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Object of the Week 372: 3 Meteorite Beads

By Graham Isted, on 4 January 2019

Hello and welcome to the next installment of Object of the Week: Petrie Museum Edition. I am delighted to say that my first UCL Culture blog post will also be the first of 2019. I have chosen a set of 3 objects which are truly out of this world. Something ‘extra-terrestrial’!

The contemplation of space and the cosmos would not have been an ‘alien concept’ by Ancient Egyptians who painted, carved and wrote about the sun, moon, stars and planets. They even went so far as to work with material which had travelled through space. This isn’t science fiction, this is science fact.

I would like to introduce you to three Meteorite Beads (UC10738, UC10739 and UC10740).

Fig.1 Meteorite bead UC10738.

 

 

Fig.2 Meteorite bead UC10739.

Fig. 3 Meteorite bead UC10740.

Okay, so the sight of three small, corroded lumps of metal might not initially excite you, but hopefully this blog will demonstrate how this choice of material for jewellery represents something remarkable.

These beads are made from iron-rich meteorites that fell to earth 5,000 years ago. It is important to note this source of iron pre-dates iron smelting technology by 2,000 years. Pre-dynastic communities in this period  did not have the technology required to achieve the necessary high temperature to produce iron. This material would have appeared strange and rare to people living in Egypt. Someone took the time to collect this brittle material, heat and hammer it until it was a millimetre thick and then carefully rolled it into beads. These are, in fact, the oldest known worked iron items in the world… Let that sink in . The production and shaping of iron is essential in our modern lives for so many items and services. The truth is out there, it’s been discovered and people need to know… this is the world’s first and it came from outer space!

These three beads were discovered within one burial (Tomb 67), alongside another burial (Tomb 133) which contained a further 6 meteorite beads, all dating to 3,400-3,100BCE . The burials were in a cemetery near the current village of el-Gerzeh, 40 miles south of Cairo, in Egypt, and they were excavated by the archaeologist Gerald Wainwright between 1911 and 1912. The meteoritic beads were also found with other beads made of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian, plus hippopotamus ivory, a copper harpoon, a lime stone mace head and a pallet in the shape of a fish. These items were unusual and rare.

When these beads were discovered, it was assumed the source of the iron was from meteorites. This bold assumption was not conclusively proved until 2013 through the use of Neutron and X-ray imaging by a team led by Thilo Rehren at UCL.

Dr Diane Johnson of the Open University, has shed further light on the potential appearance of these beads through experimental archaeology. Diane heated meteorite iron and followed the stages we believe were involved in their manufacture. The appearance is both shiny and iridescent.

 

Fig.4 Photograph of Dr Diane Johnson’s experimental archaeology meteorite beads (https://i2.wp.com/www.ironfromthesky.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/DSCN9929.jpg)

 

The story of these beads shows how the Petrie Museum collection, time and again, provides new insight into past communities and technologies as researchers develop new techniques and approaches.

Graham Isted is a Museum Visitor Services Assistant at the Petrie Museum of Egyptology 

 

References:

Chow, D. 2013. Egyptian Beads Made From Meteorites. Live Science. Available from: www.livescience.com/38995-egyptian-beads-made-from-meteorites.html (accessed on 14.12.18)

Johnson, D. 2016. Tutankhamun Meterorite Iron Dagger Bladehttp. Iron From the Sky. Available from: www.ironfromthesky.org/?page_id=47 (accessed on 14.12.18)

Johnson, D.; Grady, M. M. and Tyldesley, J. (2011). Gerzeh, a prehistoric Egyptian meteorite. Meteoritics & Planetary Science, 46(S1) A114-A114.

Rehren, T. Belgya,, A. Jambon, G. Káli, Z. Kasztovszky, Z. Kis, I. Kovács, B. Maróti, M. Martinón-Torres, G. Miniaci, V. C. Pigott, M. Radivojevi, L. Rosta, L. Szentmiklósi, Z.

Skurie, J. 2013. Scientists: Meteorite Beads Oldest Example of Metalwork. National Geographic. Available from: www.news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130822-ancient-egypt-beads-meteorites-iron-gerzeh/ (accessed on 14.12.18)

Stevenson, A. 2015 Out of this World: Prehistoric Space beads, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections, UCL Press pp30-31

Szőkefalvi-Nagy. 2013. 5,000 year old Egyptian iron beads made from hammered meteoritic iron, Journal of Archarological Science, Elsevier pp 4,785-4792

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