For many years it has been speculated that early iron objects in ancient Egypt including the iron objects in Tutankhamun’s tomb were manufactured from meteorite iron, scientific analysis was performed in the years soon after their excavation, most if not all of this data suggested celestial origins. But by today’s standards the technology applied to these measurements was basic, this combined with a lack of published data has caused doubts as to the real origin of this iron.
Iron dagger from Tutankhamun’s tomb found wrapped with his mummified body (Image Harry Burton/Griffith Institute, University of Oxford)
For a long time any ancient metal sample found anywhere in the world identified to be nickel rich iron was considered to have a meteorite origin. But during the 1980s it was suggested that many early examples of nickel rich iron could have been produced from naturally nickel rich iron ores. This was particularly the case with rare minerals such as chloanite (FeNiCoAs)S2 which, if included as a smelting ingredient, would enrich the iron in both nickel and cobalt, both being chemical signatures of meteorite iron, creating an opportunity for scientific confusion when attempting to attribute an origin to the raw materials. These nickel enriched minerals are of limited supply, but their use could explain occasional examples of nickel rich iron without the need for a special knowledge of metal chemistry or meteorites. The exact manufacturing methods of early examples of iron are still the subject of research today.
Why is it important that we know where this iron originates from?
Until recently ancient Egyptians were not considered to have particularly significant skills in the production of iron objects and evidence of its ‘iron –age’ is limited to large amounts of iron rich smelting waste products found in the Delta region, although even these could have been produced by attempts to make copper, there is no archaeological evidence of the origins of iron working anywhere in the Nile Valley. Generally academics considered ancient Egyptians to only have developed knowledge of iron working at a late time in their ancient history, much later than many of Egypt’s neighbouring territories. So any evidence of early knowledge and skills in the production of iron objects in Egypt is significant from a point of view of technological development.
The source of the iron is also significant from a cultural perspective, if ancient Egyptian people knew that iron sometimes as meteorites came from the sky, the place of the gods, this would undoubtedly have implications for the importance they placed upon it, its symbolic cult use and ultimately how they perceived metallic iron in general.
It is little known that iron was a rarer material than gold when Tutankhamun died, the fact that we see multiple iron funerary objects wrapped with Tutankhamun’s mummy, all of these except his dagger blade being in a symbolic Egyptian form is particularly significant.
Prehistoric Iron bead excavated at the Gerzeh cemetery made from meteorite iron, Manchester Museum 5303 (image: D.Johnson Open University/Manchester Museum)
Why not use iron ores to produce iron by smelting?
Even though they had access to abundant supplies of iron in both Egypt and the Sinai peninsula, the ancient Egyptian metal workers did not apparently develop iron production technologies before 500 BC. Textual sources indicate that Egyptians were aware of iron from early in their history, when iron ores were ground up to create pigments used in art and cosmetics. But we have very little archaeological evidence of any purposeful iron ore smelting in Egypt. Explanations for this include practical and cultural reasons, the readily accessible iron ores may have been of poor quality or iron itself may have had a special symbolic purposes because of a knowledge of its celestial origin defining it as a divine material of the gods, hence not to be appropriate to work it into practical form, reserved for use only by high status people.
Egyptian iron ores, crushed ready for analysis showing the range of colours produced by ores (image: D.Johnson Open University)
How could anyone have worked an iron meteorite into a dagger blade?
Meteorite iron is all nickel rich and generally brittle making it a challenge to work into specific shape. Different types of meteorite iron exist as defined by their chemistry and micro-structure, this is what gives the meteorite iron its physical working properties, it depends on the technology available and which type of meteorite iron was used as to how a dagger blade could have been produced.
Simply grinding a cold large piece of meteorite iron into shape is possible although labour intensive and wasteful so less likely to be the method employed. It is a challenge even with modern technology to work certain types of meteorite iron into a blade and may involve mixing meteorite iron with iron produced by smelting. Thus would require high temperatures and tools to allow manipulation of the iron without massive risk to the metal worker, none of which do we have evidence of from ancient Egypt at around the time of Tutankhamun’s death.
It is interesting that we do know of occasional references to iron dagger blades in royal correspondence, the best known example being a letter from King Tushratta of Mitanni (modern region of Kurdistan, northern Iraq and northern Syria) giving details of a dowry for his daughter who was sent as a bride to king Amenhotep III of Egypt (reign dated to approximately 1390-1352BC; Amenhotep being generally considered to be Tutankhamen’s grandfather). This letter intriguingly refers to a dagger blade of ‘habalkinu’, a poorly documented word derived from the ancient Hittite language which some linguists have translated as ‘steel’. There is no other known example of such expertly worked iron from ancient Egypt as the Iron dagger blade from Tutankhamun’s tomb, compared to the other iron objects it is stylistically and technologically an odd one out of the iron in this tomb and of earlier Egyptian tombs. Was ‘habalkinu’ a reference to very high quality iron, such as meteorite iron? We know of numerous references to king Tushratta sending iron daggers to important people, implying that a knowledge of high quality iron working was at his disposal at around this time, but does this mean that the iron blade in Tutankhamun’s tomb originated outside Egypt?
