Watch CBS News

Egypt wants the Rosetta Stone back from Britain. Is now the time to heal "the wounds inflicted by colonial powers?"

British Museum In London
Visitors look at the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, August 24, 2022 in London, England. Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Getty

Cairo — More than 200 years after scientists decoded the Rosetta Stone, campaigners in Egypt have launched a petition calling on the country's leader to submit a formal request for England to return the iconic artifact to its home country. The campaigners argue the Rosetta Stone, along with 16 other artifacts that have been in the U.K. for centuries were removed from Egypt illegally, and it's time to get them back.  

There have been many previous requests for the stone's repatriation, but Dr. Monica Hanna, an Egyptologist and member of the team leading the campaign, told CBS News she was confident that the new approach — seeking support from Egyptian, British and any other members of the general public — will succeed.  

Dr. Monica Hanna, Acting Dean of the College of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, is one of the organizers of the "Repatriate Rashid" campaign. Facebook/Monica Hanna

"Previously it was the government alone asking for Egyptian artifacts, but today this is the people demanding their own culture back," Hanna told CBS News on Wednesday. "Definitely all these objects are going to be repatriated, it is just a matter of when."  

In July 1799, a year after Napoleon invaded Egypt, the Rosetta Stone was discovered by chance in the Nile Delta city of Rashid. A French military engineer supervising digging at an old fort thought the stone looked special, so he sent it to Cairo for examination.     

He was right. The stone bears a short text in three different languages, ancient Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphs. If the three texts said the same thing, then there was hope that existing knowledge of ancient Greek could help scientists to finally decode Egyptian Hieroglyphs.

When the French surrendered to the British in 1801, they gave up the stone and 16 other artifacts as part of a the "Treaty of Alexandria," and all of the items went to the British Museum in London.

This October 27, 2021 photo shows the bust of French scholar and philologist Jean-François Champollion, known for his decipherment of the Egyptian Hieroglyphic script, in front of a replica of the Rosetta Stone, which was instrumental in the decipherment, on display at the entrance of the Egyptian Museum in Egypt's capital Cairo. AMIR MAKAR/AFP/Getty

It took decades, but on September 27, 1822, historian and linguist Jean-Francois Champollion announced that he had finally cracked the code.   

While the message on the stone proved largely inconsequential, the triple-language repetition made the artifact a key to unlock thousands of secrets about one of the most studied ancient civilizations on Earth — and it also made it possible for tourists to have their names written in Hieroglyphics on bracelets when they visit Egypt today.  

Hanna is confident that the campaign's ethical argument, calling for items that are undeniably Egyptian to be returned to the country, will eventually prevail. And the campaign's website makes it clear that it's an argument not only for Egyptians to embrace, but Brits, too.

"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," the message at the top of the petition website states. "We urge everyone who believes in the right of cultural identity, the right of equality among nations, and the inalienable right of each sovereign state to enjoy their own heritage and reclaiming that heritage if it has been taken from them; to sign this petition in support of the return of Rosetta stone to its country of origin: Egypt."

Queen Elizabeth II's death sparks new criticism of monarchy's colonial past 07:28

"The public will not accept to have such cultural violence represented in their own museums," Hanna predicted. "People will no longer look at these museums as institutions of culture, but as institutions of crime… The museums need to catch up to the ethical values of the 21st century." 

More than 2,500 people had signed the petition as of Thursday, 11 days after it was launched.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.