Tutankhamun's meteoric iron dagger
Tutankhamun's iron dagger closely correlates with meteoric composition, including homogeneity. Originally discovered in 1925 in Tutankhamun's 14th Century BC King's Valley tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter, the iron dagger is of meteorite origin.
Since the 1960s the high nickel content in the blade has been accepted as indicative of meteoric origin. A more recent study published in June 2016 derived from x-ray fluorescence spectrometer analysis show that the blade's composition is mostly iron (Fe) and 11% nickel (Ni) and 0.6% cobalt (Co). This means its composition is placed within the median of a group of 76 previously discovered iron meteorites.
Also, the nickel to cobalt ratio of this blade is comparable to iron meteorite materials.
At the time of King Tutankhamun's mummification in approximately 1323 BCE (the Bronze Age), iron smelting and manufacture was rare. Iron objects were used for only artistic, ornamental, ritual, gift giving, and ceremonial purposes as well as for pigmentation. Hence, iron during this age was apprised as more valuable or precious than gold. Iron artifacts were given as royal gifts during the period directly preceding Tutankhamun's rule (i.e., during the reign of Amenhotep III).
Determining iron's occurrence throughout the very ancient past – such as obtaining, smelting, and introducing into various civilizations – has been an ongoing topic of scholarly study and discussion. From the late Neolithic era to the Bronze Age, ancient Eastern Mediterranean cultures used iron infrequently. The existence of smelted iron objects during this period has been shown to be uncommon or rare, and believed to have been produced from the ore found in meteors. However, iron working methods and iron's uses, and its dispersion and circulation within prehistoric societies, are contentious issues within the scientific community due to gaps in knowledge and data. These debates have included the presumed meteoritic source as the material from which the iron dagger blade is made.
Also, advancements in technologies used for deeper analysis of artifacts were required, which has happened over the last twenty years. Hence, during "the last 20 years, a dramatic improvement in solid-state detectors technology has allowed new analytical applications". Therefore, state of the art X-ray fluorescence spectrometers, a method of nondestructive testing, now typically exhibit improved deconstruction capabilities resulting in more accurately resolving the chemical composition of targeted artifacts into data that describes their constituent elements. The particular spectrometers used in this now well-known study are portable and handheld.
No Egyptian archaeological evidence exists of iron smelting until the 6th century BC. The earliest known example of the use of metallic iron in Egypt dates to approximately 3400 BC. This corresponds to the prehistoric time before Egypt became a single state ruled by a pharaoh.
Soon after the beads' discovery in 1911, scientific analysis revealed the beads to be nickel rich. As all meteorite iron is nickel rich this indicated a meteoritic origin. However, in the 1980s strong doubts developed after suggestions from archaeo-metallurgists that some early examples of nickel rich iron were produced by the use of terrestrial nickel rich iron ores. To establish meteorite provenance more refined analysis was needed.
In 2013 a single bead from the Manchester Museum (UK) was photographed, subjected to a scanning electron microscope to reveal the bead's micro-structure and chemistry, and an x-ray CT model (or scan) of the bead was produced. The results indicated the beads' micro-structures and composition were consistent with that of an iron meteorite that had been worked into a small thin sheet and bent into a tube-shaped bead. Hence, "for the first time using modern technology [researchers] recorded conclusive proof that the earliest known use of iron by Egyptians was from a meteorite."
Nineteen objects were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun, including a set of blades which appear very similar to those used in the Egyptian opening of the mouth ceremony (a ritual performed for the benefit of the deceased to enable an afterlife). These blades are also intricately linked to iron and stars, being described in temple inventories as composed of iron and were themselves frequently referred to as the stars.
The other iron objects were wrapped with Tutankhamun’s mummy; these include a miniature headrest contained inside the golden death mask, an amulet attached to a golden bracelet and a dagger blade with gold haft. All were made by relatively crude methods with the exception of the dagger blade which is clearly expertly produced.
This suggests that the dagger was probably imported to Egypt perhaps as a royal gift from a neighboring territory, indicating that at this time Egypt’s knowledge and skills of iron production were relatively limited. Only further analytical testing can confirm if all of these artifacts are made from meteorite iron but they do appear to suggest that iron was a material used to indicate high status at the time of Tutankhamun’s death in approximately 1327 BC.