Beads made from meteorite iron in experimental archaeology to explore the use of prehistoric Egyptian technology (image: D.Johnson, Open University)
What evidence is there of the significance of meteorite iron to the ancient Egyptians?
The ancient language offers clues as to how how iron and meteorites were perceived by Egyptians. The earliest hieroglyphic word for iron was greatly debated by translators, who frequently confused the words for copper and iron. This was a problematic lexicographical issue worsened by the lack of knowledge of the start date of the Egyptian Iron Age. The word biA was eventually translated as ‘iron’, but could easily have referred a range of hard, dense, iron-like materials including iron. The word was used in many texts, including the funerary Pyramid Texts – early religious writings (dating from approximately 2375BC but likely to have been composed far earlier) carved on the internal walls of some pyramids. Textual references to iron connect it with aspects of the sky, with ritual artefacts (as used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony) and with the bones of the dead king who will live for ever as an undying star in the sky. This could also link meteorites to fossils by their similar dark, smooth high density physical and visually similar characteristics.
Most of the early examples of iron in Egypt are symbolic or ritual artefacts associated with graves (the grave being a place of rebirth); this ritual link is also found in the early funerary texts. The link with the Opening of the Mouth ceremony is particularly clear. Later texts, including temple inventories, which make reference to the equipment used in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony refer to the iron blades used as ‘the two stars’. It may be that iron was allowed an important role in this ceremony because of the association of meteorite iron with meteors and thunderbolts; powerful natural phenomena whose own inherent power might increase the potency of the ritual. A specific association of iron blades with the adze (a bladed tool used as a ritual implement in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony) suggests a link to the stars themselves: while the constellation Ursa Major (the big dipper) forms the shape of the adze, the stars in Ursa major were considered to be ‘imperishable’ stars, the name used by the ancient Egyptians for those stars not seen to set or rise because of their proximity to the northern celestial pole. Dead and reborn kings were identified with these special stars. Images and texts describing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony are frequently found on the north walls of burial chambers, as is the case in Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Egyptologist Gerald A. Wainwright , working in the early 20th century, developed many ideas concerning ancient Egyptian meteorite worship, including the use of meteorites as sacred stones in the state temples of Karnak and Luxor. His reasoning was mainly based upon the symbols associated with cult centres of specific deities; in particular, he associated the gods Amun and Min with meteorites, making reference to what he erroneously described as a pear-shaped iron meteorite as the sacred object of Amun at Karnak. This is referenced as the meteorite ‘Thebes’ in numerous meteorite catalogues.
Replica iron meteorite beads displayed here with original prehistoric Gerzeh cemetery beads held at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. But did the ancient Egyptians in 3300BC know this iron came from a meteorite? (Image: D. Johnson Open University, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL)
What other evidence is there of a knowledge of iron meteorites in ancient Egypt?
From the beginning of the 19th Dynasty (approximately 1295BC) a new hieroglyphic word for iron appears: bi-A-n-pt, literally translates as ‘iron from the sky’. Why this new word appears in this exact form at this time is unknown. What is known, is that the new word was applied to all metallic iron. An obvious explanation for the sudden emergence of the word would be a major impact event or large shower of meteorites. This, witnessed by much of the ancient Egyptian population, would have left little uncertainty as to where exactly the mysterious iron came from. A possible candidate event is the Gebel Kamil meteorite impact in southern Egypt; although its exact age remains unknown, based upon nearby archaeology it formed within the last 5000 years.
Meteorites may have played a more direct role in state religion. The benben stone was the focus of worship in the sun temple of the god Re at Heliopolis. The original stone has not survived, but contemporary illustrations indicate that it was a pyramid or cone-shaped boulder, and this has led to suggestions that it may have been a meteorite. Later benben stones, in other solar temples, took the form of obelisks (originally short, squat, carved stones; later tall, narrow, carved stones occasionally covered in gold foil) which might also represent solidified rays of sunlight. The word benben is derived from the verb weben, meaning ‘to shine’; it may therefore be associated with the first ray of sunlight, or with the mound of creation that emerged from the waters of chaos at the beginning of time.
Hieroglyphic term that translates literally into “iron from the sky”
Was the iron found in Tutankhamun’s tomb all made by ancient Egyptians from a meteorite?
Only further detailed analysis of the chemistry and microstructure of all the artefacts will provide us with the answers. We also need to determine when where and how the smelting of terrestrial iron ores started in Egypt to further guide us in our knowledge on the origins, evolution and specific techniques of ancient Egyptian metalworking technology. By combining this with our knowledge of cultural evidence of the ancient perception of iron we can start to develop a realistic understanding of the true values of iron in ancient Egypt.
Dr Diane Johnson is a Post Doctoral Research Associate at the Open University, she works in the Department of Physical Sciences her work is funded by grants from research councils STFC , AHRC and from The Egypt Exploration Society she has a special interest in advanced analytical technology, meteorites and Egyptology.
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