A 3,500-year-old tablet held in the British Museum has been revealed as depicting a ghost, with instructions for how to avoid the spirits of the dead hanging around making trouble for the living. The find has become the centerpiece of a forthcoming book on the way one of the first civilizations viewed the undead.
Dr Irving Finkel is Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian items at the British Museum and has spent a lifetime learning about how the region's ancient civilizations saw the world. On examining one of the museum's many Babylonian tablets, he noticed something no one had seen before – in the right light, and from an appropriate angle, a tablet reveals the outline of two figures, one with hands bound and on a lead.
The tablet, Finkel concludes, portrays the ghost of a middle-aged woman who needs to be returned to the underworld. To do so, an attractive young man has been conjured up to accompany her. To ensure this occurs, drawings of both of them, with her holding him on a lead, were buried along with other things they might need.
The back of the tablet carries instructions on removing a ghost who; “seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosed.” This involved making and suitably dressing figurines of a man and woman, providing them with items such as a bed and comb. Ritual arrangements were to be made at dawn with two vessels of beer and an incantation to the Sun God.
The text ends with instructions, “Do not look behind you,” reminiscent of the stories of Orpheus and Lot's wife.
“It is a Guinness Book of Records object because how could anybody have a drawing of a ghost which was older?” Finkel told the Guardian.
Finkel has put the tablet in context with other Mesopotamian references to spirits in the book The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies, to be published next month. “Ghosts inhabit something of the very essence of what it is to be human,” he notes, passing on Babylonian wisdom about how not only to be rid of them, but to bring them back and avoid becoming one yourself.
“When a person died in Mesopotamia, as far as we understand it, they had to be laid in the ground with a kind of ritual so they were jolly well locked in so they wouldn't come back and cause trouble,” Finkel said in an interview for the museum website.
Belief in ghosts was universal at the time, Finkel said, but people were sympathetic, seeing departed spirits as needing to be helped back to where they belonged rather than as something evil to fight. The exception was ghosts of people dreadful even in life, and not improved by death, instead slipping into people's ears and causing migraines. The ritual the tablet described would have been available to the very wealthy for a high price, Finkel believes, but the poor would have had to put up with troublesome spirits.
Finkel's most famous discovery was a tablet telling of a mighty flood, appearing to have been the origin of the story of Noah's Ark more than a thousand years before it made its way into the Bible. The proto-Noah tale was so widespread in Mesopotamia that numerous tablets recounting different versions of it have been found.
Finkel's however, is the only one known that refers to animals brought into the ark “two by two”, accompanied by detailed instructions for ark building should the floods return.
In a world of melting ice-caps we may need all the flotation devices we can get, so Finkel's find was used to build a one-third scale model ark, which indeed proved buoyant, albeit incapable of preserving all of creation.
Those seeking more detail can sign up for next week's online event with Dr Finkel.