An Important Rock
The Rosetta Stone, the granite slab with a pharaoh’s decree in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic and ancient Greek, and the key to deciphering the ancient Egyptian writings, is described in every treatise on the history of writing and recordkeeping. It is probably the best known of the British Museum’s artifacts, and one of the most reproduced ancient objects. Nearly everyone knows something about it, and it is referenced in common discourse in a variety of ways. I once had a college instructor tell me that deciphering my handwriting on exams was like deciphering the Rosetta Stone.
We have a new and informative history of the Rosetta Stone in John Ray’s The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007). Ray provides a history of its discovery, translation, and debates about its ownership, citing the relevant scholarship and illustrating the various epochs associated with the ancient decree. Ray writes, “It was fought, or quarreled, over by two superpowers, and even now the question of who owns it, or who ought to own it, is an important one. The stone, if we listen to it carefully, may be telling us about our future as well as out past” (p. 7). Ray, a professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University, recounts the various efforts, failed and fantastical, to decipher the hieroglyphs, the accidental discovery of the stone, the political and pseudo-scientific discussions of the stone and its importance, the nature of the stone’s text (a rather routine decree except for its multiple written variants), and the controversies about its rightful ownership.
What sets apart Ray’s book from others on the Rosetta Stone is his wrestling with the question of where the stone belongs. As Ray carefully argues, the “whole question of who owns what can turn into something surreal” (p. 157). Ray speculates on the meaning of ownership, and he notes that the stone has been in the British Museum for two centuries, a “tenth of its lifespan.” He continues, “There are acts of Parliament which underwrite the museum’s claim to own the stone, and there is no reason why these should not be respected. When a museum or art gallery takes refuge in the argument that something has been legitimately acquired by the standards of its day, and it has been properly cared for ever since, this is not a trivial piece of special pleading; it is a valid appeal to our sense of fairness” (p. 158). Ray further argues that nations, such as Britain and France, which have acquired treasures from lands such as Egypt, have a responsibility to “preserve the part of that heritage which is still in the care of its original homeland. Cooperation is the price that comes with stewardship, and it is a price that comes with stewardship, and it is a price we should be prepared to pay, since it is also the way to deepen our knowledge” (p. 160). Undoubtedly, there will be those that disagree with Ray’s observations about the stone’s ownership, but he presents an excellent portrait of the complexities of ownership that at least demonstrates that this is not a simple matter of right and wrong or black and white.