An Intriguing Mystery

by Isaiah (15)
(St. Louis, Missouri, USA)

Hidden in the pages of history are many mysteries, mysteries which could provide great insight into the past if ever solved. Standing tall and conspicuous among these mysteries are the pyramids, stone hinges, and the giant stone statues on Easter Island, challenging the world to reveal their secrets. Yet although small in comparison and almost unknown, the mystery of the Bagdad Batteries could radically change our view of the past.

Although they attracted some attention when first discovered a little over 75 years ago, the batteries were largely forgotten until recently when several articles and research papers were written on the subject. The BBC News article “The Riddle of Bagdad’s Batteries” explores the many possible uses of the batteries. Written in 1998 by Lee Krystek, “The Bagdad Battery” discusses whether the jars were actually made for the purpose of being used as batteries, while “The Batteries of Babylon”, an article at Bad, considers them as nothing more than scroll containers.

There are, of course, some things which all the writers agree on. Various clay jars, about five inches long, were found in 1938 by Wilhelm Konig, a German archaeologist, at Khujut Rabu, a little ways outside of Bagdad. Konig himself believed them to be ancient electric batteries. Strangely, the jars contained copper cylinders which encased an iron rod and were covered with an asphalt stopper. Showing signs of acid corrosion, they appear to have held vinegar or wine when being used. Although typically believed to be from the Parthian era, a little more than 2,000 years ago, the jars are remarkably of a Sassanian make, a style used from around 225 to 640 AD. Using experimental copies, it has been proved that the jars could produce about two volts of electricity, with lemon juice or vinegar as an acid. This fact is generally admitted even by those who do not believe it was used for the purpose of generating electricity.

Beyond these details, however, there is not much that is agreed upon. As Mr. Krystek points out, the Parthians, in whose settlement at Khujut Rabu the batteries had been found, were not known for their technological achievements. Exploring various theories, including one suggesting that they came from space travelers, he believes that they were most likely accidental developments that the Parthians stumbled upon. Easily within the ability of the people living at that time, there is nothing high-tech about the batteries, and all their components were common materials. Many other inventions have similarly been created before the reasons why they work have been discovered. Another theory Mr. Krystek explores is the electroplating theory. A process of placing a very thin layer of a metal on another surface using a small electrical current, electroplating will be discussed more later on, as it is explored in more depth in the “Riddle of Bagdad’s Batteries” article.

Taking a rather skeptical approach, Bad questions whether, being made at the time of the growth of the Roman Empire, it was likely that the batteries would have gone unrecorded. Yet it is not improbable that, the Romans being their enemies, the Parthians wished for their secrets not to be discovered by the Romans, and hid them away before the Romans arrived. Owing to the fact that no other electronic devices have yet been found, and to the inefficiencies of the batteries to produce any great amount of energy, this article argues that the jars were nothing more than containers for papyrus scrolls. The asphalt seal, which makes it appear that any electricity generated could not get out, is used as a support of this theory, and confirms them in their belief that the Parthians did not use the jars as batteries.

As mentioned above, electroplating is the process of transferring a thin layer of metal onto another surface, usually another metal. The theory that the jars were used for electroplating is very believable, as the BBC News article explains, because at its core, like that of many other inventions, is the production of money. In the making of jewelry also, a layer of silver or gold is often laid on top of lesser metals to enhance the object. A major problem with this theory, though, is the absence of objects from that time and place gilded in this way. Instances of gild plating from near Khujut Rabu are the typical mercury gilding, and there is not any great evidence in support of the electroplating theory. Actually, even if electroplated objects were discovered, the amount of ampage is a great problem, and it is doubted that enough power could be obtained even from many batteries.

Another appealing theory suggested by “The Riddle of Bagdad’s Batteries” is the idea that a cluster of batteries were connected and hidden in a metal statue of an idol. When touched, the statue would deliver a tiny electric shock, similar to a static discharge. Dr. Craddock, interviewed by BBC News, stated “I have always suspected you would get tricks done in the temple. The statue of a god could be wired up and then the priest would ask you questions. If 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." Incidentally this idea also removes the problem of the batteries having been unrecorded by the Romans as the priests would have taken great pains to guard their secret.
Altogether, there have been many theories and ideas as to the use of the Bagdad Batteries. The speculation that the Parthians just stumbled upon them, the conclusion that they were mere jars for papyrus, and the electroplating theory all have their advantages and setbacks. Although there is no conclusive evidence to support the statue theory, neither are there any major problems with it as there were with the others. Could there be other theories that could explain the batteries of Bagdad better? It is quite likely that there are. However, unless more is discovered about the batteries, their use and their origins are likely to remain as they have been hitherto - an intriguing mystery.

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