Tag Archives: Iraq

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.

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Want more on this topic? Go to Reviews: The 1o Most Not So Puzzling Ancient Artifacts.

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[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.

Gertrude Bell – Archaeologist, Arabic Advocate, Queen of the Desert.

This week I wanted to still look way back to the earliest women in the field, back when our field was loosely defined as it was and those who participated had many, many other hats to wear. That’s why I feel Gertrude is an excellent addition to the series. She was an archaeologist focused on biblical archaeology, but she was also a diplomat, King-maker, advocate for the Arabic and Iraq people and specifically for the education of women in those countries.  She was fearless, stubborn, and spectacular. I hope you like her as much as I do.

Gertrude Bell in Iraq, 1909, age 41
Gertrude Bell in Iraq, 1909, age 41

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born 14 July 1868, in Washington Hall, County Durham, England – now known as Dame Margaret Hall [1]. The wealth and influence of her family made her travel and lifestyle possible, but it also seemed to impress upon her a sense of duty. Her mother Mary Sheild Bell, passes away when Gertrude was 3, but at the age of 7 her father remarried a woman named Florence Bell, who seems to have been a great influence on Gertrude, being credited for her independent ideals and belief in the education of women [2]. 

Gertrude was educated at Queen’s College in London and then later at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. She received  a first class honours degree in two years in modern history [2]. Not long after graduating she began her travels, starting with a trip to Persia with her Uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, in 1892. She wrote about her travels in her first book, Persian Pictures [3].

Gertrude Bell is best known for her political work, her work in the middle east during World War I, and her love of the Arab people. There are literally volumes of work out there on these, very large, aspects of her life. I really don’t want to take away from how incredibility important her influence and work was, but I do want to focus on her work as an early female archaeologist. Which I found is much easier said than done.

In March of 1907, Bell journeyed to the Ottoman Empire to work with the archaeologist Sir William M. Ramsey [4].  Ramsey was a  a Scottish archaeologist and New Testament scholar who became the foremost scholar of Asia Minor in his day [4]. Although a book was written about their work together, The Thousand and One Churches, little is available to the lay person about their work.

Not long after this Gertrude traveled Mesopotamia in 1909 [4]. She studied the Hittite city of Carchemish and mapped the ruin of Ukhaidir. She consulted with the two archaeologists on site, C. L. Woolley and T. E. Lawrence [4]. Not long after, the war broke out and her attentions were drawn elsewhere.

I picked Gertrude to be the second woman in my series for two reasons, one being chorological order, and the other is that she seems like such a vibrant, willful, and adventurous woman. Like most independent women of her time, she never married in order to preserve her personal freedom. However, she was very much against women’s right to vote. She was fiercely intelligent and advocated for the education of Arab women. She is even credited with influence the selection of the first king of Iraq. She is such a powerful figure that once I started reading up on her, I couldn’t stop.

I know this article was a little light on actual archaeology, but I think Gertrude is an excellent addition to the series. I encourage you to continue to look into her and see just what a single woman can do.


[1] 1996 Wallach, Janet.

Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1996, p. 6

[2] 2000 O’Brien, Rosemary, ed.

Gertrude Bell: The Arabian Diaries, 1913-1914. USA: Syracuse University Press, 2000. Print.

[3] “Gertrude Bell and the Birth of Iraq”. Webcache.googleusercontent.com. 2011-11-15. Retrieved 2011-12-06. Accessed 1/11/12

[4] 2010 Wikipedia

Gertrude Bell. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Bell#cite_note-Gertrude_Bell_and_the_Birth_of_Iraq-5 Accessed 1/11/12