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Egyptians call for the return of the Rosetta Stone and other ancient artifacts

The petition calling for the return of the ancient Egyptian works states, "The presence of these artefacts in the British Museum to this day supports past colonial endeavors of cultural violence and deprives Egypt as the country of origin of not only the physical return of these objects, but also of their important role as Egyptian cultural heritage that spans a millennia of rich history."
Dan Kitwood
/
Getty Images
The petition calling for the return of the ancient Egyptian works states, "The presence of these artefacts in the British Museum to this day supports past colonial endeavors of cultural violence and deprives Egypt as the country of origin of not only the physical return of these objects, but also of their important role as Egyptian cultural heritage that spans a millennia of rich history."

Thousands of Egyptians are demanding the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum back to its home country.

The iconic artifact, which helped scientists finally decode Egyptian hieroglyphs almost exactly 200 years ago, has been in English hands since Napoleon gave it up – as well as 16 other artifacts – as part of the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801.

The latest campaign to reclaim the antiquities has gathered more than 2,500 signatures in an online petition launched by a group of prominent archeologists.

Together, these archeologists urge Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly to "work through diplomatic and legal means" to retrieve the antiquities.

Petitioners hope changing attitudes toward colonization make this the right time to return artifacts

According to the group and those who have signed on, the objects are integral to Egypt's national heritage, and their continued display in European institutions deliberately ignores a history of colonialist looting and exploitation.

Given changing attitudes toward the ethical acquisition of items, as well as an evolving sense of moral responsibility, the organizers say British authorities would be amenable to the return.

This picture taken on July 2022 shows a close-up view of the cartouche of the Ptolemaic dynasty Pharaoh Ptolemy V "Epiphanes" (210-180 BC) inscribed with the rest of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic text in the upper portion of the Rosetta Stone, on display at the British Museum in London.
Amir Makar / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
This picture taken on July 2022 shows a close-up view of the cartouche of the Ptolemaic dynasty Pharaoh Ptolemy V "Epiphanes" (210-180 BC) inscribed with the rest of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic text in the upper portion of the Rosetta Stone, on display at the British Museum in London.

"The Rosetta stone was undeniably a spoil of war and an act of plunder that was outlawed in the 17th and 19th centuries," the petition reads. "The presence of these artifacts in the British Museum to this day supports past colonial endeavors of cultural violence and deprives Egypt as the country of origin of not only the physical return of these objects, but also of their important role as Egyptian cultural heritage that spans a millennia of rich history."

It adds: "This is a powerful opportunity for Britain to demonstrate moral leadership, and to choose to follow moral principle over profit and support the healing of the wounds inflicted by colonial powers."

Not the first time the Rosetta Stone has been asked to be returned

In Nov. 2010, Egyptian antiquities expert Zahi Hawass told NPR that he was fighting to have the Rosetta Stone returned to Egypt from the British Museum.

His comments were made after the Metropolitan Museum in New York had said at the time that it would return 19 small objects from King Tut's tomb to Egypt.

"I need these unique objects back and I will fight to return them back," Hawass told NPR at the time. "Anything that left illegally, it should be back to Egypt."

While the Rosetta Stone's place in history looms large for archeologists, the short message on it proved to be inconsequential.

It was the fact that the same message was written in three languages – ancient Greek, Demotic, and Hieroglyphs – that made the lynchpin to understanding Egypt's ancient written language and civilization.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.