There is no doubt that the Rosetta Stone (seen a few years back above) is a major icon of the British Museum -- and in fact, its post-card celebrity is backed up by its presence on best selling umbrellas, duvet covers and mouse mats (remember them?), all especially popular, I am told, in Japan.
I was once very puzzled about all this. After all, it is a rather uninspiring lump of black basalt, inscribed at the beginning of the second century BCE, recording an agreement between the Greek king of Egypt and a group of Egyptian priests, concerned among other things with tax breaks for the said priests. It came to London, as spolls of war in the early nineteenth century, captured from the French.
So why so charismatic?
Presumably because it was the key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphs, as the inscription was trilingual -- in hieroglyphs, Greek and Egyptian demotic. Whether you think that the key work was done by Thomas Young (British) or Jean-Francois Champollion (French) depends partly on your national prejudice.
And now, again, Zahi Hawass (Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt) wants it "back"? Does he have a point?
In my view, no -- not at all. And I am not just talking here about the British Museum's claims to be a centre of world culture, symbolically at least owned by the whole world (the current Director is very fluent and convincing on this subject). On this Egyptian issue I feel a bit more jingoistic than usual.
For a start, lets be honest, if this boring lump of basalt has become an icon, it was because of the linguistic work or either a Brit or a Frenchman. It wasn't born an icon, it became an icon by a lot of hard academic grind (with huge "impact" if we are going to talk Hefce talk). At that time, the state of Egypt did not exist and "Egyptians had nothing to do with its decipherment. Sad but true.
If it should go back anywhere, it should be to France (as it seems pretty clear to me that, national prejudices apart, Champollion was the key figure here).
But more that I find myself suffering from an increasingly severe allergy to Zawi Hawass. he might once have been a good archaeologist, but he has become a nationalist media showman (complete with mad theories about famous ancient Egyptian graves, and a tv crew, plus a book signing, at his back). He appears to have a checklist of some icons he wants 'back' to Egypt -- as if they has been stolen.
I remember him on the Today programme a few years ago in discussion with some female descendant of Howard Carter (excavator of Tutankhamun). He was in full flow complaining about how the Brits has ripped everything off, when she politely pointed out that actually the whole Tut treasure had been left in Egypt (which did then exist).
Today, you can go an visit his fiefdom in the Antiquities Service of Egypt. It is truly amazing stuff ad no one is remotely suggesting removing it. But an awful lot in the marvellous Egyptian museum in Cairo is in a truly dreadful conservation stae (take a look at the Fayum portraits disintegrating there.). Now the truth is that in a global culture, we should all be paying to preserve this material for all of us, the world over, for the next few centuries. But that can only happen if Hawass stops making a media splash by demanding the Rosetta Stone and stops ignoring the much more exciting treasures crumbling on his watch.
If you want a good introduction to the Stone, can I recommend a book by John Ray in my edited Wonders series, available from your local bookshop or online from Blackwells/Heffers.