The 10 Most Not-So-Puzzling Ancient Artifacts: The Baghdad Battery

Ah the Baghdad Battery, such a simple, yet confounding object…or is it?

Let’s start at the beginning…or should I say beginnings?

The story starts with one German artist/archaeologist Wilhelm Konig who either unearthed the vessel during an excavation in Khujut Rabu [2], or found the object in the basement of the Baghdad Museum when he took over as curator [6]. Now, Konig was a real person, he was appointed Assistant Director of the Baghdader Antikenverwaltung (the Baghdad Antiquities’ Administration), becoming its Director in 1934 [1], and he appears to have published a paper on the Battery but I can’t find a copy [2, 4].

So let’s ignore the two conflicting origin stories and move on.

When the vessel was examined there was evidence of an acidic substance being present, and a copper cylinder and a metal rod, all held in place with an asphalt plug. Konig supposedly said this was a battery and was used for electroplating items with gold or sliver leaf, and ever since the pseudo-archaeology world has run with it.

So here are the red flags:

Red Flag #1 – Multiple Origin Stories.

Anytime I see this I get suspicious. If it was a real discovery of a real object of this much importance, there would be a record to certify its authenticity.  We’re lacking this here. Konig was a real person, but he wouldn’t be the first in history to have his identity abused to further a fantasy.

Red Flag #2 – Dating The Pot Itself.

This little tid-bit doesn’t pop up until research begins to be done on the pot. You see, the original age of the pot is said to be from the Parthian era, 250 BC – 225 AD [6, 2]. Yet if we look at the artistic nature of the pot itself we find they are made in the style of the Sassanians People, who lived from 250 AD – 650 AD [6, 2]. This is an 900 year difference.

Red Flag #3 – Electroplating

Konig suggested the batteries were for electroplating, but again, there is no real evidence to support that [2]. To start, the method used by Mesopotamians is believed to be fire-gilding, using mercury [1]. Not to mention the  only scientist to supposedly able to use the batteries for electroplating, didn’t make any records of her experiments.

Dr Arne Eggebrecht, a past director of Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, supposedly experimented by connecting several replica Batteries together and used grape juice as her acid. She claims to have deposited a very thin layer of silver on an object [2]. Other scientists dispute this, due to a lack of records and that no one has been able to replicate her experiment [2].

In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Bettina Schmitz said, “There does not exist any written documentation of the experiments which took place here in 1978… The experiments weren’t even documented by photos, which really is a pity,” she says. “I have searched through the archives of this museum and I talked to everyone involved in 1978 with no results.” Dr Schmitz is currently a researcher based at the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum.

Red Flag #4 – The Actual Construction of the Battery.

A Modified “Baghdad Battery”

The clay pot is roughly five inches long, with a copper cylinder inside and an iron rod all held in place by an asphalt stopper. Testing suggests that there was some kind of acidic substance inside the pot at one time [5]. Things start to fall apart when we examine the battery further.

The vessel and the metal innards all resemble artifacts found elsewhere in the region, in Seleucia on the Tigris river, which were used to store papyrus [4,5]. The acidic residue in the pots could easily have been decimated papyrus [4, 6] and since the batters were supposedly left to the elements, it’s not unthinkable that this is indeed the case [4].

Also, the asphalt cap used to seal the battery completely covered the metal pieces [4], so there would have been no way to actually connect the battery to anything [1,4]. Even if there had been a way, there have never been any wires to suggest such a connection, or any devices that would require electricity, found associated with the batteries [2, 4].

Red Flag #5 – Archaeologists Familiar with the Region don’t Think it’s a Battery, When They Think About it at all.

Elizabeth Stone, Stony Brook University archaeologist and professor of archaeology, talked about her dig in Iraq, the first in 20 years [3]. During the interview on NPR’s Science Friday she received a question from a caller asking about the battery. She replied that she didn’t know a single archaeologist who believed the Battery was a battery [3]. Dr. Stone is considered an authority on Iraq archaeology, and if anyone knew anything about the Batteries, she would. Her null answer, speaks volumes on the topic.

Building a Baghdad Replica.

The Anatomy of a “Baghdad Battery”

It is true that, with some modification, you too can build a Battery that works, as has been proven by the Mythbusters and several academic projects [6]. There are even directions on the wonderful site Instructables on how to build your own. However, sticking a probe into a lemon will provide more of an electrical current then the Battery, and is much cheaper to constrict [5].

So what are the Baghdad Batteries?

