The Baghdad Battery and Ancient Electricity?

The Baghdad Battery, also known as the Batteries of Babylon and the Parthian Battery, refers to a group of artifacts found by Wilhelm Konig in the late 1930’s.  Located by Konig either at the excavation site near the village of Khujut Rabu or in storage at the National Museum of Iraq, the artifacts are essentially a bunch of terracotta jars designed as the following: 5 inches tall containing a copper cylinder made of a rolled-up copper sheet which housed a single iron rod – the rod and cylinder fit snugly in the jar – and was covered with an asphalt seal. 

One hypothesis suggests that the batteries are evidence supporting an ancient advanced civilization which, naturally, disappeared.  To make such a claim it must be assumed that the batteries were functional.  As an acidic organic residue was found inside the jars, it has been proposed by some that the residue marked the remains of an electrolytic substance (vinegar, lemon juice, fermented grape juice, etc.).  Coupled with copper and iron, the electrolytes (presumed to have been poured into the space surrounding the cylinder) could potentially produce an electric charge. Thanks to Mythbusters (and of course the scientific community), we know this scenario is, in a roundabout way, possible.  A single lemon was actually shown to produce more charge than one ‘battery;’ however, if wires/conductors of some sort existed and many batteries were linked together, there was the potential for up to four volts.  Still, there is no evidence supporting the existence of the necessary conductors and, even if there were, the asphalt is said to serve as a seal preventing an electrical current.  It is obvious that there are some design flaws for these batteries to provide a significant electrical charge, let alone one at all.  Another problem with this notion of an ancient civilization is that the ‘batteries,’ dated at approximately 2000 years old, would have existed during the height of the Roman Empire.  As the pots were in a known Parthian Empire location (enemies of the Roman Empire), wouldn’t one assume there would have been written record of such a civilization?

Another hypothesis states that ‘space travelers’ brought the battery down to the Parthians.  This ‘makes sense’ because the Parthians, though known for their fighting, were not known for their technological advances; so how could they possibly have created a form of electricity? Obviously there are flaws with this suggestion that need no debunking – we’ve been through the ancient alien ordeal before.

In reality, there are a couple more reasonable explanations for the battery’s existence.  On one hand, it is feasible that the materials composing the jars were coincidentally thrown together without knowledge of their potential.  Or, like the Ancient Greeks electrostatic electrical phenomenon (recognized as being caused by amber), maybe the minute amounts of electrical charge that did come off the jars were simply a curiosity.  On the off chance that the Parthians did realize what they were doing, one would imagine more advanced designs would have been in the making, designs which would have been larger and had the potential to produce more of an electrical charge. Instead, what we know as the “Baghdad Battery’ is not even mentioned in historical text (electricity, as we know, does not make headway until Alessandra Volta, right around the 1800s).

The other more plausible hypothesis falls under a category that has nothing to do with electricity.  It is proposed that the jars held sacred scrolls as the asphalt would have kept them protected – the slightly acidic organic residue found inside the jars was, then, likely from eroded away paper.

Even though very small amounts of an electrical current are possible from a re-vamped version of the Baghdad Battery, their use as evidence for either an ancient civilization or an alien visitation is weak, at best.  So, as in many other pseudoarchaeological claims, this too probably falls under the law of Occam’s razor.


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