The Mysterious Baghdad Battery

Illustration of the three parts of the Baghdad Battery By Ironie (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Illustration of the three parts of the Baghdad Battery
By Ironie (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

The world is full of mysterious objects, both ancient and modern. The Georgia Guidestones loom over the countryside in the state of Georgia, reminiscent of the ancient stones of Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain in England. The stone balls of Costa Rica are just that; giant stone balls that, until about seventy years ago, were lost in the thick jungles of Central America. No one knows exactly who built them or why.

The same can be said for a strange object that long resided in the museum of Baghdad in Iraq. The Baghdad Battery remains an archeological puzzle yet to be unraveled.

 

A puzzling find

German archeologist Wilhelm Konig discovered an object that was, at first glance, unremarkable, at Khujut Rabu near Baghdad in 1938. The jar was about five inches long and made of clay. Inside was a copper cylinder encased in an iron rod. There were signs of corrosion on the inside, and evidence that it had once contained an acidic substance like vinegar. There was also evidence of an asphalt stopper on the top. Konig concluded from this that the object was a battery, which ran counter to what anyone then (or even now) thought was possible with the technology of the time. No one had too much time to debate the matter though, because only the next year Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland and kicked off the Second World War.

 

More than seventy years later, and still no explanation

About a dozen of the so-called batteries have been discovered so far. While tests have shown that the contraptions could function as a battery, if a very weak one, so far a functional use for them has not been discovered. Some suggest they were used for electroplating, but no objects from the period have been discovered that show signs of being electroplated. Others have suggested that they might have been used as a sort of religious parlor trick, to make a worshiper feel a tingle or a mild shock when touching an idol. However, no idols containing a Baghdad battery have so far been discovered. Also, no wires or similar apparatus to hook the batteries up was discovered, although some were found with thin needles, leading to the suggestion they might have been used in conjunction with a form of acupuncture therapy.

Function aside, no one is even sure how old the pots even are. They were originally dated to around 200BC, to a time when the Parthians occupied the region that is now Iraq. However, the Parthians were not known to be great scientists, whatever their battlefield prowess might have been. However, there are questions as to whether the Parthian connection is genuine, because the pots are similar in design as those of the Sassanian culture.

The fact is that more research needs to be done to tease out exactly what the Baghdad batteries were and how they were used. But Iraq is not exactly a stable place by any means, and that makes doing archeology difficult. Since it isn’t likely the troubled region will solve its problems anytime soon, the Baghdad batteries will remain an enduring mystery.

Sources:
Frood, Arran. “Riddle of ‘Baghdad batteries'” BBC.co.uk. February 27, 2003. BBC News. September 6, 2014. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2804257.stm