The meteoric origins of Egypt’s first ironwork
By Edmund Connolly, on 1 September 2013
by guest blogger: Isadora Fontaine
Deep in the Predynastic galleries of the Petrie Museum, there is something truly out of this world.
In the cabinet containing jewellery and beads from a tomb in Gerzeh, a site about 70km from Cairo, there are three iron beads. They may not look like much, they are small, blackened and corroded and placed among more colourful artefacts, but these are no ordinary beads…they are made from a meteorite. At over 5,000 years old, they are the oldest man made iron objects in history.
Professor Thilo Rehren from UCL made the discovery that proved the extraterrestrial origins of the iron beads, which are not made from pure iron but an iron-nickel alloy. This natural alloy is common in meteorites but the research team needed further proof. By scanning the beads with gamma rays and neutron beams, Thilo and his research team discovered unusually high amounts of cobalt, germanium and phosphorus. This was the proof that the metal really did originate in space, as these trace elements are found in higher concentrations in meteoric iron than in iron ore.
The beads also show the earliest examples of blacksmithing: instead being carved or drilled like other beads, the iron was heated before being hammered and rolled into shape, then cooled extremely slowly to prevent the metal from cracking.
The discovery is further evidence that ancient Egyptians knew of iron in its metallic form long before the discovery of smelting iron ore mined from the ground. They seemed to have known that this metal had celestial origins and associated it with divinity and rebirth: the Pyramid Texts speak of the bones of the deceased king as being made from iron. There is even a theory that the ritual blades used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony may have been made from meteoric iron. This ceremony was performed on the mummified dead as a means of reanimating the soul of the deceased.
Whilst it is more probable that ancient Egyptians came across these iron-rich stones in the desert by chance whilst looking for stones with which to make jewellery, I can also imagine that perhaps they would have witnessed huge fireballs falling from the sky, shooting stars much brighter and more dramatic than usual. When they investigated where these may have landed, they would have discovered unusual metallic stones, and thus concluded that it they were made from a special, possibly sacred material.
Interestingly, this is not the only meteorite-related story to come out of Egypt…
The mysterious Benben stone, a cult object which once stood in the solar temple at Heliopolis, may have been a meteorite that had a conical or pyramidal shape. We will never know for sure what the Benben really was, since the stone was lost in antiquity, but some suggest that its shape may have been the inspiration for the tips of obelisks and even the pyramids themselves.
Another rock from space also fell upon Egypt in 1911. Like the meteorite that exploded over Russia in February 2013, the Nakhla meteorite’s entry into the Earth’s atmosphere was spectacular and noisy. One account claims that it struck and killed a dog, however, this is probably just conjecture. This meteorite is even more remarkable because we now know that it originally came from Mars. Scientists analysed trapped bubbles of gas within Nakhla and discovered the gas had a composition identical to that of the Martian atmosphere, which had been analysed by the Viking Mars lander. It is thought a huge cosmic impact chipped the rock off the Red Planet’s surface and propelled it towards Earth.
I will end with another piece of cosmic Egyptian jewellery belonging to one of the most famous pharaohs of all. There is a region of Egypt’s Western Desert, close to the border with Libya, which is strewn with fragments of natural glass, formed when the sand there was molten by extremely high temperatures. This is most likely to have been caused by a large meteorite exploding in the atmosphere that heated the air to thousands of degrees, causing the sand to melt and to eventually form a beautiful greenish-yellow glass once it had cooled. The event took place in prehistory, about 29 million years ago. One of the pieces of desert glass was then collected by ancient Egyptians, fashioned into the shape of a scarab and placed in a necklace belonging to none other than the boy king Tutankhamun. The necklace can now be seen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.