The ‘batteries of Babylon’

A restored Parthian jar, claimed to be an electric cell
A restored Parthian jar, claimed to be an electric cell

In 1930, the Austrian archaeologist Wilhelm König took part in a German expedition to Warka (Iraq), which he later directed. In 1931, he was appointed Assistant Director of the Baghdader Antikenverwaltung (the Baghdad Antiquities’ Administration), becoming its Director in 1934. In 1938, working for the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, he carried out an excavation on a Parthian site at Khujut Rubu‘a, where he found a 15 cm high ceramic vessel. It contained a cylinder of sheet copper soldered with a 60:40 lead/tin alloy, capped with a crimped-in copper disk and sealed with bitumen or asphalt, with a further insulating layer of asphalt on top. This held in place an iron rod suspended in the centre of the cylinder, which showed signs of acid corrosion.

König identified this vessel as an ancient electric battery and experimental copies showed that it was capable of providing a charge of about one volt using lemon juice or vinegar as an electrolyte. As a result, they soon became known as the batteries of Babylon. Other examples were soon identified, all belonging to the Parthian period (from the mid third century BCE to the early third century CE). König suffered a heart attack in February 1939, as a result of which he had to return to Germany.

Some writers have seen in this electric cells evidence for a technologically advanced civilisation in remote antiquity or as evidence for visits by such a civilisation to one more primitive. However, it should be remembered that these artefacts are contemporary with the growth and height of the Roman Empire, hardly a period in which such a civilisation would have gone unrecorded, particularly when the Parthian Empire was Rome’s principal enemy in the east. Furthermore, although König believed that there is evidence for Mesopotamian electroplating of silvered copper vessels, this is no longer thought to be the case, as the items in question are believed to have been fire-gilded, using mercury. There are certainly no remains of electric motors, electronic circuitry or even of batteries capable of generating the greater power needed to drive such devices.

There are alternative explanations that derive from the obvious inefficiencies of the pots to act as galvanic cells. The asphalt seal is a complete seal, so there would be no way of obtaining any electricity generated within the pot; this suggests that containment was an important consideration in their design. Similar objects from Seleucia were used for storing sacred papyri and this is at least as likely an interpretation as the battery hypothesis.

The ‘batteries’ were among objects looted from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad during the invasion by the USA and its allies in 2003. It is not known where they are now or if they even still exist.

23 Replies to “The ‘batteries of Babylon’”

  1. I rather think that either the use was for the purpose of providing a “buzz” as one feels when subjected to low charge or used for electroplating. The “buzz” or visible spark being interpreted as a supernatural force. You mention there is no way of obtaining the energy as it was plugged. This discounts the possibility that it was thus stored and then opened and used. Your, “Similar objects from Seleucia were used for storing sacred papyri and this is at least as likely an interpretation as the battery hypothesis.” Does not makes any sense. For they were found sealed and no papyri were found in them. By “similar objects” I can only assume that you meant such jars as designed for the purpose of storing many different items including food stuffs.

  2. One question about this, being used to store sacred texts matches until you hit the acid corrosion inside the vase, that is not good for storing sacred texts, so o.k. even if I like the galvanic cell theory I have to agree that it is a long shot but with the acid corrosion in the rod the sacred text vault theory fails to explain the purpose of the vessel could be that if you leave vinegar or something else in it for a long time would get them a byproduct they needed for something? I will just leave you with these questions I have I’m no archaeologist but I have an answer to the full bitumen seal, when I’m lazy and I don’t want to make something definitive in a power supply I just tape the terminals and when I need to measure the voltage I use needle like probes to contact the terminals beneath the tape, maybe that’s what they did when they needed the voltage.

    Regards José
    P.S: I live in Honduras and I have visited Copán many times and every time I go there the archaeologists have a new definition for almost everything.
    Mainstream B.S. is the real conspiracy theory.
    keep up the good work sir.

    1. Define “almost everything”

      In my amateur studies of archaeology, very few definitions have changed. Ways of categorizing things and ways of referring to peoples have changed a lot, but not too many definitions Though your argument from false authority (living in Honduras and visiting Copan) are noted and thus dismissed.

      And you should try using asphalt instead of tape. I guarantee you wont try that more than once. Long term storage of such a “battery” wouldn’t make much sense. Whatever the electrolyte was would degrade or dry out. Pottery is not completely waterproof. And if it’s not for long term storage, then asphalting it shut would be unnecessary. Why would they even make “batteries” that far in advance? They couldn’t have been too cheap, and there likely wasn’t a huge demand for them (since there is no record of their usage). It’s a large investment that will sit on metaphorical store shelves and depreciate.

