The Appeal to antiquity fallacy is most commonly associated with alternative medicine, but it also makes appearances in pseudo-archeology. The fallacy latches itself to a romantic notion that peoples long ago mastered technologies that we associate with the modern day. Take, for example, an Iraqi clay pot that some believe was used as a battery a thousand years before such an advancement was thought to exist.
The object in question is a small fired pot whose top has broken off. Around the broken rim are asphalt remnants, suggesting the jar’s top had originally been sealed. Inside the jar rests a hollow tube of thin copper rolled into a cylinder. At the top sits a thick asphalt plug that fits snugly into the tube.
The National Museum of Iraq housed this “Baghdad Battery” until the artifact was looted following the U.S. invasion of 2003. Archaeologists agree that it comes from sometime during the Parthian period or the ensuing Sasanian Empire. This makes the pot about 1,600 years old, give or a take a couple of centuries. If it functioned as a battery, that would make it, by several hundred years, the first such device.
The idea of it being just that was the notion of Wilhelm König, an assistant at the museum, who speculated that the jar could have been a simple battery used for electroplating pieces of art.
There are similar copper cylinders in the museum, many of which contain fragments of long-decomposed papyrus, suggesting they were used to contain and protect scrolls. For reasons unclear, König supposed that this one particular jar might have been used as a battery instead. He experimented by constructing some versions that employed terminals, wiring, and an electrolyte fluid. König’s devices managed to achieve small voltages.
Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted that extracting voltage from an object like the Baghdad Battery is quite easy, as a basic battery requires nothing more than ordinary items. All the experimenter requires are two different types of metal, and if placed in an electrolyte liquid, an electrical current will flow from one piece of metal to the other. Common household items and foodstuffs will do the trick.
While König’s conjecture was that the battery may have been used for electroplating jewelry or bits of art, other people have different ideas. Some think the battery could have been connected to a religious statue, so that when a worshiper touched it, they would receive a holy shock from a deity whose name is lost to history. Another conjecture holds that its mild shock helped with pain relief.
However, overwhelming evidence suggest it is a scroll jar. Almost any object could be repurposed. I was in a hotel once in need of a spoon and no such utensil was to be found, nor a fork or knife, nor even a beverage stirrer. I ended up using a coffee filter housing to scoop my food. As Dunning wrote, “The fact that something can be used as something else does not mean that it was ever intended that way.”
To this artifact specifically, there are other reasons so suspect it was never a battery. First, it would have lasted as such for a short duration as to be useless. The electrolyte fluid would need to be replaced continually. Second, the object lacks terminals, and batteries need negative and positive ones that are accessible for connecting wires. If rigged as a battery, this one would have had the terminals under the fluid level and inaccessible beneath a seal. Finally, no conductive wires have ever been found that would indicate the ancients knew anything bout wiring. And lacking wires, there would be no method of connecting a battery to the device that housed it.
Beyond these points, this is the only “battery” of the time period ever found. There are no written records or artifacts showing its development beforehand or improvements after. So it is either a clay jar consistent with all the others of the time or a completely isolated innovation that used a technology that made one appearance, then lay dormant for hundreds of years.