War can destroy more than a people, an army or a
leader. Culture, tradition and history also lie in the firing line. Iraq, or Mesopotamia as it was known, has a rich
national heritage. The Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel are
said to have been sited in this ancient land.
In any war, there is a chance that priceless
treasures will be lost forever, articles such as the "ancient
battery" that resides in the museum of Baghdad. For this object suggests that the region may have invented
electric cells - two thousand years before such devices were well
It was in 1938, while working in Khujut Rabu, just
outside Baghdad in modern day Iraq, that German archaeologist
Wilhelm Konig unearthed a five-inch-long (13 cm) clay jar containing
a copper cylinder that encased an iron rod. The vessel showed signs of corrosion, and early
tests revealed that an acidic agent, such as vinegar or wine had
In the early 1900s, many European archaeologists were excavating
ancient Mesopotamian sites, looking for evidence of Biblical tales
like the Tree of Knowledge and Noah's flood. Konig did not waste his time finding alternative explanations for
his discovery. To him, it had to have been a battery. Though this was hard to explain, and did not sit comfortably with
the religious ideology of the time, he published his conclusions.
But soon the world was at war, and his discovery was forgotten.
More than sixty years after their discovery, the batteries of
Baghdad, perhaps a dozen of them, are shrouded in
myth. "The batteries have always attracted interest as curios," says Dr
Paul Craddock, an ancient Near East metallurgy expert from the
British Museum. "They are a one-off. As far as we know, nobody else has found
anything like these. They are odd things; they are one of life's
I don't think anyone can say for sure what they were used for, but
they may have been batteries because they do work
Dr Marjorie Senechal
No two accounts of them are the same. Some say the batteries were
excavated, others that Konig found them in the basement of the
Baghdad Museum when he took over as director. There is no definite
figure on how many have been found, and their age is disputed. Most sources date the batteries to around 200 BC - in the Parthian
era, circa 250 BC to AD 225. Skilled warriors, the Parthians were
not noted for their scientific achievements.
"Although this collection of objects is usually dated as Parthian,
the grounds for this are unclear," says Dr St John Simpson, also
from the department of the ancient Near East at the British Museum. "The pot itself is Sassanian. This discrepancy presumably lies
either in a misidentification of the age of the ceramic vessel, or
the site at which they were found."
In the history of the Middle East, the Sassanian period (circa AD
225-640) marks the end of the ancient and the beginning of the more
scientific Medieval era. Though most archaeologists agree the
devices were batteries, there is much conjecture as to how they
could have been discovered, and what they were used for.
A detailed collection of features and king lists covering all of this
How could ancient Persian science have grasped the principles of
electricity and arrived at this knowledge? Perhaps they did not. Many inventions are conceived before the
underlying principles are properly understood. The Chinese invented gunpowder long before the principles of
combustion were deduced, and the rediscovery of old herbal medicines
is now a common occurrence. You do not always have to understand why
something works - just that it does.
It is certain the Baghdad batteries could conduct an electric
current because many replicas have been made, including by students
of ancient history under the direction of Dr Marjorie Senechal,
professor of the history of science and technology, Smith College,
in the USA.
"I don't think anyone can say for sure
what they were used for, but they may have been batteries because
they do work," she says. Replicas can produce voltages from 0.8 to
nearly two volts.
Making an electric current requires two metals with different
electro potentials and an ion carrying solution, known as an
electrolyte, to ferry the electrons between them. Connected in series, a set of batteries could theoretically produce
a much higher voltage, though no wires have ever been found that
would prove this had been the case.
"It's a pity we have not found any wires," says Dr Craddock. "It
means our interpretation of them could be completely wrong." But he is sure the objects are batteries and that there could be
more of them to discover. "Other examples may exist that lie in
museums elsewhere unrecognised". He says this is especially possible if any items are missing, as the
objects only look like batteries when all the pieces are in place.
