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Ancient Egyptians Mined Iron From Space

An interesting story at the Nature website, by the most excellent Jo Marchant, regarding the finding that an iron bead from the very beginnings of Dynastic Egypt has been found to have been made out of a meteorite: “Iron in Egyptian relics came from space“.

The 5,000-year-old iron bead might not look like much, but it hides a spectacular past: researchers have found that the ancient Egyptian trinket is made from a meteorite.

The result, published on 20 May in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, explains how ancient Egyptians obtained iron millennia before the earliest evidence of iron smelting in the region, solving an enduring mystery. It also hints that the ancient Egyptians regarded meteorites highly as they began to develop their religion.

…Researchers have discovered only a handful of ancient Egyptian iron artefacts made before the sixth century BC, when the first evidence for iron smelting in ancient Egypt appears in the archaeological record. All come from high status graves such as that of King Tutankhamun. “Iron was very strongly associated with royalty and power,” says Johnson.

Objects made of such divine material were believed to guarantee their deceased owner priority passage into the afterlife.

Campbell Price, a curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum who was not a member of the study team, emphasizes that nothing is known for certain about the Egyptians’ religious beliefs before the advent of writing. But he points out that later on, during the time of the Pharaohs, the gods were believed to have bones made of iron.

Perhaps meteorites originally inspired this belief, he speculates, with these celestial rocks interpreted as the physical remains of gods falling to Earth.

Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert wrote about the veneration and use of iron meteorites by the ancient Egyptians in their 1994 book The Orion Mystery – though as they point out in the book, the fact that meteorites played a role in the formation of religious ideas has been known to Egyptologists since 1933, based on the work of British Egyptologist G. A. Wainwright. In The Orion Mystery, Bauval and Gilbert note that “the Ancient Egyptian name for iron was bja…[and] bja is mentioned repeatedly in the Pyramid Texts in connection with the ‘bones’ of the star kings.” For instance, in PT1454 we find the passage “My bones are iron (bja) and my limbs are the imperishable stars.”

As these passages show, there was a belief that when the departed kings became stars, their bones became iron, the heavenly material (meteorites) of which the star gods were made. Such cosmic iron objects were the only material evidence of a tangible land in the
sky populated by star souls, and it was easy to see why the stars were thought to be made from bja. Since the souls of departed kings were the stars, they too had bones made of iron.

Bauval and Gilbert also note a number of other similar examples of meteorites being venerated across various cultures:

There is evidence of religious cults based on the veneration of sacred meteorites in the ancient world. It is well known that the Greeks regarded Delphi as the ‘navel’ of the world. However, the omphalos stone which marked the spot was not the original fetish of Delphi. There was originally a rough stone, believed to have been cast down to earth by the titan Kronos. The Delphians believed their stone to be the one cast down by Kronos and called it Zeus Baetylos, a term usually taken to mean meteorite by historians. Extant drawings show the Zeus Baetylos as ovoid in shape, and about the size of a cannonball. In view of its cosmic origins and characteristic shape, the Zeus Baetylos was almost certainly a meteorite. A similar stone was shown to the historian Pausanias (second century AD) at the town of Gythium, which the locals called Zeus-Kappotas (Zeus fallen down). This was probably also a meteorite. Pliny (AD23-79) also reported that a ‘stone which fell from the sun’ was worshipped at Potideae and that others had fallen at Aigos-Potamus and at Abydos, near the Hellespont.

The cult of meteorites was particularly rife in Phoenicia and Syria. At Emessa (Horns), for example, was the shrine of the god Ela-Gabal or Elagabalus, where a sacred relic was described as ‘a black, conical stone’; the chronicler Herodianus tells us that the Emessians ‘solemnly assert it to have fallen from the sky…’ Not far from Emessa, in the temple of Zeus-Hadad, at Heliopolis-Baalbek, were ‘black conical stones’. Zeus-Casios, a counterpart of Zeus-Hadad, had his abode on Mount Casios and also had a baetylos sacred to him. In ancient Phrygia (central Turkey) the Great Mother of the Gods, Cybele, was represented at the temple of Pessinus by a black stone said to have fallen from the sky.22 The Cybele cult was particularly widespread and was adopted by the Romans who took it as far as France and England.

There are many other examples of meteorite worship in many places of the world. This is quite understandable because ancient man saw the meteorite as the material representation of the sky gods and, perhaps more specifically, the star gods. We surely do not need any further examples to make the point that the Benben Stone kept inside the Temple of the Phoenix may have been a conical meteorite.

I’ve also heard it said that the Black Stone in the Kaaba at Mecca is a meteorite, but I’m not sure of the source on that. A fascinating topic!

Link: Full story by Jo Marchant at Nature, “Iron in Egyptian relics came from space”

Link: The Orion Mystery (Amazon US / Amazon UK)

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