Baghdad Battery

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Drawing of the three pieces

The Baghdad Battery is the name given to a set of three artifacts which were found together: a ceramic pot, a tube of copper, and a rod of iron. It was discovered in present-day Khujut Rabu, Iraq in 1936, close to the metropolis of Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian (150 BC – 223 AD) and Sasanian (224–650 AD) empires, and it is believed to date from either of these periods.

Its origin and purpose remain unclear. It was hypothesized by Wilhelm König, at the time director of the National Museum of Iraq, that the object functioned as a galvanic cell, possibly used for electroplating, or some kind of electrotherapy, but there is no electroplated object known from this period, and the claims are near universally rejected by archaeologists. An alternative explanation is that it functioned as a storage vessel for sacred scrolls.

The artifact disappeared in 2003 during the US occupation of Iraq.

Physical description and dating[edit]

The artifacts consist of a terracotta pot approximately 140 mm (6 in) tall, with a 38 mm (1.5 in) mouth, containing a cylinder made of a rolled copper sheet, which houses a single iron rod. At the top, the iron rod is isolated from the copper by bitumen, with plugs or stoppers, and both rod and cylinder fit snugly inside the opening of the jar. The copper cylinder is not watertight, so if the jar were filled with a liquid, this would surround the iron rod as well. The artifact had been exposed to the weather and had suffered corrosion.

Austrian archeologist Wilhelm König thought the objects might date to the Parthian period, between 250 BC and AD 224. However, according to St John Simpson of the Near Eastern department of the British Museum, their original excavation and context were not well-recorded, and evidence for this date range is very weak. Furthermore, the style of the pottery is Sassanid (224–640).[1][2]

Theories concerning operation[edit]

Its origin and purpose remain unclear.[1] Wilhelm König was an assistant at the Iraq Museum in the 1930s. He had observed a number of very fine silver objects from ancient Iraq, plated with very thin layers of gold, and speculated that they were electroplated. In 1938 he authored a paper[3][4] offering the hypothesis that they may have formed a galvanic cell, perhaps used for electroplating gold onto silver objects.[1] This interpretation is rejected by skeptics.[5]

Corrosion of the metal and tests both indicate that an acidic agent such as wine or vinegar was present in the jar.[1] This led to speculation that the liquid was used as an acidic electrolyte solution to generate an electric current from the difference between the electrode potentials of the copper and iron electrodes.[2]

Supporting experiments[edit]

After the Second World War, Willard Gray demonstrated current production by a reconstruction of the inferred battery design when filled with grape juice. W. Jansen experimented with benzoquinone (some beetles produce quinones) and vinegar in a cell and got satisfactory performance.[citation needed]

In 1978, Arne Eggebrecht reportedly reproduced the electroplating of gold onto a small statue. There are no (direct) written or photographic records of this experiment.[a] The only records are segments of a television show.

Controversies over use[edit]

Lack of electrical connections[edit]

Though the iron rod did project outside of the asphalt plug, the copper tube did not, making it impossible to connect a wire to this to complete a circuit.[6]

Electroplating hypothesis[edit]

König himself seems to have been mistaken on the nature of the objects he thought were electroplated. They were apparently fire-gilded (with mercury). Paul Craddock of the British Museum said "The examples we see from this region and era are conventional gold plating and mercury gilding. There's never been any irrefutable evidence to support the electroplating theory".[1]

David A. Scott, senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute and head of its Museum Research Laboratory, writes: "There is a natural tendency for writers dealing with chemical technology to envisage these unique ancient objects of two thousand years ago as electroplating accessories (Foley 1977), but this is clearly untenable, for there is absolutely no evidence for electroplating in this region at the time".[7]

Paul T. Keyser of the University of Alberta noted that Eggebrecht used a more efficient, modern electrolyte, and that using only vinegar, or other electrolytes available at the time assumed, the battery would be very feeble, and for that and other reasons concludes that even if this was in fact a battery, it could not have been used for electroplating. However, Keyser still supported the battery theory, but believed it was used for some kind of mild electrotherapy such as pain relief, possibly through electroacupuncture.[2][8]

Bitumen as an insulator[edit]

A bitumen seal, being thermoplastic, would be extremely inconvenient for a galvanic cell, which would require frequent topping up of the electrolyte for extended use.[5][9][10]

Alternative hypothesis[edit]

The artifacts are similar to other objects believed to be storage vessels for sacred scrolls from nearby Seleucia on the Tigris.[11] Since these vessels were exposed to the elements,[1][b][improper synthesis?] it is possible that any papyrus or parchment inside had completely rotted away, perhaps leaving a trace of slightly acidic organic residue.[12][1][b]

The object was looted along with thousands of other artifacts from the National Museum during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[13]

In March 2012, Professor Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University, an expert on Iraqi archaeology, returning from the first archaeological expedition in Iraq after 20 years, stated that she does not know a single archaeologist who believed that these were batteries.[14][15]

Media tests of viability[edit]

The idea that the terracotta jars in certain circumstances could have been used to produce usable levels of electricity has been put to the test at least twice. On the third episode of the 1980 British Television series Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, Egyptologist Arne Eggebrecht created a voltaic cell using a jar filled with grape juice, to produce half a volt of electricity, demonstrating for the programme that jars used this way could electroplate a silver statuette in two hours, using a gold cyanide solution.[16] Eggebrecht speculated that museums could contain many items mislabelled as gold when they are merely electroplated.[17]

