LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities said he plans to ask the British Museum to hand the Rosetta Stone over to his country.
The ancient stone was the key to deciphering hieroglyphs on the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs and is one of six ancient relics that Egypt's chief archaeologist Zahi Hawass said his country wants to recover from museums around the world.
"I did not write yet to the British Museum but I will. I will tell them that we need the Rosetta Stone to come back to Egypt for good," Hawass told Reuters this weekend.
"The British Museum has hundreds of thousands of artifacts in the basement and as exhibits. I am only needing one piece to come back, the Rosetta Stone. It is an icon of our Egyptian identity and its homeland should be Egypt."
The 3-1/2 foot high Rosetta Stone was unearthed by Napoleon's army in 1799 and dates back to 196 BC. It became British property after Napoleon's defeat under the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria.
Hawass, whose flamboyant style and trademark hat have led some to liken him to film character Indiana Jones, has in the past said he wanted to acquire the stone for Egypt and now wants to go about it through official channels.
His wish list for relics also includes the bust of Nefertiti from Berlin's Neues Museum, a statue of Great Pyramid architect Hemiunu from the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, the Dendera Temple Zodiac from the Louvre in Paris, Ankhaf's bust from Boston's Museum of Fine Art and a statue of Rameses II from the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy.
The Rosetta Stone, which has inscriptions in hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek, has been housed at the British Museum since 1802 and forms the centerpiece of the museum's Egyptian collection, attracting millions of visitors each year.
Hawass had previously asked to borrow the stone for the opening of a new museum in Giza, near Cairo in 2012, but said he would no longer settle for just a loan.
The British Museum said in a statement that its collection should remain as a whole to fulfill the museum's purpose, and it would consider the request for a loan to Egypt in due course.
David Gill, reader in Mediterranean archaeology at Swansea University, said the British Museum would be cautious about handling the request as it could lead to increased pressure over other items in its collection, such as the Parthenon marbles.
"The whole issue for the British Museum is if they say we're going to give you back the Rosetta Stone, it sets a precedent," he said. "They're worried that countries like Italy, Greece and Turkey are going to demand large numbers of objects back."
Masako Muro, a 34-year-old tourist in London from Japan, said she felt that the Rosetta Stone should remain in London, at least for the benefit of visitors.
"It is easy to travel here especially for tourists compared to traveling to Egypt. And that makes it open to everybody," she said.
Editing by Paul Casciato