News of the word

Dr Irving Finkel, who will talk about his latest book as part of Jewish Book Week, tells Dan Carrier how cuneiform tablets were deciphered... and how we learned the ancient Babylonians weren’t that different to us

Thursday, 24th February — By Dan Carrier

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Dr Irving Finkel with an example of a cuneiform tablet projected behind him

THE tablets began to appear regularly and in large numbers. Victorian archaeologists, working along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, were finding clay tablets with bizarre etchings on them.

These researchers had uncovered tablets scratched with the ancient writing known as cuneiform. They would bring back these literary relics for scholars to pore over, and attempt to decipher the thoughts of people who lived in Iraq and Syria thousands of years ago.

Dr Irving Finkel is the senior assistant keeper of the cuneiform archives at the British Museum, a library of 130,000 tablets on which these ancient lives are etched into the clay.

This weekend Dr Finkel presents his new book, The First Ghosts, at Jewish Book Week. His work reveals the prevalence of ghost myths in ancient Mesopotamian society, gleaned from his research on these cuneiform tablets and by considering them, Dr Finkel links these long-departed humans with our world today.

The Babylonians – who lived in Mesopotamia, an area covering modern day Syria and Iraq – have left a wealth of information as to how life was conducted back then and Dr Finkel has found stories of ghosts throughout. His book uses this to consider the concept that the spirits of the dead visited the living, and how this sheds light on belief systems of both ancient and modern worlds.

The translation of cuneiform began in the 1840s, Dr Finkel explains. “The Babylonian writing system is very complex,” he says. “If all we had were these inscriptions, I am inclined to think they were not decipherable.”

But this changed when a tablet was found with both ancient Persian and Babylonian script. It was a vital bridge to a long-lost language.

“The inscriptions were lengthy,” says Dr Finkel. “The old Persian was similar to the Babylonian. It was still a living language then. They could decipher the old Persian and use it to translate the cuneiform.”

It wasn’t straightforward. They discovered there was no alphabet in the modern sense, but words were written in syllables. There were numerous different forms for each sound, too, adding another layer of detective work. There were no gaps between words, giving linguists another headache.

“When scholars first looked at the ancient Babylonian, they could not read a word of it, but they could recognise patterns. They saw lines that corresponded with the ancient Persian. Having found similarities, the scholars began to experiment. They found the Persian word for river, and then found the word for river in Babylonian – they must have jumped up and down, for they knew now Babylonian was a semitic language and they now had a key for many of the signs, they were on their way to solving it.”

Finding other languages that were from the same family, such as Hebrew, provided further clues. “They could now expect to find words they recognised,” he adds. “They could work out verbs, genders, the structure of nouns.”

There were no references in ancient tomes, no books in libraries that could shed light on what the symbols meant – but scholars would bring it back.

“The language was completely dead,” he says. “The last cuneiform found dates from the first century AD. Some time around that time, the last old boys who could read it died, and that was that. That we can read it today is a major triumph of the humanities. The whole of ancient times suddenly became open to us – we could read letters and contracts, business documents and literature, and it showed us a new, pre-Greek world.”

Dr Finkel went to Birmingham University with an ambition to crack Egyptian hieroglyphics and in the late 1970s, he took up a post at the British Museum. It gave him access to a treasure trove of cuneiform tablets. “When I came to the museum I had the keys to the cupboard,” he recalls. “There are 130,000 tablets at my disposal.”

He embarked on the task of reading every one. “I can read it pretty much as I can read a newspaper,” he says. “I have spent my whole life reading it. I know how Babylonians thought: they could be cryptic and clever, stupid and mean, happy and sad.”

His latest book draws on work he completed for his doctorate that looked at Babylonian beliefs around exorcisms and spirits. “They used spells to cast out evil demons,” he says. “I was always interested in spells and incantations. I spent a lot of time looking at what was in the collection, and over time I began to put together a list of documents that refer to ghosts.”

In Mesopotamia the idea of ghosts was common and appear in numerous forms, ranging from rituals and omens. The tablets also include practical advice with how to deal with a ghost. It illustrates the idea of the dead returning to see the living was commonplace and an accepted truth.

“One important aspect of ancient times is, unlike us, there was no one who did or did not believe in ghosts,” Dr Finkel says. “They were taken for granted. The dead could come back. It was not seen as anything abnormal. You could not believe, or disbelieve. The Babylonians were rather sympathetic to them. They tried to give the ghost what they needed.”

Dr Finkel has been struck by how similar the Babylonians are to us today. “Our idea of ghosts is the same as it was 5,000 years ago,” he says. “It may be a belief that an old building has a ghost, and invariably it is someone who has come to an untimely and sticky end. It is a kind of universal truth. What modern ghosts stories share with the ancient ones is the person’s end was unhappy, or there is an unresolved issue, which means they come back.”

It adds to long-held views Dr Finkel has developed while poring over these ancient writings.

“I am obsessed with the idea that the population of this ancient world are not a distant, alien species,” he says. “They share so much with us. We are the same animals.

“If you put 24 Babylonians on a bus, you wouldn’t know. You can see this in their writing. They were intelligent and stupid, they had weaknesses and strengths. In the grand scheme of things, they were around not very long ago. They were just like us, in every way. They were complex, simple, multi-faceted, impressionistic, contradictory – and that is the essence of humanity.”

Irving Finkel gives a talk on The First Ghosts on Sunday, February 27, 6.15pm, St Pancras Room, Kings Place, 90 York Way, N1 9GE.
Jewish Book Week runs from February 26-March 6 at Kings Place, with select events available to view online. Full details at and

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