Background

The background to this project comes from our recent study of the oldest known examples of worked iron in Egypt [1]. We analysed a nickel-rich iron bead found in a pre-dynastic (3600 – 3300 BCE) grave pit at the Gerzeh cemetery, and confirmed that it was produced by working of iron from a meteorite. This finding has led us to consideration of the use of iron in ancient Egypt, starting from the question of whether iron from a meteorite fall (or find) was the main source of metal prior to the discovery of iron ore deposits.

Prehistoric Iron bead excavated at the Gerzeh cemetery made from meteorite iron, Manchester Museum 5303.

Prehistoric Iron bead excavated at the Gerzeh cemetery made from meteorite iron, The Manchester Museum 5303.

The term for iron in Ancient Egyptian texts is also used to describe aspects of the sky; it is not known why the same phrase is applied to two such separate ‘objects’. It may be that the colour of the sky invited comparison with the sheen and colour of metallic iron. Equally, it may be that the ancients observed a relatively rare celestial phenomenon – the fall of an iron meteorite – which led to the association of metal and sky, especially if the meteorite was found after it landed.

Iron meteorite found at Gebel Kamil, Southern Egypt, the site of a large ancient meteorite crater with a formation date within the last 5000 years.

Iron meteorite found at Gebel Kamil, Southern Egypt, the site of a large ancient meteorite crater with a formation date within the last 5000 years.

The overall knowledge of the origin of Egyptian iron and material culture is scarce. Egyptian iron artefacts have been subjected to little research from both materials culture and science perspectives, whereas historical investigations of iron in the Near East have centred round the military hardware perspective [2]. Many examples of iron artefacts exist in museum Egyptology collections, but they generally have not been subjected to detailed scientific analysis. The artefacts take a variety of different forms and have a wide geographic provenance, such as the iron dagger blade from Tutankhamen’s tomb. They range in reported archaeological date from the 4th Dynasty onwards, but with the majority appearing later from around the 26th Dynasty. There are a small number of Egyptian nickel-rich iron artefacts found in the Nile Valley, dating from the 11th to the 18th Dynasties which are dominantly symbolic in form [3]. Large quantities of iron slag were found during excavations of 26th Dynasty Delta sites, although this could be waste from copper smelting [4].

Hieroglyphic term used to mean iron, it literally translates as "iron from the sky".

Hieroglyphic term used to mean iron, it literally translates as “iron from the sky”.

In parallel to the excavation of iron artefacts, ancient texts indicate that the earliest written word for iron appearing in hieroglyphs, (biA), could have been a relatively broad term, since no evidence exists to suggest that the necessary knowledge of metal production existed at such an early time in Egypt [3]. If iron as a material was viewed within this broader perspective, materials of other composition – but related to  iron by similar visual appearance or physical properties (e.g., a high density, metallic lustre and surface texture) also need to be considered in order to understand the perception of iron by ancient Egyptians. There is no text to demonstrate that early Egyptians were aware of the celestial origin of meteorites, however lexicography studies point to a link between sky and the early term for iron. However, from around the end of the 18th Dynasty, a new term for iron is developed which literally translates as ‘iron from the sky’.

Hieroglyph Text from Teti I pyramid, Saqqara, image by Chipdawes - en Wiki.

Hieroglyph Text from Teti I pyramid, Saqqara, image by Chipdawes – en Wiki.

The Pyramid texts are considered to be the earliest theological Egyptian text. They contain references to iron in numerous places, mainly featuring in funerary ceremonies, the reception of deceased kings to heaven and their subsequent life in heaven, as well as a specific association with the god Seth [Ritual of bodily restoration of the deceased and offerings; Utterances {21, 13c}; {570, 1454b & 1455a}; {21, 14a}; {530a, 1454b}; {684, 2051c}; Ref. 5]. Excavations during 1923-24 revealed that during the 19th Dynasty, heavily mineralised mammal fossil bones were incorporated into burial shafts at Qau el-Kebir, in addition to similar fossil bone fragments wrapped in two linen bundles placed within a near-by rock-cut tomb [6]. Many of the bones were reported to be hippopotamus and this location was known as a cult centre of the god Seth who was frequently depicted in artwork as a hippopotamus. These dark, heavy, fossilised bones share strong visual similarity with desert-weathered iron meteorites; as such, they could be the source of inspiration for the Pyramid texts reference to the ‘iron bones of gods’.

Linen bundle discovered within a rock cut tomb at Qau el-Kebir, image appears courtesy of Bolton County Council.

Linen bundle discovered within a rock cut tomb at Qau el-Kebir, image appears courtesy of Bolton County Council.

References: [1] Johnson, D., Tyldesley, J., Lowe, T., Withers, P.J., Grady, M.M. (2013) Analysis of a prehistoric Egyptian iron bead with implications for the use and perception of meteorite iron in ancient Egypt. 48,6, 997-1006, Meteoritics and Planetary Science; [2] Shaw I, (2012) Military Hardware: the east Mediterranean knowledge economy and the emergence of the Iron Age in Egypt, in Ancient Egyptian Technology and Innovation, Bristol Classic Press, London, Chapter 8, 110-126; [3] Waldbaum, J. C. (1978) From Bronze to Iron; the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron age in the Eastern Mediteranean, Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology, 54, Göteborg: Paul Åstroms Förlag; [4] Ogden, J. (2009) Chapter 6 Metals, in Ancient Egyptian materials and technologies. Nicholson, P. T., Shaw, I. (eds.), 148-176, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; [5] Mercer, S. A. B. (1939) The Tell el Amarna Tablets 1. p81, 83, 85, 87, 137, Toronto: Macmillan;