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Iron from the sky: Meteors, meteorites and ancient culture

Updated Tuesday, 3 January 2023

3-4 January 2023 will see the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower. What’s the connection between meteors, iron and Egyptian beads? Dr Diane Johnson, a Post Doctoral Research Associate in the Faculty of Science, explains more about ‘iron from the sky’.

Stone statue of the Pharaohs in Giza The relationship between meteorites and ancient Egyptian culture may not be immediately obvious, but for many years, Egyptologists speculated on the use of meteorites as an ancient source of iron. No Egyptian archaeological evidence exists of iron smelting until 6th century BC, although occasional early iron artefact finds caused uncertainty.

The earliest known example of the use of metallic iron in Egypt dates to approximately 3400BC, this corresponds to the pre-historic time before Egypt became a single state ruled by a pharaoh. Found within a grave in the Gerzeh cemetery, situated 70km south of modern Cairo, were the remains of a man, along with valuable grave goods - an ivory pot, a stone palette and a copper harpoon - and strung across his neck and waist were beads made from precious materials including gold, carnelian and iron.

Soon after their excavation in 1911, scientific analysis revealed the beads to be nickel rich; as all meteorite iron is nickel rich this indicated a meteorite origin, but in the 1980s more doubts developed after suggestions from archaeo-metallurgists that some early examples of nickel rich iron were produced by the use of terrestrial nickel rich iron ores. I recognised that more work was needed to establish how the iron beads originated. When examining three Gerzeh iron beads held at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL and another one at The Manchester Museum, I noted that all were highly oxidised and realised this would not be a trivial task. The Manchester Museum bead was loaned to me for analysis; non-destructive analysis methods were crucial, first photographing, then using a scanning electron microscope at The Open University to visualise what remained of the bead microstructure and measuring the chemistry of any preserved metal fragments. At The University of Manchester in the x-ray imaging facility, we produced an x-ray CT model of the bead which illustrated the variations in its structure and composition in three dimensions. The results indicated the bead micro-structures observed and their composition were consistent with that of an iron meteorite that had been worked into a small thin sheet and bent into a tube-shaped bead. So for the first time using modern technology we recorded conclusive proof that the earliest known use of iron by Egyptians was from a meteorite.

Meteorite iron Meteorite iron The full meaning of the meteorite iron beads within this grave remains to be established, it could not be confirmed if the people who worked this iron, in about 3400BC, knew it came from the sky; no writing existed at this time in Egypt to tell us. All we know about their opinion of iron is derived from the contents of their graves. These tell us that iron was rare and found with other high quality grave goods, some of which had been transported long distances. This implies that meteorite iron had a special status and appears to indicate its owners had a high status within their communities. If the meteorite iron was recognised to have arrived from the sky, a place of gods, this would have given it even more value and perhaps further enhance the status of its owner. We do not yet fully understand what ancient Egyptians thought of iron prior to its use becoming common, but there are other known relatively early Egyptian iron artefacts from well dated and documented excavations. They were found
within two royal tombs in ancient Thebes (modern Luxor) most, possibly all are nickel rich.

Nineteen of these objects were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamen including a set of blades which appear very similar to those used in the opening of the mouth ceremony (a ritual performed for the benefit of the deceased to enable an afterlife). These blades are also intricately linked to iron and stars, being described in temple inventories as composed of iron and were themselves frequently referred to as the stars. The other iron objects were wrapped with Tutankhamen’s mummy, these include a miniature headrest contained inside the golden death mask, an amulet attached to a golden bracelet and a dagger blade with gold haft, all were made by relatively crude methods with exception of the dagger blade which is clearly expertly produced. This suggests that the dagger was probably imported to Egypt perhaps as a royal gift from a neighbouring territory, indicating that at this time Egypt’s knowledge and skills of iron production were relatively limited. Only further analytical testing can confirm if all of these artefacts are made from meteorite iron but they do appear to suggest that iron was a material used to indicate high status at the time of Tutankhamen’s death in approximately 1327 BC.

Gerzeh meteorite bead Gerzeh meteorite bead Some written clues do exist strongly hinting at an ancient knowledge of meteorite iron. The earliest known Egyptian word attributed to mean iron was intensely debated by early linguists, and references to copper and iron were often misread. The word ‘bia’ was ultimately regarded as meaning iron but based on the context of the use of this word it probably referred to a broad range of materials with similar appearance or physical properties. But a new word for iron appears in text from approximately 1295BC ‘Bia-n-pt’, translating literally as ‘iron from the sky’ and this word was used to describe all meteorite iron from this time onwards. It is difficult to prove exactly what prompted the creation of a new word at this exact time, however, it is possible that a major event such as a fireball or a large shower of iron meteorites could have been witnessed by ancient Egyptians leaving them with little uncertainty to where this material came from and linking it to the sky definitively. Interestingly, a large crater produced by a hypervelocity impact of an iron meteorite into southern Egypt was discovered in 2008, and based on nearby archaeology it is estimated to have formed in the last 5,000 years and is a possible source of inspiration for this new-name iron from the sky.

Through most of Egypt’s history iron was a rare, exotic, valuable and symbolic material sometimes sourced from meteorites. Its origins in the sky probably prompted it to be considered a gift of the gods thus increasing the importance of its presence in ritual events. In modern times scientists will travel the globe in order to recover meteorites as their scientific analysis provides essential information about the formation history of the solar system but clearly in some instances meteorites are also immensely valued as symbolic and sacred objects.


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