The British Museum is one of my favourite museums in the world. Yet, like many museums in the western world, the British Museum should probably return some of the artefacts to their country of origin.

One of these is the Rosetta Stone, a stele from 196 BCE. It belongs, if not in Rosetta, at least in Egypt. I think it would be marvellous in Alexandria, in the new Biblioteca Alexandrina.

Reading the past

Discovered 212 years ago in the present-day town of el-Rashid (near Alexandria) by Napoleon’s soldiers, the black granite stone was surrendered to Britain after his defeat. The British Museum has been its home since 1802.

The Rosetta Stone transgresses the boundaries of time and promotes human understanding.

When French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion translated the text, he solved one of the world’s great mysteries: how to read the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians.

The Rosetta Stone, you see, is written in three scripts: hieroglyphic, demotic and classical Greek. See the three distinct sections in the top photo here?

Why? Well, hieroglyphic was the script of kings, demotic was the everyday script and Greek was the administrative language of the time.

The stele relates a decree issued during the reign of 13-year-old king Ptolemy V, so as to set the stage for a personality cult for the young lad. The decree notes that he gave gold grain to the temples. It also notes that the annual Nile flooding was especially high in Ptolemy’s 8th year of reign, and that he saw to it that all that excess water was dammed for the good of Egypt’s farmers.

His Majesty, the King of the South and North, PTOLEMY, the ever-living, the beloved of Ptaḥ… possessed a divine heart which was beneficent towards the gods; and he hath given gold in large quantities, and grain in large quantities to the temples and he hath given very many lavish gifts in order to make Ta-Mert prosperous, and to make stable advancement…

(Ta-Mert = Egypt)

The full translation of the demotic text of the Rosetta Stone is here (be warned, it’s a bit long).

I always seem to remain in front of this stone for an age, wondering who might have carved it. Would he have known the significance of his work?

Just think how much less we would have known today, had it not been for this single rock.

What is your favourite museum piece?