The Baghdad Battery

The story of the “Baghdad Battery” is a staple on many paranormal, “alternative history” and “ancient astronaut” websites. According to the lore, the “battery” indicates that ancient people in the Middle East knew about and used electricity some 2,000 years before the Europeans supposedly discovered it. But how solid is the evidence for this?

baghdad battery 1

The pieces of the “Baghdad Battery”.

Here is the story as it is usually given in paranormal books and websites: just before World War Two, a German archaeologist named Wilhelm Konig found an odd object in Iraq, near Baghdad, consisting of a small clay jar, a plug made of asphalt (natural oil tar) that sealed the opening, and inside, a hollow tube of copper with a solid iron rod inserted into it. When assembled and filled with an acidic liquid like grape juice, lemon juice, or vinegar, Konig realized, the device could function as a very crude battery, with an electrolyte and two electrodes. Reproductions made by Konig and later others were capable of producing from half a volt to two volts of electricity. Konig published a paper on the possible “battery” in a German science journal, but with the coming of the war, it was forgotten. In the 1960’s, Konig’s paper was rediscovered during the wave of “ancient astronaut” writings triggered by Erik von Daniken’s best-selling book, Chariots of the Gods, and claims soon appeared that the “Baghdad Batteries” were used for everything from electroplating jewelry and coins, to generating a seemingly-supernatural electric shock when connected to an idol or temple statue, to powering electric light bulbs inside the pyramids and the lighthouse at Alexandria. And, according to the flying saucer fans, since the ancient Mesopotamians did not have the knowledge to make a battery or to use electricity, they must have obtained this information from “someone else”, perhaps some technologically advanced race of extraterrestrials who visited Earth in ancient times.

So, how accurate is this story?

Right at the start, we run into problems. There really was a German archaeologist named Wilhelm Konig; he worked at the Baghdad Museum in the 30’s and took over as Director in 1934. And he did publish a paper on the “Baghdad Battery”, in a 1938 issue of the German journalForschungen und Fortschritte. But here is where the problems begin: that journal ceased publication in 1967, and apparently only became available recently when digitized copies began appearing in Internet databases. Virtually none of the people who write about the topic in recent years seem to have actually read the original paper (several skeptical investigators mention that they had tried, unsuccessfully, to find a copy of Konig’s original article). So most of the accounts we read today are actually drawn from earlier articles written in the 1960’s, nearly all of them written by flying saucer fans–and many of these don’t agree with each other.

For instance, none of these “researchers” seems to actually know where or when the “battery” was found. Some accounts have Konig himself finding the battery during a dig at the site of Khujut Rabu, near Baghdad, in 1937 or 1938. Other accounts have Konig finding the battery in storage at the Museum in Baghdad after taking over as Director, in 1934 or 1937, having been dug up by someone else and placed in the museum’s vaults. Many accounts have the battery as having been found in the ruins of a Parthian village from 250 BCE (the Parthians were an ancient Middle East people most famous for having successfully resisted the efforts of the Roman Empire to conquer them). Other accounts, however, cite unnamed “authorities” as classifying the clay jar as typical of the Sassanid period, about 250-650 CE, several hundred years later. It is not even clear how many “Baghdad Batteries” are supposed to exist–many accounts mention just one, but others assert that as many as a dozen may have been found.

It is, sadly, a very common thing to find that various pseudo-scientists and cranks have never actually read the original research–they simply cite each other as sources and “authorities”, and over time, whether intentionally or otherwise, the whole story gets embellished and distorted in a modern-day version of the children’s game “Telephone”. Because of this, it is always a good idea when researching any “alternative history” or “paranormal science” topic to go back and read the actual original scientific research. Most often, it does not at all say what the pseudo-scientists say it says.

But in this case, part of the blame lies with Konig himself, who wrote a scientific paper that was full of assumptions, undemonstrated hypotheses, and ambiguity.

In the paper, Konig states that the “Baghdad battery” was found during an archaeological dig carried out by the Museum at the Parthian site of Khujut Rabu in the summer of 1936. He does not, however, definitively state whether he is the one who found it, leading to later speculation that he actually found it among the museum’s archive collection.

Konig gives a rather detailed description of the find: it consisted of a flat-bottomed clay jar about 5.5 inches tall, a little over 3 inches across at its widest point, and about 1.25 inches wide at the opening. The neck of the jar was broken off, and there were bits of asphalt adhering to the inside of the rim, indicating the opening had been sealed up.

Inside the jar was a hollow cylinder that had been made from a thin sheet of copper, measuring 3.8 inches long and 1 inch wide–the bottom of the cylinder was covered by a small circle of copper sheet that had been sealed into place with a coating of asphalt.

Inside this copper cylinder was an iron rod, about 3 inches long. This was badly rusted, but at the top end was a plug of asphalt which fit into the opening of the copper cylinder. The iron rod projected about half an inch beyond this plug.

