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Ancient Batteries Could be Lost in War

Archeologists are worried that the extraordinary ancient relicts of Iraq may be injured or destroyed during the upcoming war. Iraq is supposed to be the site of the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel, and its early civilizations invented writing and the wheel. It's also the home of ancient batteries, which are in the museum of Baghdad.

German archaeologist Wilhelm Konig found the first battery in 1938. It's a five-inch-long clay jar containing a copper cylinder surrounding an iron rod. The vessel showed signs of corrosion, and tests revealed that vinegar or wine had been used in it. Konig decided it must have been used as a battery. About a dozen of the batteries have been unearthed so far. "The batteries have always attracted interest as curios," says Paul Craddock, of the British Museum. "As far as we know, nobody else has found anything like these."

The batteries are dated to around 200 BC, which means they were made by the Parthians, who were skilled warriors but not known for scientific achievements. "Although this collection of objects is usually dated as Parthian, the grounds for this are unclear," says St. John Simpson, who also works at the British Museum. "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 they were found." The Sassanian period (225-640 AD) marks the end of the ancient and the beginning of the more scientific medieval era.

It's known that the batteries work, because Professor Marjorie Senechal has created replicas that conduct an electric current. "I 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. They can produce 0.8 to almost two volts.

If the batteries were connected by wires, they could have produced higher voltages. "It's a pity we have not found any wires," says Craddock. "It means our interpretation of them could be completely wrong." Some ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics seem to contain images of batteries, and primitive batteries may be lying in museums misidentified, especially if some of the parts are missing.

The low voltage put out by these batteries couldn't have driven machines, but they might have been used in medicine. The ancient Greeks wrote about the pain killing effect of electric eels. The Chinese had developed acupuncture by this time, and they still use acupuncture combined with an electric current. This may explain the needle-like objects that have been found with some of the batteries.

Other scientists believe the batteries were used for electroplating jewelry or money. Arne Eggebrecht connected many replica batteries together using grape juice as an electrolyte, and deposited a thin layer of silver on another surface. However, no electroplated items dating from that period have been excavated from that part of Iraq.

Connected batteries may have been hidden inside a metal statue or idol, so that anyone touching it would get a tiny shock and experience the god's "power." Craddock says, "I have always suspected you would get tricks done in the temple."

It's too easy to dismiss the incredible achievements of early?even prehistoric?people.

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