King Tut’s dagger is ‘not of this world’

The iron dagger found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun dates back to around 1350 bc., about 200 years before the iron age.

(Albert Jambon)

Daggers, axes and jewelry made of rare iron during the bronze age are literally out of this world, according to new research find that the old craftsmen made of these metal objects with iron from outer space carried to Earth by meteorites.

The discovery turn on the idea that a few craftsmen in the bronze age in the ancient Near East knew how to make iron by the melting of the earth’s crust.

Instead, it appears that bronze age metalworkers were looking meteorites to make this estimate, said study author Albert Jambon, a French archaeo-metallurgist, and professor at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. [See Photos of King Tut’s Dagger & Other Old Iron Objects]

“Iron from the bronze age, meteoritic, that speculations about precocious [early] melting during the Bronze Age,” Ham wrote in the study.

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Jambon tested the old iron daggers, including one of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt, and axes of iron, and pieces of iron jewelry of the ancient Near East and China with X-ray scans to determine their metal.

Last year is a study using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry determined that Tutankhamun’s dagger was made with iron with almost 11 per cent nickel and traces of cobalt: a characteristic of extraterrestrial iron found in many of the iron meteorites that rained down on the Earth for billions of years.

Most of the iron meteorites that smash into the Earth every year are believed to have originated in the metal-heavy cores of planetesimals — small bodies in the proto-planetary disk of debris that orbit around the sun during the early stages of the solar system.

As a result, these meteorites contain high concentrations of nickel or cobalt. In contrast, iron smelted terrestrial iron ore, which are extracted from our planet earth’s crust, contain less than 1 percent nickel or cobalt, much less than the level in the iron-rich space rocks.

Jambon using a portable XRF analyser to scan other ancient iron objects and iron meteorites in museums, as well as iron, in private collections in Europe and the Middle East.

His research showed that the iron in the tested artifacts came from meteorites, not terrestrial melt, he told Science in an e-mail.

The findings suggested that iron meteorites were the only source of this metal until the discovery of the smelting of iron from terrestrial iron ore, probably in Anatolia, the Caucasus, and around 3200 years ago, Jambon said.

Old iron

Jambon examined a number of the most ancient iron artifacts ever found, including sheet-iron beads from Gerzeh in Egypt, dated to 3200 B. C.; an axe from Ugarit on the coast of northern Syria, dates back to 1400 B. C.; a dagger from Alaça Höyük in Turkey, dated to 2500 B. C.; and three iron objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb, dating back to 1350 B. C. — a dagger, a bracelet and a headrest.

Some archaeologists have suggested that these early iron objects can be created by “precocious” the melting of iron ore to nearly 2000 years before the technology was known in the early iron age — perhaps by accident, or through experimentation.

But Ham said that his research found no evidence that molten iron was known to the Iron Age dawned in the Near East, in around 1200 B. C. The oldest known furnace for the smelting of iron ore, at Tell Hammeh in Jordan, and dates to 930 B. C., he is mentioned. [Photos: Ancient Cemetery, and Metal Tool from Southern Levant]

“We know from the texts that in the bronze age, iron was valued 10 times as much as gold,” Jambon said. “[But] in the early iron age, the price fell dramatically to less than that of copper, and this is the reason why iron replaced bronze very quickly.”

The analysis also revealed that Tutankhamun’s dagger, bracelet and headrest were made from the iron of at least two different meteorites, suggesting that an active search was carried out for valuable iron meteorites in the ancient times, ” he said.

Metal from space

Jambon hopes to scan more old iron with XRF spectrometry, but the access to these items is not always possible, especially in conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq. Even the study of objects in museums can be a challenge, ” he said.

“For obvious reasons, curators are reluctant to contribute artifacts to a foreign setting, and this is the reason why we need to travel,” he said, “This is the reason why the portable XRF analyser changed the deal.”

Jambon hopes that his research will form the basis of a hunt for the earliest molten irons on Earth. “The first irons will be identified by their chemical composition, that differs significantly from meteoritic iron,” Jambon said. “Such analyses should be done for all irons between 1300 [B. C.] and 1000 B. C.”

“[This method] opens the possibility of keeping track of when and where the first smelting operations have happened, the threshold of a new era,” he wrote in the study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Original article on Live Science.

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