The Discovery Channel program MythBusters built replicas of the jars to see if it was possible for them to have been used for electroplating or electrostimulation. On MythBusters' 29th episode (23 March 2005), ten hand-made terracotta jars were fitted to act as batteries. Lemon juice was chosen as the electrolyte to activate the electrochemical reaction between the copper and iron. Connected in series, the batteries produced 4 volts of electricity. When linked in series, the cells had sufficient power to electroplate a small token and to deliver current to acupuncture type needles for therapeutic purposes, but not enough to deliver an electric shock to MythBusters co-host Adam Savage who was instead pranked by co-hosts who hooked him up to a 10,000 volt cattle fence shock generator.[18] Archaeologist Ken Feder commented on the show noting that no archaeological evidence has been found either for connections between the jars (which would have been necessary to produce the required voltage) or for their use for electroplating.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In Arran Frood's BBC article: "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."
  2. ^ a b Arran Frood's BBC article: "The artifact had been exposed to the weather and had suffered corrosion, although mild given the presence of an electrochemical couple."[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Frood, Arran (February 27, 2003). "Riddle of 'Baghdad's batteries'". BBC News. Archived from the original on March 20, 2012. Retrieved April 6, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c Paul T. Keyser, "The Purpose of the Parthian Galvanic Cells: A First-Century A.D. Electric Battery Used for Analgesia" Archived 2019-07-30 at the Wayback Machine, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 52, no. 2, pp. 81–98, April 1993. Includes images of the artifact and similar objects.
  3. ^ König, Wilhelm (1938): Ein Galvanisches Element aus der Partherzeit?, Forschungen und Fortschritte, 14: 8–9. (pdf).
  4. ^ König, Wilhelm (1939): Im Verlorenen Paradies – Neun Jahre Irak, pp. 166–68, Munich and Vienna.
  5. ^ a b "The batteries of Babylon: evidence for ancient electricity?". Bad Archaeology. Archived from the original on 2016-11-11. Retrieved 2021-05-25.
  6. ^ Lenny Flank. (May 17, 2015). "The Baghdad Battery" Archived 2019-09-01 at the Wayback Machine, Hidden History (blog).
  7. ^ Scott, David A. (2002). Copper and Bronze in Art: Corrosion, Colorants, Conservation. Getty Publications. pp. 16–18. ISBN 978-0-89236-638-5. Archived from the original on 2021-05-31. Retrieved 2020-10-20.
  8. ^ Oxford University Archived 2019-09-01 at the Wayback Machine, Elizabeth Frood editor (on eScholarship website): Eggebrecht's account
  9. ^ the Baghdad Battery Archived 2018-12-06 at the Wayback Machine on The Iron Skeptic website
  10. ^ "The Baghdad Battery – and Ancient Electricity". Michigan State University students website. October 12, 2010. Archived from the original on November 9, 2013. Retrieved March 9, 2015. MSU students cite the now offline website article (archived January 16, 2012) and offer their viewpoint.
  11. ^ Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews (26 December 2009). "The batteries of Babylon: evidence for ancient electricity?". Bad Archaeology. Archived from the original on 11 November 2016. Retrieved 17 December 2016.
  12. ^ Lenny Flank (Feb 10, 2015). "The Baghdad Battery: An Update". Daily Kos. Archived from the original on May 4, 2016. Retrieved October 10, 2015.
  13. ^ Haughton, Brian (26 December 2006). Hidden History: Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries. Red Wheel/Weiser. ISBN 9781564148971 – via Google Books.[dead link]
  14. ^ Stone, Elizabeth (March 23, 2012). "Archaeologists Revisit Iraq". Science Friday (Interview). Interviewed by Flatow, Ira. Archived from the original on April 16, 2019. Retrieved April 6, 2012. My recollection of it is that most people don't think it was a battery. ... It resembled other clay vessels ... used for rituals, in terms of having multiple mouths to it. I think it's not a battery. I think the people who argue it's a battery are not scientists, basically. I don't know anybody who thinks it's a real battery in the field.
  15. ^ Prof. Stone's statement, listed as a 'red flag' among 5 red flags why it was not a battery Archived 2013-11-15 at the Wayback Machine (with sources, on Archaeology Fantasies website)
  16. ^ Docu BoX TR. "Arthur C. Clarke Mysterious World S01 E03 "Ancient Wisdom" (video)". DailyMotion. Archived from the original on 1 September 2019. Retrieved 16 March 2018.
  17. ^ John Fairley; Simon Welfare (2000). Arthur C. Clarke's Mysteries. Prometheus Books. pp. 64–66. ISBN 978-1-57392-833-5. Archived from the original on 2021-05-31. Retrieved 2020-09-06. (snippet view only)
  18. ^ Ancient batteries episode Archived 2013-04-15 at the Wayback Machine on MythBusters.
  19. ^ "Ancient Alien Astronauts: Interview with Ken Feder". Monster Talk Podcast. July 27, 2011. Archived from the original on August 31, 2019. Retrieved June 1, 2013.

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