Things That Go Bump in the Night

Assyriologist discovers world’s oldest drawing of a ghost

The tablet’s depiction of a lonely spirit being led by a lover. Note that the white lines have been digitally added to the image to highlight the faint drawing.
Image Cred: James Fraser and Chris Cobb for The First Ghosts, by Irving Finkel. Photograph: The British Museum
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd

It seems people, even those who lived thousands of years ago, have always enjoyed a good, old-fashioned ghost story. As reported by The Guardian, an Assyriologist with the British Museum recently discovered what might be the world’s oldest depiction of a ghost. The image was found by Dr. Irving Finkel on a clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia estimated to be around 3,500 years old. One side of the tablet depicts a handcuffed ghost being led into the afterlife by his lover. According to Finkel, the depiction is “obviously a male ghost and he’s miserable.”

The other side of the tablet, written in Akkadian cuneiform, gives instructions for what to do if you become haunted by a lonely ghost. The tablet advised that the best way to deal with such a spirit was to find it a lover. This could be accomplished by creating a small statue of the ghost along with a companion statue that it could love. The reader would then pray over the statues at sunrise, petitioning the sun god to take the spirit back to the underworld.

The exceptional image was almost missed, however, as the area of the tablet on which the ghost is depicted is quite worn. According to Finkel, “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?” Despite having entered the collections of the British Museum in the 19th century, the tablet has never been displayed. Indeed, its unique character wasn’t even noticed until Finkel began to study it for an upcoming book. Finkel, who is the curator of the museum’s Middle Eastern department, hopes the tablet can be placed on exhibition soon.

Join the British Museum on October 28, 2021, 5:30 pm London time,  via Zoom, as Bethany Hughes and Dr. Irving Finkel discuss Dr. Finkel’s new book, First Ghosts. Registration is free.

Read more in BHD:

Rare Cuneiform Inscription Found in Malta by BAS Staff

Freedom Speaks Hurrian: A Cuneiform Song of Liberation by Marek Dospěl

Riddle Me This, King Nebuchadnezzar by BAS Staff

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