War can destroy more than a people,
an army or a leader. Culture, tradition and history
also lie in the firing line.
any war, there is a chance that priceless treasures will
be lost forever, articles such as the "ancient
battery" that resides defenseless in the museum of
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
the early 1900s, many European archaeologists were
excavating ancient Mesopotamian sites, looking for
evidence of Biblical tales like the Tree of Knowledge and
did not waste his time finding alternative explanations
for his discovery. To him, it had to have been a battery.
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.
than 60 years after their discovery, the Parthian
batteries which also called Baghdad Batteries - as there
are perhaps a dozen of them - are shrouded in myth.
batteries have always attracted interest as curios,"
says Dr Paul Craddock, a metallurgy expert of the ancient
Near East from the British Museum.
are a one-off. As far as we know, nobody else has found
anything like these. They are odd things; they are one of
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.
sources date the batteries to around 200 BC - in the
Parthian era, circa 250 BC to AD 225. Skilled warriors,
the Iranian Parthians were not noted for their scientific
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.
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."
the history of the Middle East, the Iranian Sassanian dynasty
(circa AD 225 - 640) marks the end of the ancient and the
beginning of the more scientific medieval era.
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.
could ancient Iranian science have grasped the principles
of electricity and arrived at this knowledge?
they did not. Many inventions are conceived before the
underlying principles are properly understood.
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
is certain the Parthian 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, US.
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
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.
a pity we have not found any wires," says Dr
Craddock. "It means our interpretation of them could
be completely wrong."
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".
says this is especially possible if any items are missing,
as the objects only look like batteries when all the
pieces are in place.
have suggested the batteries may have been used
ancient Greeks wrote of the pain killing effect of
electric fish when applied to the soles of the feet.
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.
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.
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.
idea is appealing because at its core lies the mother of
many inventions: money.
the making of jewellery, for example, a layer of gold or
silver is often applied to enhance its beauty in a process
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.
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.
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.
researchers though, have disputed these results and have
been unable to replicate them.
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.
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."
the batteries have been placed inside idols?
(Image by Stephanie Yong)
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
serious flaw with the electroplating hypothesis is the
lack of items from this place and time that have been
treated in this way.
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."
suggests a cluster of the batteries, connected in
parallel, may have been hidden inside a metal statue or
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.
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
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 religion."
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
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.
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?
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.
the very least, it could have just been the container of
these articles, to keep their secret safe.
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.
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 - if the items survive the
looming war in the Middle East.
objects belong to the successors of the people who made
them," says Dr Craddock. "Let's hope the world
manages to resolve its present problems so people can go
and see them."