Figures of Babylon: oldest drawing of a ghost found in British Museum vault

A 3,500-year-old image tablet of a ‘miserable male ghost’ gives up its secret

Its outlines are faint, only discernible at an angle, but the world’s oldest drawing of a ghost has been discovered in the darkened vaults of the British Museum.

A lonely bearded spirit being led into the afterlife and eternal bliss by a lover has been identified on an ancient Babylonian clay tablet created about 3,500 years ago.

It is part of an exorcist’s guide to getting rid of unwanted ghosts by addressing the particular malaise that brought them back to the world of the living – in this case, a ghost in desperate need of a companion. He is shown walking with his arms outstretched, his wrists tied by a rope held by the female, while an accompanying text details a ritual that would dispatch them happily to the underworld.

Dr Irving Finkel, curator of the Middle Eastern department at the British Museum, said the “absolutely spectacular object from antiquity” had been overlooked until now.

“It’s obviously a male ghost and he’s miserable. You can imagine a tall, thin, bearded ghost hanging about the house did get on people’s nerves. The final analysis was that what this ghost needed was a lover,” he said.

“You can’t help but imagine what happened before. ‘Oh God, Uncle Henry’s back.’ Maybe Uncle Henry’s lost three wives. Something that everybody knew was that the way to get rid of the old bugger was to marry him off. It’s not fanciful to read this into it. It’s a kind of explicit message. There’s very high-quality writing there and immaculate draughtsmanship.

“That somebody thinks they can get rid of a ghost by giving them a bedfellow is quite comic.”

As a world authority on cuneiform, a system of writing used in the ancient Middle East, Finkel realised that the tablet had been incorrectly deciphered previously. The drawing had been missed as the ghost only comes to life when viewed from above and under a light. Forgotten since its acquisition by the museum in the 19th century, the tablet has never even been exhibited.

Irving Finkel, a world authority on cuneiform script, tells the story of his ghostly discovery in The First Ghosts.
Irving Finkel, a world authority on cuneiform script, tells the story of his ghostly discovery in The First Ghosts. Photograph: Dave Cherry

Finkel said: “You’d probably never give it a second thought because the area where the drawings are looks like it’s got no writing. But when you examine it and hold it under a lamp, those figures leap out at you across time in the most startling way. It is a Guinness Book of Records object because how could anybody have a drawing of a ghost which was older?”

While half the tablet is missing and it is small enough to fit in a person’s hand, the back bears an extensive text with the instructions for dealing with a ghost that “seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosed”. The ritual involves making figurines of a man and a woman: “You dress the man in an everyday shift and equip him with travel provisions. You wrap the woman in four red garments and clothe her in a purple cloth. You give her a golden brooch. You equip her fully with bed, chair, mat and towel; you give her a comb and a flask.

“At sunrise towards the sun you make the ritual arrangements and set up two carnelian vessels of beer. You set in place a special vessel and set up a juniper censer with juniper. You draw the curtain like that of the diviner. You [put] the figurines together with their equipment and place them in position… and say as follows, Shamash [god of the sun and judge of the underworld by night].”

The text ends with a warning: “Do not look behind you!”

Finkel believes the tablet was part of a library of magic in the house of an exorcist or in a temple.

The ghost has appeared just in time for Halloween. Its discovery features in Finkel’s forthcoming book, The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies, to be published on 11 November by Hodder & Stoughton.

He himself has never seen a ghost, “even in the shadier vaults of the British Museum”, which is “riddled with ghosts”, he said. “In the King’s Library, more than one person has seen a head and shoulders moving along but at a peculiar height. That was dismissed by sceptics, but it turns out that the original floor under the present floor was actually low, which means that they were about right.”

He hopes to exhibit the Babylonian tablet, noting that such an artefact brings us closer to our ancestors: “All the fears and weaknesses and characteristics that make the human race so fascinating, assuredly were there in spades 3,500 years ago.

“I want people to know about this culture. Egypt always wins in Hollywood. If the Babylonian underworld is anything like it was described, then they’re all still there. So just remember that.”


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Defiant British Museum appoints Mary Beard as trustee
Board approves the ‘perfect candidate’ after she was rejected by No 10 for her pro-European views

Richard Brooks

28, Mar, 2020 @6:03 PM

Article image
British Museum prints deal completes Picasso mission
Depictions of artist’s muse feature in unique gathering of graphic works

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent

24, Sep, 2016 @11:05 PM

Article image
Edvard Munch ‘reunited’ with fiancee for British Museum show
Portrait was sawn in half by the artist after he was shot in a bedroom scuffle

Vanessa Thorpe

07, Apr, 2019 @6:03 AM

Article image
Fit for a king: true glory of 1,000-year-old cross buried in Scottish field is revealed at last
Part of the Galloway Hoard, found in 2014, the piece is so spectacular it can only have belonged to a person of high standing

Dalya Alberge

13, Dec, 2020 @10:30 AM

Article image
Iraqi discoveries help shed light on British Museum treasures
Work of trainees in Iraq has enabled new understanding of objects going on show in UK

Esther Addley

29, Jan, 2020 @4:45 PM

Article image
Mary Beard blocked by No 10 as British Museum trustee 'for pro-Europe views'
Classicist’s pro-Remain stance led to Downing Street ‘veto’ – but a trustee place is now to be offered regardless

Richard Brooks

01, Mar, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Becket’s brutal murder reimagined in museum – with his skull as a finale
Relics from the centuries-old crime scene will go on show at the British Museum’s first major exhibition about the medieval martyr

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

25, Apr, 2021 @7:30 AM

Article image
Tiny traces of DNA found in cave dust may unlock secret life of Neanderthals
Advanced technique used to recover genetic material may help solve the mystery of early humans

Robin McKie Science editor

16, May, 2021 @8:45 AM

Article image
Wreck of the world’s oldest slave ship at risk of destruction
BBC documentary shows fragile sunken vessel in which enslaved Africans died is being destroyed by trawlers

Dalya Alberge

11, Oct, 2020 @7:15 AM

Article image
British Museum says metal detectorists found 1,311 treasures last year
‘Rare’ 1,100-year-old brooch from Norfolk among treasures found

Mark Brown, Arts correspondent

17, Mar, 2020 @11:37 AM