Monday, June 14, 2010

Six Icons for Repatriation?

Dr Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has made it his mission to repatriate as many ancient Egyptian artifacts as possible. He has already achieved remarkable results. His stated ambition is to recover six major icons of ancient Egypt that currently reside in foreign museums. They are, in no particular order; the Rosetta Stone in The British Museum; the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Neues Museum, the Zodiac from Dendara Temple in the Louvre Museum; the bust of the vizier Ankhaf in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the statue of Hemiunu in Hildesheim near Hannover; the image of Rameses II in Turin. In a short series of articles we will describe each item and, where possible, determine its provenance.

The Rosetta Stone

The technological achievements of the ancient Egyptian civilization can readily be seen in the splendid temples and tombs that adorn the ancient land. However the key that archaeologists needed to unlock the secrets of the civilization was an understanding of their hieroglyphs. Without the meaning of the hieroglyphic inscriptions we would have scant knowledge of ancient Egypt. That was the scenario before the discovery and deciphering of the Rosetta Stone, arguably the most significant discovery in Egyptology. The question posed is whether the Rosetta Stone was obtained legitimately by the English.

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in Egypt in 1799 by a Lieutenant in Napoleon’s occupying army named Pierre-François Bouchard. The 760 kg slab was found built into the foundation of an old wall during the renovation of Fort Julien near the port city of Rashid, known to Europeans as Rosetta. Napoleon had brought 167 scientists or ‘savants’ with him on his campaign to Egypt and they had formed the Institut de l’Égypte in Cairo. The Rosetta Stone was cleaned and sent to the Institut in July 1799 where the scholars recognised the importance of the artifact.

Napoleon returned to France shortly after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone while the savants remained behind with the French troops. The French army resisted the attacks of the British and Ottoman forces for a further 18 months. In 1801 when the English troops under Sir Ralph Abercromby threatened to capture Cairo from the French expedition, Napoleon’s famous savants left Cairo for the supposed safety of Alexandria, taking all the ancient artefacts they had found, including the Rosetta Stone, with them. Had they remained in Cairo, in terms of the capitulation of the city they would have been permitted to leave and take their collection (including the stone) back to France. However, when Alexandria was captured some five months later, the terms of capitulation had changed and they were compelled to hand over their collection, including the Rosetta Stone, to the English General Hutchinson.

The Rosetta Stone was not shipped to England immediately, but remained in Egypt for a further year, stored in a warehouse along with the defeated French General Menou’s personal baggage. Despite the terms of capitulation, when the English Colonel Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner claimed the stone, the French General refused to hand it over, claiming it was his personal possession. A heated and acrimonious discussion ensued. The object was eventually handed over to the English along with dire warnings as to what would happen if the French Troops still billeted in Alexandria heard of the “theft”. The English took possession of the Rosetta Stone in the streets of Alexandria from where it was shipped to Portsmouth on a captured French frigate the HMS Egyptienne arriving in February 1802. At the end of the year, after various copies of the script had been taken, the Rosetta Stone was transferred to the British Museum where it remains.

The inscription of a single text in three different scripts enabled scholars and particularly Jean-François Champollion to decipher hieroglyphs for the first time. Remarkably nothing quite like it has been discovered since. Before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, slow progress was being made in deciphering hieroglyphs. Scholars had come to recognize that hieroglyphs were neither symbolic nor esoteric, but characters used to write ancient language; and that Hieratic and Demotic were cursive forms of the same script. Eventually hieroglyphs would have been deciphered without the Rosetta Stone, but who knows how long it would have taken.

Visitors to the British Museum will have seen the slab of stone, clearly engraved in three sections, each using a different script. In earlier years the 760 kg Rosetta Stone was often incorrectly identified as basalt, because of its black colour. It is however granitoid stone. The black colour was the result of the stone being coated on numerous occasions with printer’s ink. Paper was laid on the “inked” stone and an impression was transferred to the paper using a rubber roller. The impressions were sent to various institutions for study. In recent years the stone has been cleaned and its original grey granite colour has been revealed.

The stone is damaged and the inscription incomplete, nevertheless sufficient of the three scripts (hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek) remained to enable the Greek version to be used as a basis to unravel the Egyptian scripts. Thomas Young started the process by working on the relationship between Demotic and Greek. He found a word in Greek occurring more than once and he looked for a group of signs in Demotic appearing an equal number of times. He also selected the frequently recurring groups such as “king” “Ptolemy” and “Egypt” and found likely equivalents. Young had discovered many elements of hieroglyphs from other temple inscriptions such as royal names, gender determinatives and certain phonetic signs. He was able, through this method to identify about eighty Demotic words with their hieroglyphic equivalents. He was convinced that individual hieroglyphs had phonetic values.

Young sent his findings to Champollion in 1819, but despite this evidence Champollion continued for two years to believe that hieroglyphs were symbolic and devoid of phonetic values. Only when he received a copy of a bilingual inscription in Greek and hieroglyphs from the base block of an obelisk excavated by W.J.Banks at Philae, with Banks’ deduction that one of the cartouches in the hieroglyphic section spelled Cleopatra, did Champollion abandon his previous theory. Once he accepted Young’s work as correct (which he never acknowledged) Champollion went on to use the Rosetta Stone to lay the foundation on which the present knowledge of hieroglyphs is based.

The translation of the Rosetta Stone reveals how difficult it must have been to decipher the hieroglyphs. For example we might consider that having found the word “king” in Greek, it would be a simple matter to find the word in the other scripts. However the word for “king” in Demotic was written as “he of the great house” (Pharaoh) whereas in hieroglyphs the same word was written as “he of the sedge and the bee” (ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt).

Thanks to the inspirational work of Young and Champollion we are now able to read the wonderful history of ancient Egypt directly from inscriptions on temples, tombs and papyri. The Rosetta Stone is indeed the key to our understanding of the ancient civilization of Egypt. It was found by the French during Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt. It was claimed by the English as the spoils of war when the English defeated the French in Egypt.

The question is, should it remain in the British Museum or does it rightfully belong to the people who made it, the Egyptians?

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