They are simply clay vessels that housed copper cylinders. Such cylinders are known to have held papyrus scrolls.The majority of Archaeologists agree with this interpretation. I’m going to invoke Occam’s Razor and go with the the archaeology here, that supports the vessels as being scroll jars.

I know that’s not as Hollywood as electrical batteries or evidence of alien contact. But it is closer to reality and the majority of the evidence supports it, where there is none to support the other ideas.

Resources:

[1] Bad Archaeology. “The ‘Batteries of Babylon’.” http://www.badarchaeology.com/?page_id=208#   Accessed 6/22/2012.

[2] BBC News. “Riddle of ‘Baghdad’s batteries’.” BBC News Science and Enviroment. 2/27/2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2804257.stm#story Accessed 6/22/2012.

[3] Science Friday. “Archaeologists Revisit Iraq.” 3/23/2012.
http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/03/23/2012/archaeologists-revisit-iraq.html. Accessed 6/22/2012.

[4] Skeptic World. “The Baghdad Battery”. http://www.skepticworld.com/ancient-artifacts/baghdad-battery.asp Accessed 6/22/2012.

[5] Temples, Tombs, and Spaceships. “The Baghdad Battery.”  Oct 12th, 2010. http://sites.matrix.msu.edu/pseudoarchaeology/2010/10/12/the-baghdad-battery-and-ancient-electricity/. Accessed 6/22/2012.

[6] The Iron Skeptic. “The ‘Baghdad Battery’.” http://www.theironskeptic.com/articles/battery/battery.htm. Accessed 6/22/2012.

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Categories: 10 Most Puzzling Ancient Artifacts, Weird Archaeology | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

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23 thoughts on “The 10 Most Not-So-Puzzling Ancient Artifacts: The Baghdad Battery

  1. Pingback: Baghdad Battery, the Saqqara Plane, and Other Not-So-Mysterious Artifacts | PaleoBabble

  2. Pingback: Livius Nieuwsbrief / september « Mainzer Beobachter

  3. Graeme H

    Could the corrosive solution which affected the copper, be added as a ‘anti tamper’ device. So they could be used as a portable Safe, for the transportation of important documents. Forcing the wrongful opening to corrupt the content?

    • ArchyFantasies

      There is no evidence that there were any liquids of any kind inside the sealed jars. Rather, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest the jars were normal papyri jars used to hold scrolls.

      Now, if there had been a corrosive liquid in the jar, how would they have kept it from dissolving the papyrus? It’s a fun effect to put in a movie, but we have no reason to think such a think really occurred.

      • Graeme H

        Thank you for your fast reply, ‘ how would they have kept it from dissolving the papyrus?’, well i was thinking the copper tube would separate them from the liquid, but your correct then if there was no eveadence of liquid, looks like I have watched too many action movies.

  4. Valentina

    The difference between a lemon battery and a Baghdad battery is that you can get the charge to increase over time in the Baghdad battery. I’m not sure why, but it works. I think it is a bit arrogant Not to be Puzzled by the Baghdad battery. They may well have been used for holding paper, or as a battery, or for something else entirely. My mind is open!

    Can anyone explain why the electrical charge of the Baghdad battery increases over time? How long might one of these cells continue to work? Weeks? Months? Years?

    • I have never heard of this increase in power that you mention. Maybe if you can link me to something demonstrationing this claim? Since there has never been any evidence to support the claim that the batteries were ever used, there is no way to answer your questions.

      There is a difference between having an open mind, and ignoring facts.

  5. Reblogged this on scybites and commented:
    I’m interested in this refutation of the purpose of the famous ‘Baghdad Battery’. The Baghdad Battery is definitely controversial; the purpose of the artifact, potentially as an electrochemical cell used for electroplating (more than a thousand years before the invention of the leclanche cell) is hotly debated.

    I first heard about the Baghdad battery in the early 2000’s after reading this BBC article (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2804257.stm); I remember referring to it while teaching a high school Chemistry class although I was careful to let the kids know that the artifact’s purpose is unknown.

  6. Pingback: 2000 year old batteries, Who discovered electricity? & my 7 year old. | flaircreationsblog

  7. G. Liebau

    “Parthian era, 250 BC – 225 AD [6, 2]. Yet if we look at the artistic nature of the pot itself we find they are made in the style of the Sassanians People, who lived from 250 AD – 650 AD [6, 2]. This is an 900 year difference.”

    I think you need to do a bit more math on that statement… The Parthians and Sassanians were back to back, so although you have a 900 year gap total, it can also be as few years as none.

  8. seriously?

