A dagger entombed with King Tutankhamun was made with iron from a meteorite, a new analysis on the metal composition shows.
In 1925, archaeologist Howard Carter found two daggers, one iron and one with a blade of gold, within the wrapping of the teenage king, who was mummified more than 3,300 years ago. The iron blade, which had a gold handle, rock crystal pommel and lily and jackal-decorated sheath, has puzzled researchers in the decades since Carter’s discovery: ironwork was rare in ancient Egypt, and the dagger’s metal had not rusted.
Italian and Egyptian researchers analysed the metal with an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer to determine its chemical composition, and found its high nickel content, along with its levels of cobalt, “strongly suggests an extraterrestrial origin”. They compared the composition with known meteorites within 2,000km around the Red Sea coast of Egypt, and found similar levels in one meteorite.
That meteorite, named Kharga, was found 150 miles (240km) west of Alexandria, at the seaport city of Mersa Matruh, which in the age of Alexander the Great – the fourth century BC – was known as Amunia.
The researchers published their findings on Tuesday in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science.
Although people have worked with copper, bronze and gold since 4,000BC, ironwork came much later, and was rare in ancient Egypt. In 2013, nine blackened iron beads, excavated from a cemetery near the Nile in northern Egypt, were found to have been beaten out of meteorite fragments, and also a nickel-iron alloy. The beads are far older than the young pharaoh, dating to 3,200BC.
“As the only two valuable iron artifacts from ancient Egypt so far accurately analysed are of meteoritic origin,” the team that studied the knife wrote, “we suggest that ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of fine ornamental or ceremonial objects”.
The researchers also stood with a hypothesis that ancient Egyptians placed great importance on rocks falling from the sky. They suggested that the finding of a meteorite-made dagger adds meaning to the use of the term “iron” in ancient texts, and noted around the 13th century BC, a term “literally translated as ‘iron of the sky’ came into use … to describe all types of iron”.
“Finally, somebody has managed to confirm what we always reasonably assumed,” Thilo Rehren, an archaeologist with University College London, told the Guardian.
Rehren, who studied the nine meteoritic beads, said “there never has been a reason to doubt this outcome but we were never really able to put this hard data behind it”.
He added that other objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb, including jewelry and miniature daggers, are believed to made from meteorite iron.
“Yes, the Egyptians referred to this stuff as metal from the heaven, which is purely descriptive,” he said. “What I find impressive is that they were capable of creating such delicate and well manufactured objects in a metal of which they didn’t have much experience.”
|An iron meteorite, by James St. John (Flickr: Murnpeowie Meteorite) [CC BY 2.0 (http://ift.tt/o655VX)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The researchers wrote in the new study: “The introduction of the new composite term suggests that the ancient Egyptians were aware that these rare chunks of iron fell from the sky already in the 13th [century] BCE, anticipating Western culture by more than two millennia.”
Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, of the University of Manchester, has similarly argued that ancient Egyptians would have revered celestial objects that had plunged to earth.
“The sky was very important to the ancient Egyptians,” she told Nature, apropos of her work on the meteoritic beads. “Something that falls from the sky is going to be considered as a gift from the gods.”
The high quality of the blade suggests that Tutankhamun, who lived during the latest stage of the Bronze Age, was supported by ironworkers who were skilled despite the relative rarity of the material.
The blade may not be the only item derived from falling rocks on Tut’s person.
In 2006, an Austrian astrochemist proposed that an unusual yellowish gem, shaped as a scarab in King Tut’s burial necklace, is actually glass formed in the heat of a meteorite crashing into sand.
“It would be very interesting to analyse more pre-Iron Age artifacts, such as other iron objects found in King Tut’s tomb,” Daniela Comelli, of the physics department at Milan Polytechnic, told Discovery News. “We could gain precious insights into metal working technologies in ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean.”
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