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Dagger of King Tutankhamun

Researchers may have tracked down the source of King Tutankhamen’s ‘space dagger’

It has been six years since we found out that King Tut was buried with an extraterrestrial weapon – or in less click-bait terms (though perhaps equally as fascinating), a dagger made out of a meteor. The discovery was thought to be yet another artefact confirming the ancient Egyptians’ veneration and use of iron from meteorites.

But was this particular meteoritic artifact actually made in Egypt? Recent research suggests that, surprisingly, the famous dagger may not have been made by Egyptian hands. In a paper titled “The manufacture and origin of the Tutankhamen meteoritic iron dagger“, researchers explain how in undertaking chemical analysis of the dagger found with Pharaoh Tutankhamen in his tomb, they not only were able to identify the type of meteorite from which it was derived, but also perhaps help prove where it was made.

The (non-destructive) analysis by scientists at the Chiba Institute of Technology in Narashino, Japan found that the nickel in the dagger was distributed in a certain way (a ‘Widmanstätten pattern’) that is typical of a group of meteorites called octahedrites.

But in looking at the elemental composition of the hilt of the dagger, they also found a small percentage of calcium that suggested a lime plaster may have been used to ‘glue’ its decorative stones – lapis lazuli, carnelian, malachite and fine grains of gold – in place. However, lime plasters were not used in Egypt in Tut’s time (ca. the 14th century BCE) – it wasn’t used until more than a thousand years later, in the Ptolemaic period.

a) Photograph of the gold hilt of the iron dagger (upper panel) and the associated gold sheath (lower panel). Enlarged images of hatched areas of the gold hilt (b) and the gold sheath (c) of (a). Analytical points of semiquantitative analyses are shown with red circles.

This provides circumstantial evidence to support the hypothesis that Tut’s dagger was originally one of a number of gifts sent to Tut’s grandfather Amenhotep III (1417–1379 BC) by Tusratta, the king of Mitanni, in southeast Anatolia, when he married the princess Taduhepa to Amenhotep III. The gift of a dagger resembling Tut’s is listed as one of the gifts in the ‘Amarna letters’, a diplomatic correspondence almost all written in Akkadian:

1 dagger, the blade of which is of iron, its guard, of gold, with designs; its haft of ebony with calf figurines; overlaid with gold; its pommel is of … -stone; its (…) …, overlaid with gold, with designs, 6 shekels (= ca. 50 g) gold have been used on it.

Anatolia also seems a good fit due to it being another region – like Egypt – that seemed to value meteoritic iron in ancient times. The oldest known iron dagger made of meteoritic iron was actully found in a burial in Alacuhöyük, Anatolia dating back to ca. 2300 BCE. And, unlike Egypt, suitable iron processing technology and the use of lime plaster was already prevalent in the region at the time.

Alacuhöyük dagger (Stipich Béla, CCASA licence)

The researchers summed up their findings:

The intermediate Ni content (11.8 ± 0.5wt%) with the Widmanstätten pattern implies the source iron meteorite for the Tutankhamen dagger blade to be octahedrite. Sulfur-rich black spots randomly distributed on the blade surface are likely remnants of troilite (FeS) inclusions in the source iron meteorite. The preserved Widmanstätten pattern and the remnant troilite inclusion show that the iron dagger was manufactured by low-temperature (<950°C) heat forging. The gold hilt with a few percent of calcium lacking sulfur suggests the use of lime plaster instead of gypsum plaster as an adhesive material for decorations on the hilt. Since the use of lime plaster in Egypt started during the Ptolemaic period (305–30 B.C.), the Ca-bearing gold hilt hints its foreign origin, possibly from Mitanni, Anatolia, as suggested by one of the Amarna letters saying that an iron dagger with gold hilt was gifted from the king of Mitanni to Amenhotep III, the grandfather of Tutankhamen.

Paper:The manufacture and origin of the Tutankhamen meteoritic iron dagger

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