    I don’t think it has been established that the stopper was made of asphalt. In fact, I’ve never heard of asphalt being used. Also, it cannot be confirmed what electrolyte solution would have been used, so an absolutely accurate test would be impossible.
    That being said, the experiments that have been done, extrapolating a reasonable electrolyte solution, stopper, etc, have worked. So, I really don’t understand why it is so far fetched that this could have been used as a battery.
    It would make sense that the design would be similar to those used to protect scrolls if they were made in the same area at the same time period. However, the vessels do not look similar to me. I realize, I am not an expert, but your skepticism only makes me more curious.
    A weed-eater and a metal detector look very similar. They are designed the same, held the same. From a distance, could you tell if someone was looking for treasures or cutting tall grass? Centuries from now, what would people think these machines were used for?

  9. Pingback: Aantekeningen bij de Bijbel · Livius Nieuwsbrief / september

  10. Joseph Aberdeen

    I find it upsetting to have read through pages upon pages of your brilliant analysis only to find your ignorant and ornery responses to people’s general questions and or responses. You speak of an open mind but you clearly do not have one. As I said I think your analysis is brilliant but your application of response to the public is rude and lacking. Now I am beginning to question your calculated dissection of ancient artifacts. This Baghdad Battery in particular. It is very clear the ancient world possessed the ability to confound and confuse people in order to control them. Electricity I am certain was a tool of the so called “Gods.” I hope you lose this arrogant attitude of the unknown. It is not logic and reason you lack but faith in that which you do not know.

    • David

      Gods? It’s one thing to have an open mind, but it’s another thing to have a hole in one’s head. Does anyone with a brain really believe that even if an alien race from outer space had come her thousands of years ago, they would spend all their time here making toys? Give me a break!

  11. I must admit that there is something satisfying about the idea that these were not batteries at all. Their low power yield just makes their usefulness dubious. If they could have delivered at least a surprising shock then their use in some sort of medicine show or religious flim-flam might have been plausible, but they really weren’t even up to that so far as i can tell.

    However, as comforting as the idea of them simply being used for records storage might be, I would be more happy if a jar like them were discovered with a document in situ. In the absence of that, it feels like just more speculation.

    • There are several complete papyrus jars that have been found in multiple locations. Some of them are on display in museums. There has only been one ‘battery’ ever discovered, and it so closely resembles every other papyrus that they are actually indistinguishable.

  12. Pingback: Baghdad Battery, the Saqqara Plane, and Other Not-So-Mysterious Artifacts | Filter_paleo

  13. Pingback: Baghdad Battery | Thinking Sideways Podcast

  14. zack

    But doesn’t it seems just as weird if if it used as a normal papyrus scroll jars. i’m no expert but if it was me building some pot to put a bunch of papers, I would just make it from clay. Why the need for other materials to be involved for such a simple function?

    And I have to agree with the others, you’re supposedly analytical argument are quite well done but then again, the facts or references from which you stated is just as new to me as the rest of your references.

    I don’t know but if you ask me, the world has been standing for more than God knows how long and for just the past 100 years we have managed to discover a lot of new things in terms of inventions. So are we really saying for the past tens of thousand of years, humans just able to manage building ships and temples while we have been rapidly inventing for no more than tens of years?

    • If you look over the parts of a scroll jar you’ll see why there were multiple parts to them. The brass casings were there to keep the scroll rolled so it would fit well in the jar, and the stopper was there to keep it contained and protected during storage. There’s really nothing strange about any of it, just the evidence of practical people trying to preserve records.

      And yes, I know my reference might be new to some people, that is why I cite them in-line and have a reference section at the bottom if people want to look over my sources. Feel free too.

      Lastly, No, I am not saying that humans suddenly started building anything instantly out of nowhere. There is a long stream of evidence that shows human progression in technology. From the simplest stone, bone, and wood tools, to the modern marvels we create today. Archaeology can, and does, show the progression of human ingenuity in any region of the world.

  15. Rodger

    Baghdad Battery. Usage of Alkaline, KOH, Fe3O4 and a few more. This was a test of one individual on instructables and his findings of making one. YES, it isn’t using acidic materials such as Lemon, Wine, or anything that the would have had in those years. YES, It isn’t completely up to par in history. ITS a test. This test shows it recharging itself in the matter of 2-5 days.

    http://www.instructables.com/id/Building-a-quotBaghdad-Batteryquot/

  16. Zora

    Why did they think it was a battery and What do they think it was used for, and is there any evidence that it isn’t a battery?

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