Archaeologists working at the UCL Petrie Museum have shown that ancient Egyptians made jewelry from chunks of meteorite. Even more remarkable is the realization that they made these items over 5,000 years ago — nearly two millennia before the emergence of iron smelting.
Top image: The meteoric iron beads, which are now heavily corroded, are shown at center. They're placed along side the tubular lapis lazuli (blue), carnelian (brownish/red), agate, and gold beads that they were originally strung with. Credit: UCL Petrie Museum/Rob Eagle
Back in 1911, archaeologists found nine iron beads in a pre-dynastic cemetery near the village of el-Gerzeh in Lower Egypt. But they were completely corroded, leaving archaeologists uncertain as to their exact composition.
Now, after scanning the items with beams of neutrons and gamma-rays, a team of archaeologists have confirmed that the beads were actually made from meteoric iron and not magnetite, which is often mistaken to be corroded iron owing to similar properties.
These X-ray techniques allowed the researchers to study the fine texture of the material and demonstrate that they were derived from meteoric iron without damaging them. Indeed, the scans showed all the tell-tale signs: high concentrations of nickel, cobalt, phosphorus, and germanium.
And fascinatingly, the same scanning process — which offered a unique glimpse into the beads’ internal structure — also allowed the researchers to determine how the ancient Egyptians crafted the jewelry.
They did so by carefully hammering the chunks of meteorite into thin sheets before rolling them out into tubes. They then took the beads and strung them into a necklace together with other exotic minerals, including gold and gemstones — revealing just how valuable and exotic the meteorite material must have been! (Though it’s highly unlikely that they would have known its space-based origins.)
“The shape of the beads was obtained by smithing and rolling, most likely involving multiple cycles of hammering, and not by the traditional stone-working techniques such as carving or drilling, which were used for the other beads found in the same tomb,” noted lead researcher Thilo Rehren through a statement.
So by the fourth millennium BC, metalworkers were already smithing meteoric iron, which is much harder and more brittle than the more common copper. It’s a technique, argue the archaeologists, that went on to “define the iron age.”
Read the entire open access article, which has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: “5,000 years old Egyptian iron beads made from hammered meteoritic iron.”