Batteries dated to around 200 BC Could have been used in gilding
Some have suggested the batteries may have been used
medicinally. The ancient Greeks wrote of the pain killing effect of electric fish
when applied to the soles of the feet. The Chinese had developed acupuncture by this time, and still use
acupuncture combined with an electric current. This may explain the
presence of needle-like objects found with some of the batteries.
But this tiny voltage would surely have been ineffective against
real pain, considering the well-recorded use of other painkillers in
the ancient world like cannabis, opium and wine.
Other scientists believe the batteries were used for electroplating
- transferring a thin layer of metal on to another metal surface - a
technique still used today and a common classroom experiment.
This idea is appealing because at its core lies the mother of many
inventions: money. In the making of jewellery, for example, a layer of gold or silver
is often applied to enhance its beauty in a process called gilding.
Two main techniques of gilding were used at the time and are still
in use today: hammering the precious metal into thin strips using
brute force, or mixing it with a mercury base which is then pasted
over the article. These techniques are effective, but wasteful compared with the
addition of a small but consistent layer of metal by
electro-deposition. The ability to mysteriously electroplate gold or
silver on to such objects would not only save precious resources and
money, but could also win you important friends at court. A palace,
kingdom, or even the sultan's daughter may have been the reward for
such knowledge - and motivation to keep it secret.
Testing this idea in the late seventies, Dr Arne Eggebrecht, then
director of Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, connected
many replica Baghdad batteries together using grape juice as an
electrolyte, and claimed to have deposited a thin layer of silver on
to another surface, just one ten thousandth of a millimetre thick.
Could the batteries have been placed inside idols?
Other researchers though, have disputed these results and have
been unable to replicate them. "There does not exist any written documentation of the
experiments which took place here in 1978," says Dr Bettina Schmitz,
currently a researcher based at the same Roemer and Pelizaeus
Museum. "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."
Although a larger voltage can be obtained by connecting more than
one battery together, it is the ampage which is the real limiting
factor, and many doubt whether a high enough power could ever have
been obtained, even from tens of Baghdad batteries. One serious flaw with the electroplating hypothesis is the lack
of items from this place and time that have been treated in this
"The examples we see from this region and era are conventional
gild plating and mercury gilding," says Dr Craddock. "There's never
been any untouchable evidence to support the electroplating theory."
I have always suspected you
would get tricks done in the temple. The statue of a god could
be wired up and then the priest would ask you questions
Dr Paul Craddock
He suggests a cluster of the batteries, connected in parallel,
may have been hidden inside a metal statue or idol. He thinks
that anyone touching this statue may have received a
tiny but noticeable electric shock, something akin to the static
discharge that can infect offices, equipment and children's parties.
"I have always suspected you would get tricks done in the
temple," says Dr Craddock. "The statue of a god could be wired up
and then the priest would ask you questions. "If you gave the wrong answer, you'd touch the statue and would
get a minor shock along with perhaps a small mysterious blue flash
of light. Get the answer right, and the trickster or priest could
disconnect the batteries and no shock would arrive - the person
would then be convinced of the power of the statue, priest and the
It is said that to the uninitiated, science cannot be
distinguished from magic. "In Egypt we know this sort of thing
happened with Hero's engine," Dr Craddock says. Hero's engine was a primitive steam-driven machine, and like the
battery of Baghdad, no one is quite sure what it was used for, but
are convinced it could work. If this idol could be found, it would be strong evidence to
support the new theory. With the batteries inside, was this object
once revered, like the Oracle of Delphi in Greece, and "charged"
with godly powers?
Even if the current were insufficient to provide a genuine shock,
it may have felt warm, a bizarre tingle to the touch of the
unsuspecting finger. At the very least, it could have just been the container of these
articles, to keep their secret safe. Perhaps it is too early to say the battery has been convincingly
demonstrated to be part of a magical ritual. Further examination,
including accurate dating, of the batteries' components are needed
to really answer this mystery.
No one knows if such an idol or statue
that could have hidden the batteries really exists, but perhaps the
opportunity to look is not too far away.
Armoured Parthian cavalryman with a banner showing a golden ear of