Free Full Text (online) reading is available for each of the two articles below:
- Johnson, Diane; Tyldesley, Joyce; Lowe, Tristan; Withers, Philip J.; Grady, Monica M. (2013). "Analysis of a prehistoric Egyptian iron bead with implications for the use and perception of meteorite iron in ancient Egypt". Meteoritics & Planetary Science (Free Full text article download)
|url=(help). 48 (6): 997. Bibcode:2013M&PS...48..997J. doi:10.1111/maps.12120.
- Rehren, Thilo; Belgya, Tamás; Jambon, Albert; Káli, György; Kasztovszky, Zsolt; Kis, Zoltán; Kovács, Imre; Maróti, Boglárka; Martinón-Torres, Marcos; Miniaci, Gianluca; Pigott, Vincent C.; Radivojević, Miljana; Rosta, László; Szentmiklósi, László; Szőkefalvi-Nagy, Zoltán (2013). "5,000 years old Egyptian iron beads made from hammered meteoritic iron". Journal of Archaeological Science (Free Full text article download)
|url=(help). 40 (12): 4785. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2013.06.002.
- Bjorkman (1973). "Meteors and Meteorites in the Ancient Near East". Meteoritics and Planetary Science. 8: 124.
- Comelli, Daniela; d'Orazio, Massimo; Folco, Luigi; El-Halwagy, Mahmud; Frizzi, Tommaso; Alberti, Roberto; Capogrosso, Valentina; Elnaggar, Abdelrazek; Hassan, Hala; Nevin, Austin; Porcelli, Franco; Rashed, Mohamed G.; Valentini, Gianluca (2016). "The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun's iron dagger blade". Meteoritics & Planetary Science. 51 (7): 1301. Bibcode:2016M&PS...51.1301C. doi:10.1111/maps.12664.
- Johson, Diane (from: Open University) (3 June 2016). "Why did Tutankhamun have a dagger made from a meteorite?". International Business Times. UK: IBTimes Co., Ltd. Retrieved 4 June 2016.
Walsh, Declan (2 June 2016). "King Tut's Dagger Made of 'Iron From the Sky', Researchers Say". The New York Times. NYC: The New York Times Company. Retrieved 4 June 2016.
... the blade's composition of iron, nickel and cobalt was an approximate match for a meteorite that landed in northern Egypt. The result 'strongly suggests an extraterrestrial origin' ...
- Panko, Ben (2 June 2016). "King Tut's dagger made from an ancient meteorite". Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved 5 June 2016.
- Bjorkman, J.K. (1973). Meteors and Meteorites in the Ancient Near East.
- Wirth, Karl and Barth, Andrew. (Overview of): X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF). 20 August 2015. National Science Foundation (NSF).
- Hubbell, J. H.; Trehan, P. N.; Singh, Nirmal; et al. (1994). "A Review, Bibliography, and Tabulation of K, L, and Higher Atomic Shell X‐Ray Fluorescence Yields" (PDF). Journal of Physical and Chemical Reference Data. 23 (2): 339. Bibcode:1994JPCRD..23..339H. doi:10.1063/1.555955.
- "Breakthrough may Lead to improved X-ray Spectrometers"[permanent dead link]. June 7, 2016. Applied Physics Letters. AIP Publishing.
- Chung, Emily (1 June 2016). "King Tut's dagger blade made from meteorite, study confirms". CBC News. Retrieved 28 September 2018.
- Yuhas, Alan (2 June 2016). "Dagger in Tutankhamun's tomb was made with iron from a meteorite". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 September 2018.
- Gunther, Matthew (6 June 2016). "Tutankhamun's burial dagger is 'extra-terrestrial' in origin". Chemistry World. Royal Society of Chemistry. Retrieved 28 September 2018.
- Some content in the Historical Background section (of this article) is copied from a Dr. Diane Johnson article, professor and researcher from The Open University, with permission based on a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 licesnse. Attribution is as follows: Johnson, Diane (6 August 2015). "Iron from the sky: Meteors, meteorites and ancient culture". Open Learn. The Open University. Retrieved 5 June 2016.