Baghdad Battery

Description and dating

The artifacts consist of terracotta jars approximately 130 mm (5 in) tall (with a one and a half inch mouth) containing a copper cylinder made of a rolled-up copper sheet, which houses a single iron rod. At the top, the iron rod is isolated from the copper by bitumen plugs or stoppers, and both rod and cylinder fit snugly inside the opening of the jar, which bulges outward towards the middle. The copper cylinder is not watertight, so if the jar was filled with a liquid containing citric acid, this would surround the iron rod as well. The artifact had been exposed to the weather and had suffered corrosion, although mild given the presence of an electrochemical couple. This has led some scholars[who?] to believe lemon juice, grape juice, or vinegar was used[citation needed] as an acidic electrolyte solution to generate an electric current from the difference between the electrochemical potentials of the copper and iron electrodes.

Knig thought the objects might date to the Parthian period (between 250 BC and AD 224). However, according to Dr St John Simpson of the Near Eastern department of the British Museum, their original excavation and context were not well recorded (see stratigraphy), so evidence for this date range is very weak. Furthermore, the style of the pottery (see typology) is Sassanid (224-640).

Most of the components of the objects are not particularly amenable to advanced dating methods. The ceramic pots could be analysed by thermoluminescence dating, but this has apparently not yet been done; in any case, it would only date the firing of the pots, which is not necessarily the same as when the complete artifact was assembled. Another possibility would be ion diffusion analysis, which could indicate how long the objects were buried.

Speculations on function

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Copper and iron form an electrochemical couple, so that in the presence of any electrolyte, an electric potential (voltage) will be produced. Knig had observed a number of very fine silver objects from ancient Iraq which were plated with very thin layers of gold, and speculated that they were electroplated using batteries with these being the cells. 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.

However, even among those who believe the artifacts were electrical devices, electroplating as a use is not well regarded today. Paul Craddock of the British Museum said “The examples we see from this region and era are conventional gold plating and mercury gilding. There never been any untouchable evidence to support the electroplating theory.” The gilded objects which Knig thought might be electroplated are now believed to have been fire-gilded (with mercury). Reproduction experiments of electroplating by Dr Arne Eggebrecht consumed “many” reproduction cells to achieve a plated layer just one micrometre thick. Other scientists noted that Dr Eggebrecht used a more efficient, modern electrolyte; using only vinegar, the battery is very feeble.[citation needed]

An alternative, but still electrical explanation was offered by Paul Keyser. It was suggested that a priest or healer, using an iron spatula to compound a vinegar based potion in a copper vessel, may have felt an electrical tingle, and used the phenomenon either for electro-acupuncture, or to amaze supplicants by electrifying a metal statue.[citation needed] However, this is dubious, since a “tingle” requires a far higher voltage than can be generated by an iron/copper cell.[citation needed]


Skeptical archaeologists see the electrical experiments as embodying a key problem with experimental archaeology; such experiments can only show that something was physically possible, they say nothing about whether it actually occurred. Further, there are many difficulties with the interpretation of these artifacts as galvanic cells:

the bitumen completely covers the copper cylinder, electrically insulating it, so no current can be drawn without modifying the design;

there are not any wires or conductors with them;

no widely accepted electrical equipment is associated with them. (Controversial stone reliefs depicting arc lights have been suggested, however the voltages obtained are orders of magnitude below what would be needed to produce arc lighting);

a bitumen seal, being thermoplastic, is excellent for forming a hermetic seal for long term storage. It would be extremely inconvenient however for a galvanic cell, which would require frequent topping up of the electrolyte (if they were intended for extended use).

The artifacts strongly resemble another type of object with a known purposeamely, storage vessels for sacred scrolls from nearby Seleucia on the Tigris. Those vessels do not have the outermost clay jar, but are otherwise almost identical. Since it is claimed these vessels were exposed to the elements, it would not be at all surprising if any papyrus or parchment inside had completely rotted away, perhaps leaving a trace of slightly acidic organic residue.

