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The World’s Oldest Ghosts

Throughout the Autumnal Spooky Season on Twitter, I noticed an odd trend. Questions like “why are there no dinosaur ghosts?”, “why do people never report seeing caveman ghosts?”, “why are there no ghosts older than Victorian times?”, and “how long do ghosts live?” seemed to keep cropping up online. With these kinds of questions buzzing around, I thought it would be interesting to see whether I could dig up some truly old ghosts. Ghosts that have been haunting us, not for hundreds, but for thousands, and even millions of years.

1. Roman Ghosts (2,000 years old)

According to the British National Trust, some of the oldest ghosts haunting the properties and estates which they look after are to be found at the Treasurer’s House, York, UK. The spectres of marching Roman soldiers have been seen in the cellars of the historic property, most notably in 1953.

Eighteen-year-old apprentice Harry Martindale was working on fitting a new central heating system when he witnessed the figure of a helmeted Roman soldier emerge from a wall. The soldier was visible only from the knees up, as if walking at some since-buried ground level. The spectral soldier was followed by a horse, and at least nineteen others, who travelled in a procession through the opposite wall. This shocking apparition left young Harry in such a state that he was forced to take two weeks off work. Nevertheless, Martindale kept quiet about his encounter until the 1970s when he was interviewed by a group of academics for a television documentary.

Ghostly Romans are a feature of many haunted UK sites: the former Roman stronghold of Chester being another of the locations where the long-gone occupiers’ ghosts have been, and continue to be, seen.

2. Babylonian Ghost (3,500 years old)

In October 2021, Dr Irving Finkel, curator of the Middle Eastern department at the British Museum, and author of The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies, spoke to the UK press about a fascinating discovery. An ancient Babylonian clay tablet created circa 1500 BCE, which had been in the British Museum’s collection since the 1800s, had recently been found to contain an image of a ghost. Dr Finkel was quoted in the Guardian as saying “It is a Guinness Book of Records object because how could anybody have a drawing of a ghost which was older?“.

A lonely spirit being led to eternal bliss by a lover on a Babylonian clay tablet. White line tracing © James Fraser and Chris Cobb for The First Ghosts, by Irving Finkel. Photograph: The British Museum

Half of the front of the small tablet is missing, but its back holds instructions for dealing with a ghost which “seizes hold of a person and pursues him and cannot be loosed”. Essentially directions for laying a ghost, or for an exorcism. The image of the ghost (a bearded male figure) had been overlooked for so long because, fittingly, it was all but invisible. Only by lighting the tablet a certain way, from a certain angle, was it possible to view the image of the spirit.

The instructions for quieting the troublesome spirit essentially amount to pairing it up with another lonely ghost so that the two will be occupied with each other and will move on together, ceasing to bother the living. Having described the process for pairing the two in detail, the tablet leaves the would-be ghostbuster/matchmaker with the wonderful final instruction “Do not look behind you!”.

3. Pre-human ghosts (60 thousand years old)

Why do we never see “caveman” ghosts? Well, one theory is that we do, and have been doing for a long, long time. Hairy Hominids is the term Cryptozoology commonly uses to describe the category of creatures which the likes of Bigfoot, Yeti, Almas, etc belong to. Bipedal, humanoid, hair/fur-covered beasts which appear solid one moment, and yet seem ethereal the next.

Similarities between folkloric Indonesian Orang-Pedek (literally “short person”) and the long extinct archaic human sub-species Homo floresiensis (“Flores Man”; also nicknamed “Hobbits”) have been noted by many. Archaeological evidence of Homo floresiensis was discovered in 2003 at Liang Bua on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Partial skeletons of at least nine individuals have been recovered from the site since then, including one complete skull. The oldest of these remains is believed to date from 60,000 years ago.

In Bukit Duabelas, Sumatra, the Orang Rimba people refer to an apparently identical creature to the Orang Pedek as Hantu Pendek (“short ghost”); being thought of as spectral or even demonic as opposed to flesh and blood creatures.

In European folklore, Trolls, Gnomes, Fauns, and other supposedly mythical creatures which dwell in forests, caves, and other wilderness areas also share characteristics with pre-humans, or early humans. Huge hairy Wild Men (also known as Wodewose) featured heavily in the literature (and presumably the folklore) of the High Middle Ages and later.

In 2018 UK newspaper the Bristol Post reported that a passenger on a train travelling from Exeter to Bristol Temple Meads spotted “a bigfoot” from their window seat. An outbreak of similar sightings took place in 2012 in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK – where an 8-foot (2.4 metres) “apeman” was reported by several witnesses. Whilst in the USA and other heavily forested countries, arguments for as-yet-undiscovered populations of flesh and blood Hairy Hominids will always be made, in England, there really is no real possibility of such. So, could such encounters the world over actually be glimpses of the ghosts of long-deceased human ancestors/cousins? It is certainly a theory.

4. Triassic Ghost (220 million years old)

While Dr Finkel’s Babylonian ghost is not in there, the excitingly named “Vivaron, the snake-demon” is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the Oldest Ghost. Sightings of a huge (6-9 metres / 19-29 feet long) ghostly rattlesnake-like creature have been reported on the land surrounding what is now known as Ghost Ranch (formerly “Rancho de Los Brujos” – Witches’ Ranch) in New Mexico’s Rio Arriba County, USA since the 1500s.

Phytosaur. Picture from: The National Park Service

Archaeological excavations undertaken in the area since the late 1940s have unearthed more than a thousand dinosaur and prehistoric reptile specimens. Amongst these finds was the skeleton of a Triassic phytosaur – a huge (9 metre / 29 foot long) crocodilian ancestor/cousin with an elongated, serpentine body. Speculation that the ghostly snake creature sighted in the area could be the spectre of this prehistoric monster soon led to Vivaron, the snake monster being claimed as a candidate for the world’s oldest ghost.

More recently, in 2016, a hugely toothed jawbone fragment was discovered in the area. This was found to belong not to a phytosaur, but to another (and, it has to be admitted, even less snake-like) crocodilian ancestor/ cousin; the rauisuchid. This partial jawbone was found to belong to a previously unknown sub-species of rauisuchid, and was given a new name: Vivaron haydeni. Vivaron in reference to the snake ghost, and haydeni in honour of John Hayden, a hiker who, in 2002, discovered the New Mexico quarry from which the fossil was collected.

The idea that most, if not all, ghosts are all Woman in Black style Victorian ladies almost certainly comes from the many, many ghost stories of that era, and from the fact that so many of our own ghostly tales are based upon, or inspired, by such. Even though M. R. James – often cited as the master of the Ghost Story – was writing in Edwardian and First World War England, even his more deliberately commonplace tales often harked back to the (then recent) Victorian era.

The truth is, however, that ghosts have in all probability been with us since the very beginning. The first ghosts almost certainly correspond with the dawn of consciousness. After all, if a ghost appears in a primaeval forest and no one is around to witness it, can it really be said to haunt at all?

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