Monday, September 10, 2012

Ancient Aliens? The Baghdad Batteries

Later this week I will be giving a talk for my local freethought group (SSA OSU) about extraterrestrials. But I want to before then give out info related to it, especially that concerning the ideas of aliens having come to earth in the distant past. So as part of that, I'll blog about a few interesting things that won't be adequately discussed but deserve attention. (Previous entry here.)

In shows and books about aliens in antiquity, there is a lot of emphasis on various artifacts, some because of the strangeness of it (especially to Western eyes), and some because they seem to be an advanced technology out of place in the world of our ancestors. An interesting example of the latter concerns the Baghdad battery.

These are objects found in modern-day Iraq and Iran (they were found around Baghdad, but it's hard to argue these would have existed only in this city), but they came from the region called Persia back in the day. These objects are dated to either the Parthian or Sassinid period (prior to the Islamic conquests), which puts it in the first centuries of the Common Era. However, our knowledge from this period isn't great and little writing from this period and part of the world is lost; they didn't have the preservation of the Egyptian desert to help, and political unrest was hardly conducive either. This makes it hard to know the extent of the scientific and technical abilities of the Persians that would have constructed these items.

But what is it? It looks like a standard terracotta pot from the period, but it can be construed as more because of some of the other materials found with it. When it was discovered in the 1930s, a rolled-up piece of copper was inside along with an iron rod that was wrapped by the copper. In the presence of an electrolyte liquid, such as citric acid, an electric potential is created, and so it can have a voltage. Just like a battery!

And if there was an electrical device existing in antiquity, more than a millennium before the first chemical batteries in the modern era, does that imply the technology was given by another source? Well, it is an interesting speculation, but we have to wonder if 'aliens' is really the best explanation, not just a possible one.

One major sticking point is that the voltage the battery can potentially produce is rather small, around half a volt. That is some weak tea. That's less than half of what a normal AA battery has, and this item is significantly bigger. von Daniken in his "museum" has on display the use of these batteries to light an Egyptian "light-bulb" of considerable size, but you won't be powering a filament that long and get any light out of it with half-volt batteries. (And he's wrong about the Egyptians having light bulbs, and he's mixing pictures and artifacts both centuries and thousands of miles of miles apart.) And it's definitely not going to get people to the stars. One would have expected something a bit more sophisticated from ETs that traveled here.

But what's more, we shouldn't be so certain that the 'batteries' are actually batteries. The scholars that put that forward only showed that it was possible to use the item like that, not that it was the purpose of the terracotta and its contents. Again, we have limited knowledge of Sassinid and Parthian technology, but one thing we would expect is that if the Persians had it, the Greeks and Romans should have too. The Roman Empire at the turn of the era was the scientific storehouse of the Mediterranean and Ancient Near Eastern world. With libraries such as at Alexandria and Pergamon, scientists such as Archimedes, Ptolemy, Hero, and many others, and an intellectual tradition of curiosity and experiment (they had the scientific method to some degree), one would think these folks would have it. Moreover, there was communication between the West and Middle East at this time; Hipparchus, for example, used Babylonian records to determine the precession of the equinoxes. Astrological methods also came from the Babylonians to the Greeks and Egyptians after Alexander the Great, such as with Berossus who came from the East. When the Sassinids came to power in the 3rd century AD, they went to the Greeks to get the scientific know-how. So it becomes very strange if the Persians had electrical devices of any sort but it was unknown elsewhere.

And it really could be that the combination of items was serendipitous. After all, important parts of electrical things are missing, namely wires. There are no traces of wires in archaeological digs that are from that time. So how to carry the current without a conductor? The lid of the vessel also was as such that it would not be possible to have contact with the core, and all that power could not be released. Seems like a bad design if the voltage is inaccessible. Moreover, the voltage is only even weakly significant with the correct liquid. The experiments in the 1970s used a modern electrolyte; using a more likely liquid, such as vinegar, it weaker still. And even with the good electrolyte, it takes several batteries to get anything of interest done. It was suggested by the people working on the battery that it was used for gold-plating, but all examples of gold-plating from the period and region can be explained by non-electrical methods. (Check out this discussion from an archaeologist here.)

Lastly, the piece is quite a mess, and it looks like the metals and other items are together by corrosion rather than design. That goes a ways to explain why apparently few in the archaeological community think it really is a battery (start listening around 7:30).

So the battery notion seems to be without a providence in the record. There is no ancient evidence of electricity being used or understood, and the absence of any written knowledge of such 'batteries' (or other examples) is significant evidence of absence, which indicates it's moderns filling in the gaps rather than the ancients. The 'battery' may just have been a collection of items in a container that happened to make it to the modern era after years of corrosion. If it is from aliens, it would be very unadvanced technology; it's more likely to have been discovered by accident than a gift from the gods of outer space. And if this is what the aliens gave as gifts to help us, then good riddance because they suck as teachers and assistants.


Bryan Skinner said...

Another perfect point to say we don't know what it is and what it was used for, instead of this is what it is and it's too primitive for that culture. This is where we stop guessing and calling it matter of fact, especially since carbon dating is based on someone else's human theory also. If you don't have proof of a thing, admit it. Because it isn't possible to know something if you don't have a record from another human from that time era. We're guessing!

Richard O'Neal said...

It appears no mention of the fact in the original Egyptian graphic depicting the bulb the women setting front and center has no arms and they seem to be in the bulb being used as the conductor...