Why are we asking this now?
Dr Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and the high priest of all matters archaeological in the Land of the Pharaohs, arrived in London yesterday to further his demand for the return of the Rosetta Stone from the display rooms of the British Museum, where it has been on show since 1802. Dr Hawass has embarked on an international campaign to secure the return of a host of renowned artefacts which he claims were plundered by colonial oppressors and assorted brigands from Egypt's ancient tombs and palaces before ending up in some of the world's most famous museums.
What is so important about a 2,200-year-old slab of granite?
Carved in 196BC, the Rosetta Stone is the linguistic key to deciphering hieroglyphics and probably the single-most important conduit of understanding between the modern world and ancient Egypt. The 1.1m-high stele was covered in carved text bearing three translations of the same written passage. Two of the languages were Egyptian scripts, including one in hieroglyphics, and the remaining text was classical Greek.
Its discovery by a French army engineer in 1799 near the post of Rashid or Rosetta allowed western scholars to translate for the first time a succession of previously undecipherable hieroglyphs using the Greek translation and thus unlock many of the secrets left behind in the myriad carvings and frescos of the pharaonic era. Ironically, the meaning of the text on the stone itself was less than rivetting - it describes the repeal of various taxes by Ptolemy V and instructions on the erection of statues in temples.
What's Dr Hawass's case for returning the Stone?
As with the Greeks and the Elgin Marbles, he considers the stele to be stolen goods and has made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that he considers its continued presence in the British Museum to be a source of shame for the United Kingdom. Speaking in 2003, when his campaign began, Dr Hawass said: "If the British want to be remembered, if they want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity." The archaeologist, who has established a fearsome reputation as the self-appointed guardian of Egypt's antiquities since he was made head of the SCA in 2002, claimed this week that Britain had under-valued the stone and kept it in a "dark, badly-lit room" until he expressed an interest in its repatriation.
So was it stolen?
The Rosetta Stone's journey from the sands of an 18th-century desert fort to the hushed halls of the British Museum is indeed clouded by colonial skulduggery. The stone was discovered in July 1799 by Captain Pierre-Francois Bouchard, an engineer in Napoleon's army sent to conquer Egypt a year earlier. The arrival of the British in 1801 and their subsequent defeat of Napoleon's forces led to a dispute between the team of French scientists sent by Paris to collect archaeological finds and the commander of Britain's occupying army, who insisted they be handed over as the spoils of victory. General Jacques-Francois Menou, the French commander, considered the stone to be his private property and hid it.
There are conflicting stories about how it then fell into British hands. One version is that it was seized by a British colonel who carried it away on a gun carriage. Another version is that a British Egyptologist, Edward Clarke, was passed the stone in a Cairo back street by a French counterpart. Either way, there is little or no record of any consultation with the Egyptians. When the stone eventually arrived back in Britain, it bore an inscription painted in white: …