A closer look at the Rosetta Stone

Discovered on 15th July 1799 -or should that be re-discovered?- the Rosetta Stone has become the most visited artefact in the most visited museum in the UK. Of the nearly 6.5 million visitors the British Museum welcomed in 2016, you can bet that the vast majority of them came to see the Rosetta Stone. If you were one of those people, and all you could see was the backs of people’s heads, or the Stone through a camera screen, did you know about the other Rosetta Stone the British Museum has?

A crowd in front of the Rosetta Stone
A crowd in front of the Rosetta Stone

The second Stone can be found in Room 1, the Enlightenment Gallery (also known as the King’s Library) and you can actually touch it. This second stone is a copy, but it is still quite something to feel the indents from the hieroglyphs, the carving of the cursive Demotic and the grooves of the Ancient Greek texts. It is these three texts that give the Rosetta Stone its phenomenal draw. With only one or two of them, the stone would be just another chunk of rock, but with all three… With all three texts, we were able to unlock the secrets of Ancient Egypt.

The funny thing is, the text itself isn’t that interesting (essentially, it is some Priests toadying for a tax-break).

What makes the Rosetta Stone important is what it has come to represent.

And what does it represent?

Several things.

International communication and cooperation for a start. Its very name has become synonymous with translation.  Not only is the text on it international, but it took a combined international effort from the French and the British to translate it. This Anglo-French (Franco-British?) collaboration is especially worthy of note as the Stone came into British hands as spoils of war. The Brits claimed it from the French following the Capitulation of Alexandia in 1801. King George III officially donated the Rosetta Stone to the British Museum in June 1802.

We can already see several identities the Rosetta Stone can lay claim to, but it can also be claimed as an LGBTQ object. With an almost hidden vein of pink granite running through it, we have an almost perfect metaphor for this other identity.

The Rosetta Stone with Rainbows
The Rosetta Stone with Rainbows

Richard Parkinson said “every object is potentially queer,” all we have to do is find the LGBTQ connection. As well as writing A Little Gay History, Richard was also the curator responsible for the Rosetta Stone. He literally wrote the book on it.

He tells us that one of the men who worked on translating the hieroglyphs, William Bankes, was forced to flee Britain after being committed to trail for having sex with a soldier in Green Park.

william john bankes by george sandars
William John Bankes by George Sandars

If all it took was a scene in Maurice to turn the Assyrian Lions into LGBTQ objects, then this connection should be enough to light the Rosetta Stone up in rainbow lights.

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