In 1922, Howard Carter stunned the world with his discovery of the ‘lost tomb’ of the Egyptian King Tutankhamun (18th dynasty, 14th C. BCE), still intact with its treasures (and body of the now-famous boy-king) having remained safe from looters over the millennia. Three years into his investigation of the contents of the tomb, Carter found two daggers within the wrapping of Tut’s mummy: one on the right thigh, with a blade of iron, and another on the abdomen – this one with a blade of gold.
While for most people the latter might seem the more interesting, it is the dagger with the blade of iron that has been of more interest to archaeologists. In ancient Egypt, minerals such as copper, bronze, and gold were used extensively from the 4th millennium BCE, but – despite the significant amounts of iron ore in the area – iron was very rarely used until the 1st millennium BCE. As such, there has long been a debate as to whether the dagger found on Tut’s thigh might have been made out of meteoritic iron, which was highly venerated by the ancient Egyptians.
The dagger, pictured above, is certainly a thing of beauty. At 34.2cm (roughly 14 inches) long, it has a finely manufactured, non-rusted blade of iron, and a handle largely made of fine gold with a rounded knob of rock crystal at the end. Additionally, it was protected by a gold sheath decorated with a floral lily motif on one side and with a feathers pattern on the other side, terminating with a jackal’s head.
But is it from space? Scientists set out to answer that question in a recent study, which has just been published in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science under the title “The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun’s iron dagger blade” Lead author Daniela Comelli and her team of researchers (thankfully) used a non-destructive technique known as X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to determine the composition of the dagger at two different places on the surface of the blade.
Their analysis – carried out at the Egyptian Museum of Cairo – demonstrated that the two buik constituents of the dagger’s blade were iron (Fe) and nickel (Ni), with minor concentrations of cobalt (Co). And, importantly, they found that the nickel contributed around 10.8% of the full weight of the blade:
Iron meteorites are mostly made of Fe and Ni, with minor quantities of Co, P, S, and C, and trace amounts of other siderophile and chalcophile elements…The Ni content in the bulk metal of most iron meteorites ranges from 5 wt% to 35 wt%, whereas it never exceeds 4 wt% in historical iron artifacts from terrestrial ores produced before the 19th century.
[Additionally] the Ni/Co ratio in the dagger blade is consistent with that of iron meteorites.
Their conclusion: “The blade’s high Ni content, along with the minor amount of Co and a Ni/Co ratio of ~20, strongly suggests an extraterrestrial origin”.
This finding, along with last year’s discovery that a 5000-year-old bead from the beginnings of Dynastic Egypt was also made from the remains of a meteorite, reinforce the idea that the ancient Egyptians attributed great value to iron from meteorites.
In this new paper, the researchers do feel that their finding “provides important insight into the use of the term “iron”, quoted in relationship with the sky in Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Egyptian ancient texts”:
Beside the hieroglyphic “bja”, which already existed before the XIX dynasty with a broad meaning (as “mineral, metal, iron”), a new composite term “bja n pt”, literally translated as “iron of the sky,” came into use in the 19th dynasty (13th C. BCE) to describe all types of iron. In the same period, we can note a text at Karnak probably describing a meteorite. The introduction of the new composite term suggests that the ancient Egyptians, in the wake of other ancient people of the Mediterranean area, were aware that these rare chunks of iron fell from the sky already in the 13th C. BCE, anticipating Western culture by more than two millennia.
I mentioned some fascinating details about the ancient Egyptian veneration of meteorites, sourced from researchers Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert, in my post about the beads last year, so I won’t discuss it again at length here. But at the end of that post is an interesting hypothesis that wasn’t explored much further: could the sacred Egyptian ‘Ben-Ben stone’ (like other omphalos stones) have originally been a conical meteorite? And, while we’re speculating: could its shape have ultimately given rise to the shape of the pyramids?