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

Although its outline is faint and only visible at an angle, the British Museum has the oldest known drawing of a ghost.
An ancient Babylonian clay tablet that was created around 3,500 years ago shows a lonely, bearded spirit being taken into eternal bliss and the afterlife by a lover.

This is part of an exorcist's guide to getting rid ghosts by addressing their particular malaise. In this case, it was a ghost who desperately needed a companion. The male is seen walking with his arms extended, his wrists held by the rope by the female. An accompanying text describes a ritual that will send them to the underworld.

Dr Irving Finkel is the British Museum's curator for the Middle Eastern section. He said that the extraordinary object, which dates back to antiquity, had been overlooked up until now.

It is clearly a male ghost, and it's very unhappy. It is easy to imagine that a tall, thin and bearded ghost was hanging around the house, causing anxiety. He concluded that the ghost needed a lover.

It is hard not to imagine what has happened in the past. Uncle Henry's back. Perhaps he lost three wives. Everyone knew that marriage was the only way to get rid the old man. This is not an absurd idea. It is a type of explicit message. It has very high-quality writing and impeccable draughtsmanship.

It is funny that someone thinks they can kill a ghost by making a bedfellow.

Finkel, a world authority in cuneiform (a system of writing that was used in the ancient Middle East), realized that the tablet had not been correctly deciphered before. Finkel realized that the drawing was missing because the ghost can only be seen from above and under a lamp. The tablet was never displayed after its acquisition by the museum in 19 century.

Irving Finkel, an international authority on cuneiform scripts, recounts his ghostly discovery in The First Ghosts. Photo by Dave Cherry

Finkel stated that you would probably not give it another thought as the area where the drawings are appears to have no writing. It is amazing how the figures jump out at you when you hold it up to a lamp. Because it is a Guinness Book of Records item, how could anyone have a drawing of ghosts that was older than they were?

Half of the tablet is missing, and it is small enough for a person to hold. However, the back contains extensive instructions on how to deal with ghosts that take control of people and chase them. This ritual involves creating figurines of a man or woman. You dress the man in a regular shift and provide travel provisions. The woman is wrapped in four red clothes and covered in purple cloth. You give the woman a gold brooch. You provide her with a bed, chair and mat, as well as a towel.

You make the ritual arrangements at sunrise and set up two beer vessels made of carnelian. A special vessel is placed and a juniper censer is set up with juniper. The curtain is drawn like the one used by the diviner. Then, you [put] the figurines and their equipment together and then place them in the right order.

The text ends with a warning.

Finkel believes that the tablet belonged to a library of magic found in the house or temple of an exorcist.

Just in time for Halloween, the ghost appeared. Finkels book, The First Ghosts, Most Ancient of Legacies will feature its discovery. It will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on November 11.

He said that he has never seen ghosts in the British Museum's dark vaults. More than one person in the Kings Library has witnessed a head and shoulders moving at an unusual height. Skeptics dismissed this, but it turned out that the original floor beneath the current floor was actually quite low. This means they were probably right.

He plans to display the Babylonian tablet and notes that it brings us closer to our ancestors. All the characteristics and fears that make humankind so fascinating were evident in abundance 3500 years ago.

This culture is important to me. Hollywood always chooses Egypt. If the Babylonian Underworld is any like what it was described, they are all still there. Keep that in mind.