Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The Rosetta Stone: the first political manifesto?

A totemic object in the British Museum's collection, the Rosetta Stone has long fascinated linguistic scholars. But Professor Carol Hedderman of Leicester's Department of Criminology examines its political messages and sees parallels in today's criminal justice debate.

One of the 100 objects chosen in 2010 to represent the history of the world by Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, was the Rosetta Stone.

What makes this fragment of black granite stone tablet famous is the key part it played in enabling scholars, more than 2000 years after it was carved, to read thousands of other hieroglyphic texts written on tombs, monuments and papyri. In explaining the stone's significance, Neil MacGregor suggests that ‘what matters about the Rosetta Stone is not what it says but that it says it three times and in three different languages.’

However, for a Social Scientist what it says is exactly what matters. The inscription is an interesting reflection on what political leaders offer to their citizens when trying to enhance their popularity and hold on to power.

The Rosetta Stone shows a decree issued in Egypt in 196 BC which both describes King Ptolemy V’s achievements and lays out a set of political and financial concessions designed to garner and maintain the support of influential figures during a time of social and political uncertainty. Unsurprisingly, tax breaks feature very prominently, much as they would today. Given the amount of media attention routinely given to crime and punishment, it’s not surprising that this merits a mention too. However, in a modern context in which individual politicians and political parties compete with each other to be ‘tough on crime’, the way imprisonment is referred to may seem surprising.

The young King’s PR team proudly proclaim that '...the people who were in prison and those against whom there had been charges for a long time, he released...’.  Clearly this was a sure-fire move for securing public support in Egypt over 2000 years ago.

In sharp contrast, we now have a Minister of Justice in Chris Grayling who has expressly stated that he will not seek to bring down the prison population.  This is despite the Chief Inspector of Prisons raising concerns about prison overcrowding and despite rising rates of self-harm and suicides among inmates.  Bearing in mind Winston Churchill’s contention that ‘the mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country’, it is tempting to conclude that modern-day Britain could learn something about civilization from  ancient Egypt.  Clearly that is simplistic.  However much overcrowding adds to the demeaning and de-humanising conditions in British prisons, they are unlikely to fall to the standards of Antiquity. But the real lesson here is that those who seek political power across the ages are often more driven by their political ambitions than any real concern for the public interest. There is good evidence (including that cited below) to show that prison promotes rather than reduces offending, but it would take a very brave politician to make that their election slogan as we head towards the 2015 elections.

To follow up on the topic of how prison fosters rather than reduces offending see the following abstract:

Professor Carol Hedderman

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