A curator exploring the shadowy recesses of the British Museum’s archives recently encountered a ghost—or rather, the world’s oldest image of one, etched onto a 3,500-year-old Babylonian clay tablet. The figure of a tall, emaciated spirit with his hands bound illustrates the text of an ancient exorcism ritual meant to banish the sort of ghost that “seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosed.”
Irving Finkel, the curator of the British Museum’s Middle Eastern department and a specialist in cuneiform, the angular writing system of the ancient Babylonian civilization, recently translated the text of the ritual, which had remained unread and ignored since the British Museum acquired the tablet in the 1800s. At that time, museums across Europe were in a rush to stockpile Babylonian artifacts, and curators would often pay local people to loot clay and stone tablets, along with other artifacts, from archaeological sites in what is now Iraq. Most of those items arrived with little or no information about their context and ended up in storage.
The ghost tablet, for example, had never been displayed to the public, and no one had translated its text. Nor had anyone noticed the hidden ghostly image on the reverse side of the clay tablet, either. That side appears blank until it’s viewed under a light at just the right angle, when the image of the ghost seems to leap out at the viewer.