Kong then goes on to describe similar clay jars that had been found during Museum excavations at Tel Omar, near the ancient city of Seleucia. Here, several clay jars of similar size were found containing hollow copper cylinders. But these cylinders, Konig noted, had been sealed at both ends, and inside, archaeologists found the remains of plant fibers, probably the remnants of papyrus. There were no iron rods found with them, but they were found next to a piece of bronze rod and three pieces of iron wire. One clay jar contained a small flask made of glass, with no metal. Finally, Konig noted that clay jars with copper cylinders and iron rods had also been found in excavations by the Berlin Museum near Baghdad, in sites identified as Sassanid. These other finds seem to have become confused by later writers with Konig’s “battery”, producing all the confusion about what culture and period the “battery” comes from, and how many were actually found.

Konig concludes by hypothesizing that all of these finds may have been ancient batteries used for electroplating, and urged that further research be carried out. Since then, paranormal “researchers” have taken Konig’s speculation and run with it.

baghdad battery 2

Konig’s reconstruction of the “Battery”.

Nevertheless, replicas of the “battery” have been built by several researchers (including a recentMythbusters TV show), and when they are filled with an acidic liquid like grape juice, they do indeed, whether intentionally or not, produce a small electric current, usually between half a volt and two volts. That has led to several speculations about how the “batteries” could have been used. One hypothesis has been that the battery was connected to small iron statues inside temples, where, if touched by a worshiper, they would produce a seemingly-supernatural tingling that would show the power of the gods or spirits. It is known that ancient Greek temples used technological tricks to produce effects such as doors that opened by themselves, or statues that moved, to awe worshipers. But there is so far no archaeological evidence that this sort of thing was done in either the Parthian or Sassanid cultures.

There are also problems with the construction of the presumed “battery”. To function as a battery, the interior would have been filled with an acidic liquid, and this would need to be replaced often as it ran out. But the jar itself was sealed with asphalt, and the copper tube on the inside was also sealed at both ends–an impractical arrangement for a battery which would make it enormously difficult to refill the liquid electrolyte. The presumed “battery” also has no terminals–while the iron rod did project outside of the asphalt plug, the copper tube did not, making it impossible to connect wires to make a circuit. And speaking of wires, while the ancient Middle Easterners did use iron and silver wire for jewelry, there are no indications that wire was produced in lengths that would make an electrical circuit practical–or that any wire was made with an insulating material, which would have been necessary to prevent short circuits.

Another popular hypothesis is that a number of the “batteries” were connected in series and produced a high enough voltage to be used in electroplating, in which metal objects are placed in a liquid through which an electric current is passed, thereby depositing a thin coating of another metal, like gold or silver, onto the object. We do know that the Parthians and Sassanids did have gold-plated jewelry, but we also know that they used a process called “mercury gilding” to do this, in which a mixture of gold/silver and mercury was applied to an object and heated, turning the mercury into a vapor which then deposited a thin layer of bonded gold or silver onto the intended object. All of the gold or silver plated items found from this period show the chemical signature of mercury vapor, and none of them exhibits the characteristics of electroplated coatings. If the Parthians or Sassanids had been using electroplating, it is quite likely that the Romans or Byzantines, who were no technological slouches themselves, would have known about it from them and adopted it for themselves.

The most fanciful hypothesis has been that huge banks of “Baghdad batteries” were used to power electric lightbulbs (“ancient astronaut” fans point to some Egyptian hieroglyphics which, they claim, depict electric light bulbs in use inside the pyramids). Perhaps, they claim, even the famous Alexandria lighthouse was powered by an electric lightbulb. There is of course not a shred of evidence at all for any of this.

The construction of the presumed “space battery” also presents a number of problems. None of the pieces are particularly exotic or technologically advanced. Clay jars have existed in the area for thousands of years, and were common implements at the time. Asphalt is naturally available in the area as tar and oil bubbles to the surface, and it has long been used for waterproofing material. Copper tubes were often used as protective covers for papyrus scrolls. And iron was a common material for the time, used for weapons and tools. So there is nothing particularly unique about the materials used in the “battery”, and they require no advanced technical knowledge to build.

So what was the Baghdad Battery, if it was not actually a battery? The key seems to be the papyrus fibers found inside some of the jars. Most archaeologists who have looked into the putative “battery” have concluded that it is nothing more than a now-decayed sacred papyrus scroll wrapped around an iron or wooden rod and placed inside a sealed copper tube (or sometimes a glass flask), which was then itself stored inside a clay jar and plugged with asphalt to protect it from water and weather. So, the consensus of archaeological science is that the “Baghdad Battery” is in fact not a battery at all, but simply a storage jar for a scroll.

But the “Battery” continues to be a source of myth and story. In the latest mythology, the original Baghdad Battery found by Konig was said to be stored in the archives of the Baghdad Museum. But, in the looting and destruction that took place after the American invasion of Iraq, the Baghdad Battery is said to have now disappeared.

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