Egyptians call on British Museum to return Rosetta Stone


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[–]STVnotFPTP 858 points859 points860 points  (290 children)

There is an interesting discussion on statute of limitations I rarely see brought up over this sort of thing. Where is the line drawn, most rich societies around the world have been acquiring or have acquired things from others, I use acquired because some of this stuff was bought, some was stolen, and some was traded, and pretending as though this weren't the case is overly simplistic.

Further when we look at richer/more powerful individuals, organisations, or nation states acquiring items, by any of the listed methods, is there a point in time at which we'd judge it to be fine or moral, certainly there's no suggestion tribes in Africa who sold off slaves to european traders should also be among those paying reparations to their descendants, nor is there the perception that spoils of war should be returned nowadays for those nations, however it seems to be that this higher standard is only applied to a few wealthy nations, and only in some specific spheres.

I don't deny the moral argument for their return, however opening this avenue of thought leads to a pandora's box of possibilities on who "owns" what, and though in a utopian future one could imagine that all possessions were under collective ownership of the human race, and to be made collectively available, but I think we are a long way off achieving such an ideal.

[–]Zander_drax 802 points803 points804 points  (30 children)

"Get off this estate."

"What for?"

"Because it's mine."

"Where did you get it?"

"From my father."

"Where did he get it?"

"From his father."

"And where did he get it?"

"He fought for it."

"Well, I'll fight you for it.

Carl Sandburg, Selected Poems

[–]VeteranSergeant 33 points34 points35 points  (0 children)

The other place the argument gets muddled is that the only reason this stone even still exists intact is because it was taken by the French who realized it had significance. They found it in a wall in an Ottoman (Turkish) military fort built in the late 1400s. The Ottomans themselves, not realizing the stone's significance, had just dragged it there from a nearby ruin. The fort itself was starting to fall apart when the French got there in 1799.

It's also not an Egyptian artifact, it's a Ptolemaic one, and that dynasty was founded by the Macedonian occupiers after Alexander the Great's death. It's the whole reason it was written in three languages. It was a royal decree they wanted everyone to be able to read.

I honestly don't have the "right" answer for this dilemma. Just pointing out that it's hard for anyone to really point at who "owns" a lot of these artifacts the British collected, especially in the Mediterranean, where you have thousands of years of land exchanging hands between empires. The British Empire was just the last one with the figurative hot potato.

[–]Zerksys 57 points58 points59 points  (0 children)

I will go even further and say that, in this case, there isn't a strong imperative to return the stone. I understand the argument that certain artifacts have historical significance to the people living in those cultures today. For example, the British museum apparently has literal human remains confiscated from various burial sites through the world. I can see an argument in returning forcefully siezed artifacts that have had a long standing significance to the living descendents of those historical societies.

However the Rosetta stone does not qualified under those conditions. It only has the value it does because it was given significance by the actions of the French who used it to crack the code of a long dead language. The stone was later ceded by the French to the British through a post war agreement. In other words, it is not reasonable to assume that the Egyptians would covet the artifact if it wasn't made famous by Europeans.

It would be akin to someone traveling abroad and finding some stone carved toy in the garbage in a foreign country. He then picks the toy out of the garbage and brings it back home. Later on in life, he becomes famous, and all of a sudden that driftwood toy becomes famous by association with him. Then the country he got it from claims that it is their historical artifact and want it returned. We can clearly see in this case that the country of origin doesn't have a good claim to something that was picked out of the trash and only has value via association to the famous person.

[–]AnacharsisIV 20 points21 points22 points  (3 children)

I used to believe that repatriation was the right way, until the national museum of Brazil went up in flames and, to a lesser extent, when ISIS rolled through the Mesopotamian museum of Badghdad and destroyed pretty much everything that predated Islam.

Nowadays, I definitely think physical culture should only be repatriated if the original owners or creators of the work can ensure its safety for a significant amount of time; it needs to be in a well-funded, well-constructed, secure facility in an area or region that's politically stable. Ultimately, the purpose of a museum is to derive knowledge from the artifacts stored within, not to make people feel good because they "own" something that's important. I'd rather the British hold on to an artifact than have it be destroyed in a few years or even generations because the original owners couldn't afford a fire suppression system (acknowledging, of course, that the reason they can't afford to safeguard the artifacts is likely a result of colonialism, which is what brought those artifacts to Britain or Europe in the first place).

I suppose a perfect solution would be for developed countries to not only repatriate their looted artifacts but also fund institutions to keep them secure, but that's a pipe dream.

[–]zehfunsqryselvttzy 2 points3 points4 points  (0 children)

I think what you are saying is a symptom that results when one group wants something and thinks they have a way of getting it from another group. Rules are applied asymmetrically, and there is tug-of-war that can manifest through lawsuits, payouts, or judgment in the court of public opinion.

If one were to purely argue a moral ground, it would be very easy to say that wherever an artifact can enrich the lives of the most people is where it should remain.

Putting the artifact closer to the context for which it was created (i.e. returning it to Egypt) offers some benefits, while keeping it in a highly accessible museum, close to international airports, giving good access to researchers, and making sure it is protected and preserved typically offer significantly larger benefits (i.e. keeping it in large western museums).

But that's just an infrastructure issue, and once Egypt has its infrastructure in place to provide similar advantages to large western museums, it would be an ideal place to house all those old artifacts.

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