Did Ancient Iraq Have Electricity?

In Iraq, southeast of Baghdad, lies Khujut Rabu Over 2,000 years ago, it was the site of the capital city of the Parthian Civilization

In 1938, Austrian archaeologist Wilhelm Konig unearthed something there He found a 13 centimetres tall clay pot containing a sheet of copper wrapped into a cylinder shape, encasing an iron rod The pot was capped with a crimped copper disk, which was sealed with bitumen The metal objects inside were corroded Scientific tests showed the corrosion was caused by an acidic agent, like vinegar or wine

To Wilhelm Konig, this all seemed very familiar It closely resembles a very modern piece of technology: a battery Konig dated his pot to around 200 BC, firmly in the era of the Parthian empire

But the Parthians were warriors, known for their prowess in battle, not for their scientific achievements After Konig announced his discovery, about a dozen more were identified Metallurgy expert Dr Paul Craddock says, “They are a one-off As far as we know, nobody else has found anything like these They are odd things; they are one of life’s enigmas

” Konig’s theory that the pot is an ancient battery is supported by several experiments Dr Marjorie Senechal led a team that built several replicas of the so-called Baghdad battery, using lemon juice and vinegar as the acidic agent Their jar produced 08 to 2 volts If enough jars were connected in a series, they could generate a much higher voltage

She summarised her experiment by saying, “I don’t think anyone can say for sure what they were used for, but they may have been batteries because they do work” However, archaeologists have found no wires with the pots that would enable the construction of a battery The power they might have created was insufficient for any practical use – except one Wilhelm Konig believed they were used for electroplating This is commonly used today to transfer a thin layer of metal onto another metal surface

Just like we do in the 21st century, Konig argued the Parthians used these pots to gild silver or gold onto jewellery The process of electroplating was developed by several people independently after the invention of the galvanic cell at the end of the 18th century The galvanic cell is an electrochemical device that derives electrical energy from reactions occurring inside it It works by having a solid metal, or electrode, submerged in an acidic solution, or electrolyte Several cells combine to make up a battery

Two millennia ago, there were two main techniques to plate jewellery Jewellers would either hammer precious metal into thin strips; or mix it with mercury and paste it onto an object In 1978, Dr Arne Eggebrecht tested Konig’s hypothesis Eggebrecht connected many replica jars together using grape juice as an electrolyte Eggebrecht claimed his batteries successfully deposited a thin layer of silver onto another surface

Though the layer was only one ten thousandth of a millimetre thick, it vindicated Konig’s hypothesis However, Eggebrecht and his team took no photographic evidence of his experiments, and his results have never been reproduced in subsequent attempts by other scientists Unfortunately for Konig, many historians, archaeologists and scientists doubt his findings Even the nature of his discovery is questionable There are conflicting stories about how he found the jar: either he excavated it at Khujut Rabu, or he found it in the basement of the Baghdad Museum, where it went on display

But according to Dr St John Simpson, Kong was wrong about its provenance “The pot itself is Sassanian This discrepancy presumably lies either in a misidentification of the age of the ceramic vessel, or the site at which [it was] found” The pot may therefore be 900 years younger than Konig claimed – was he also wrong about the electroplating? Dr Paul Craddock says all examples of gilded jewellery from the ancient era were plated conventionally or with mercury “There’s never been any untouchable evidence to support the electroplating theory

” he says But Craddock still thinks the pot is a battery, just used for a different purpose He suggests a cluster of batteries placed inside a metal statue or idol would have given worshippers a tiny but noticeable shock, like a warm tingle He says the ancients might have used such tricks in the temple to demonstrate the power of a priest and religion This is similar to Hero’s Engine from ancient Egypt, a steam-driven machine that historians are convinced worked, but don’t know what it was used for

The components of the Baghdad battery are impossible to date If it is Parthian, then it is contemporaneous with the rise of the Roman Empire But this is a problem The Romans recorded their encounters with and knowledge of other civilisations We would especially expect detailed accounts of Parthia, which was Rome’s major enemy in the east

Yet there is no historical record anywhere of Parthians having advanced technology like this There is another, more mundane but perhaps more plausible theory The ancient city of Seleucia, in the same area southeast of Baghdad, used similar objects for storing sacred papyri Scrolls were put inside the metal sheath for protection, never to be read by human eyes This might explain the bitumen seal on the pot – it was complete, and therefore there was no way of extracting electricity generated by a battery

Containment was important to whomever created it The dozen or so similar batteries supposedly found in the wake of Konig’s discovery, have been lost Tragically, his battery artefacts were looted from the Museum of Baghdad during the Second Gulf War in 2003 Even if we find the Baghdad battery again, advanced dating techniques won't work on the corroded metal The different stories of its discovery obfuscate the pot’s purpose, and experimental archaeology has proven nothing

It has merely suggested the theory that ancient Parthians could generate electricity might be true The sands of time hide their secrets well

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