  3. Mythbusters actually tested this and they do work as weak batteries – the most plausible use would have been electroplating jewelry.

    1. Yes, they do work as batteries. The question that must be asked, though, is were they actually used as such? The biggest problem is that the supposed metallic contacts were covered with a sealant of pitch, rendering the object useless as a battery! Proving that something is possible isn’t the same as proving that it happened: just look at Thor Heyedahl’s Kon Tiki and Ra expeditions, which proved that voyages that never happened could have been made.

      1. I feel I have to ask. If these jars were to be used as storage, why add the cylinder of sheet copper and iron rod? What were the benefits from having them in with your scrolls? On the other hand if they were meant to be used as batteries we surely should have found other objects that demanded that kind of energy by now. Or even tools to make them. What could they possibly have used 1 Volt of energy for?
        I think we need to do some more digging :)

        1. Copper has antimicrobial properties which might have protected the scrolls from decay and perhaps the iron would have some other beneficial protection of the scrolls, or the scrolls were wrapped around the iron rods. Just a thought.

  4. I wonder how he decided that the corrosion of the iron was “acid corrosion”? When different metals are in contact one will corrode before the other. If iron and copper come in contact then the iron will corrode first. For example, modern iron and copper water pipes. It is just as likely that someone was investigating this effect, with no idea about batteries being involved.

  5. Keith Conlon-
    I appreciate you trying to be consistent with your evolutionary beliefs however you are arriving to that conclusion of yours for that very reason. You are starting from some presuppositions of us gradually evolving upward over millions of years along with your presuppositions of their being no God. Just as I Presuppose that their is a God and that just as the book of Genesis says that when we were created we were ready to experiment, build, prosper, and other words we were already at our biological, physical, and mental peak only to gradually decay from it until our modern era.

    1. No, I am not starting from “some presuppositions of us gradually evolving upward over millions of years along with your presuppositions of their being no God”. For a start, the question of whether or not any gods exist is quite irrelevant to the analysis of these objects. Secondly, evolution is a biological concept that has no bearing on the interpretation of these objects. I do not hold “evolutionary beliefs” (whatever they may be): I prefer to follow evidence.

      Presupposition is a weasel word used by those who have no evidence for their beliefs beyond some ancient and unreliably transmitted texts that they wrongly think trump rational discourse.

  6. I wonder if the batteries were some ancient joybuzzer? They could have generated a weak current.

  7. Let’s look from another angle. What if this where batteries! What should that change to our actual knowledge of the late antique period. Heron of Alexandria build a primitive steam engine. The Eastern Roman empire used napalm. The Antiques discovered algebra … So if a Parthian (Parta being part of the Hellenistic civilisatian which was rather advanced) discovered batteries. As long as there was no real use for it, it woud be a plaything just as Herons steam engine and once the decline of the antique culture started it would be forgotten.

    It’s not that they needed some divine intervention or an UFO to land to make this discovery – and forget about it a few generations later.

  8. This one does baffle me a bit. Can’t figure out what this would be for. I could buy into it just being for storage except for the metallic parts. Would they not have been costly to make? What could be the purpose of the metal bits configured this way in a storage container for papyrus?
    Is there any evidence such as a sealed one with both the metal parts AND papyrus, or the remnants of papyrus or other stored items still inside?
    That it could have been used in electroplating doesn’t mean that it was. Particularly if the “electrodes” we’re inaccessible once sealed.
    I do find it interesting that the solder is a 60/40 lead/tin alloy as is commonly used in electronics today.
    I do not find it so problematic should someone with limited technology have stumbled upon a means of electroplating without actually understanding how it works galvanically.
    If it were proved to be the case by evidence it would NOT convince me that aliens, time travelers etc. had anything to do with it. Just that some ancient artisan got lucky.
    Need evidence one way or another.
    Also: dissimilar metals will react in salt water galvanically and the etching on the metal appears like acid corrosion.

  9. Did anyone consider the possibility that they were used as healing devices? Even now, lots of silly devices allegedly healing by electricity are sold. One volt is enough to feel it by touch; what would the ancient people think? “Wow, that must be magic!”

  10. König’s heart attack appears to have been ill-timed. If I had been alive then, Germany would have been one of the last places that I should have wanted to travel to in February 1939. Do you know when König died?

  11. We buy our batteries wrapped in plastic (usually) to stop them degrading or coming into contact with other things. Perhaps, just perhaps, these jars were sealed because they had not yet been used. When they were wanted the top could possibly be taken off and then put to whatever use they were intended for. It is said that needles were found with some of them, could these not have been used for some medicinal purpose along with a freshly opened jar ?

Agree or disagree? Please comment! If you've never commented before, you may have to wait until I approve it: please be patient.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: