Mysterious Treasures: Ancient Batteries and Legal History from Iraq

Lost Treasures of Iraq

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There have been throughout the 10 millenium of Mesopotamian history many earth shattering inventions and tales – from Old Testament history through to philosophical and mathematical experiments. Here are just two of the most amazing and bizarre.

The Birth of Legal History

Hammurabi’s Code of Law, a stone slab unearthed in 1901 is now held in the Louvre, Paris dating from the 17th century BC. The Laws distinguish between three social classes, free men, serfs and slaves. Previously, crimes could be compensated for by money, but Hammurabi’s Law belief crimes are an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The Laws states that the cost of ‘ensnaring another’ is punishable by death. Another means of testing was to throw a man in the river, if he drowned he was guilty, if he survived then the accuser would be put to death. Stealing from court or a temple or stowing hideaway slaves was also punishable by death. Lesser crimes like accidentally flooding a neighbours field would be punishable with monetary or agricultural exchange and a system of set fines. However, a woman caught trying to enter an Inn with the foul intend of drinking would be punished with being burnt to death. Hammurabi reunited the Sumerian people, personally overseeing the agriculture, irrigation, taxes and legal system. The Assyrians and Babylonian achieved harmony under his 200 year rule in the 17th & 16th century BC.

The Baghdad Batteries

In 1938, whilst rummaging through the basement of the Baghdad Museum, Austrian archaeologist Dr. Wilhelm Konig made a strange discovery. A 6 inch yellow clay pot with a sheet copper cylinder soldered with lead tin – dating back 2000 years, this was possibly the world’s first battery and an example of a neat soldering job. An iron rod holding the construction in place was corroded with acid, not a chance arrangement but an ancient electric battery. Konig also found copper vases dating to 2500BC with a blue silver film electroplated to the copper. These prototype batteries were developed from the oldest human civilizations of the Middle East. The dozen Baghdad batteries are shrouded in mystery as to their invention and usage, an ancient enigma. No two are exactly the same, how many were ever made is not known. Hailing from the start of the scientific medieval era, their creation does not fit well with the Biblical mysticism of Babylon but stems from the advanced mathematic development of old Babylon.

Replicas of the batteries have been made generating just a tiny 0.8 to 2 volts, although if connected in series, theoretically much higher voltages could have been produced, though no wires exist to prove this. Some theories exist that they were used medicinally like the use of electric eels or acupuncture coupled with electric current. Others believe the batteries were used for electroplating, like gilding. Alchemy would certainly have won you fine friends in high places and be a reason the discovery was kept secret, although no electroplated items have been found dating from this era.

This experiment with battery replicas was said to be carried out by the Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim in 1978, but no records exist of these experiments. Perhaps the more probable explanation is in bogus mysticism, the batteries together could have produced a small static discharge giving anyone touching a connected object a slight shock. Priest may have hid them inside an idol in an early lie detector test, triggering the current or flash of light for the ‘correct’ answer to stimulate belief. An object could be ‘charged’ with godly powers, like the Oracle of Delphi, or perhaps the Ark of the Covenant, upon which anyone who touched it would be struck down by God. Maybe this has a loose connection with the bizarre discovery. Perhaps they were just a pure scientific experiment, which never found a successful use during their era. Ironically, the yellow pot batteries probably resembled in part the deadly ammunition of cluster bombs, yellow coke can size bombs which can destroy a whole building is detonated, used to destroy Baghdad during the two Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003. A strange if not freaky coincidence showing the link between two disparate times if not similar violent and technologically advanced cultures.

More Information

Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization by A. Leo Oppenheim, Erica Reiner (Photographer) (Paperback – September 1977)
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Ancient Iraq by George Roux (1992)
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