In the media

The idea that the battery could have produced usable levels of electricity has been put to the test at least twice.

On the 1980 British Television series Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, Egyptologist Dr Arne Eggebrecht used a recreation of the battery, filled with grape juice, to produce half a volt of electricity, demonstrating for the programme that the battery could electroplate a silver statuette in two hours, using a gold cyanide solution. Dr Eggebrecht speculated that museums could contain many items mislabelled as gold when they are merely electroplated. However, doubt has recently been cast on the validity of these experiments.

In 1999, the Disney Channel original TV series So Weird featured the battery in the opening portion of the show.

The Discovery Channel program MythBusters determined that it was indeed plausible for ancient people to have used the Baghdad Battery for electroplating or electrostimulation. On MythBusters’ 29th episode (which aired on March 23, 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. (Oddly enough, it was discovered that a single lemon produced more voltage than one of the batteries when using copper and zinc.) However, the batteries which they reproduced did not produce a substantial amount of energy and had to be connected in series in order to achieve a 4 V potential drop and test the theories.

The show’s research staff proposed three possible uses: electroplating, medical pain relief (through acupuncture), and religious experience. It was discovered that when linked in series the cells indeed had sufficient power to electroplate a small token. For acupuncture, the batteries produced a “random” pulse that could be felt through the needles; however, it began to produce a painful burning sensation when the batteries were grounded to two needles at once. For the religious experience aspect of the batteries, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant was constructed, complete with two cherubim. Instead of linking the cherubim’s golden wings to the low power batteries, an electric fence generator was connected. When touched, the wings produced a strong feeling of tightness in the chest. Although the batteries themselves had not been used, it was surmised that, due to the apparent lack of knowledge of electricity, any form of electrical sensation from them could equate to the divine presence in the eyes of ancient people. In the end, the Baghdad battery myth was found plausible on all three accounts.

The History Channel 2008 documentary Ancient Aliens uses the battery as evidence of alien involvement in ancient civilizations, suggesting that Ancient Egyptians could have lighted the pyramids with electric lights.

The comic strip Get Fuzzy referenced the Baghdad Battery on April 24, 2009.

The Baghdad Batteries were a punk band (2006-2009) in Chico, Ca. During their short existence they played numerous shows in and around Chico, recorded two albums and were awarded the title of “best” punk band by the Chico News and Review at the 2009 yearly Cammie awards.

See also

Dendera light


History of electromagnetism

History of the battery

Leyden jar


^ “Paranormal Image Gallery – Ancient Mysteries/Aztec carving of ancient astronaut”. Unexplained Mysteries. Retrieved 2009-11-14. 

^ The Baghdad Battery

^ Frood, Arron, Riddle of “Baghdad’s batteries”

^ Frood, Arron,Riddle of “Baghdad’s batteries”

^ Welfare, S. and Fairley, J. Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World (Collins 1980), pp. 62-64.

^ Riddle of ‘Baghdad’s batteries’

^ [dead link]

Further reading

Von Handorf, D E., The Baghdad battery – myth or reality?. Plating and Surface Finishing (USA). Vol. 89, no. 5, pp. 8487. May 2002

External links

‘”Riddle of ‘Baghdad’s batteries” BBC article, 27 February, 2003.

“Battery, Baghdad, 250 BC” at the Smith College Museum of Ancient Inventions

Categories: History of Iraq | Out-of-place artifacts | PseudoarchaeologyHidden categories: All articles with dead external links | Articles with dead external links from November 2009 | All articles with specifically-marked weasel-worded phrases | Articles with specifically-marked weasel-worded phrases from November 2008 | All articles with unsourced statements | Articles with unsourced statements from December 2009 | Articles that may contain original research from July 2009 | All articles that may contain original research | Articles with unsourced statements from November 2008

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