The most important things we have ever found

“F.P. (Flinders) thought them among the most important things we have ever found” wrote Hilder Petrie in April 1953, of her husband’s opinion, quite a statement considering archaeologist Flinders Petrie excavated in Egypt over four decades until 1924. But what were the important excavation materials Hilder Petrie was referring to…..?

Excerpt from a hand written letter by Hilda Petrie, Image: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

Excerpt from a hand written letter by Hilda Petrie, Image: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

At Qau el-Kebir, Middle Egypt, in 1923 Guy Brunton was working with Petrie, during excavations within a stepped burial shaft he found an estimated “2-3 tonnes” of fossilised, mainly dark, shiny heavy bones and carved ivory (1,2), the following year Petrie excavated a nearby cemetery finding a smaller deposit of fossils and yet more inside some of the rock cut tombs of the high status regional governors, at Qau many fossils were scattered as fragments through the tombs, others were still wrapped in their ancient linen bundles (3).

Prof Petrie at Qau in 1924 with the fossils under covers in the foreground. Image: The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

Qau el-Kebir is in an area suggested as a cult centre for the god Seth, a stela was found at Qau depicting Seth as a hippopotamus, Brunton and Petrie theorised that the mainly hippopotamus fossil bones were highly likely to be offerings to Seth. Some of the fossils were sent by Petrie to the UK for further consideration. A large study of the fossils from Qau was planned but many things prevented this from happening, no major publications were produced from the fossil collection, with time their storage location details were lost, so no further work was possible.

Qau fossils at the Natural History Museum, London, in 2015. Images: Diane Johnson/Natural History Museum, London

Qau fossils at the Natural History Museum, London, in 2015. Images: Diane Johnson/Natural History Museum, London

Recently they were identified again in crates held in a storage facility of the Natural History Museum, London (4). A detailed scientific study of the collection is clearly justified and a recent grant awarded by the Egypt Exploration Society to Diane Johnson (Open University) and Pip Brewer (Natural History Museum) is enabling this to happen.

Our study involves applying modern scientific techniques to study the differences in chemistry and structure of the bones, carbon dating to help us understand both when the bones were placed in the burial shaft and when the bones were part of were living creatures. The range of modern scientific techniques being applied are allowing detailed recording of structural analysis combined with composition information, together this can reveal crucial information about the past environments in which the fossils have formed.

Image: Diane Johnson/ Open University Image: Natural History Museum, London Scientific analysis of the fossils in action: LEFT- small fossil fragment goes into a microscope at the Open University for the first Scanning Electron Microscope analysis of Qau burial shaft fossils. RIGHT – portable X ray Fluorescence analysis of Qau bones at the Natural History Museum Rob McLeod and Diane Johnson analysing the Qau fossils in the conservation centre of the Natural History Museum.

Image: (left) Diane Johnson / Open University, (right) Natural History Museum, London
Scientific analysis of the fossils in action: LEFT- small fossil fragment goes into a microscope at the Open University for the first Scanning Electron Microscope analysis of Qau burial shaft fossils. RIGHT – portable X ray Fluorescence analysis of Qau bones at the Natural History Museum Rob McLeod and Diane Johnson analysing the Qau fossils in the conservation centre of the Natural History Museum.

These results will help us to answer key questions such as when and where the bones became fossilized? Do they all originate from the same location? How did the bones arrive at Qau – did nature or people bring the bones to this site? The fossils may also provide us with scientific evidence to establish ritual functions and significance of these and other ancient Egyptian funerary animal offerings.

Petrie once said “I believe the true line of research lies in the noting and comparison of the smallest details” (5). Hopefully our scientific study focused on noting and comparing the smallest details of the Qau el-kebir fossils will bring further clarity to the meaning of this unusual massive fossil deposit in its ancient Egyptian funerary context.

Further reading & information:
(1). Brunton, G, Gardiner A, Petrie F, Qau and Badari I, British School of Archaeology in Egypt (1927).
(2). Brunton G, Qau and Badari III, British School of Archaeology in Egypt, 18-20 (1930).
(3). Petrie F, Antaeopolis and the tombs of Qau, British School of Archaeology in Egypt (1930).
(4). Mayor A, The First Fossil Hunters, Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, Princeton University Press, p177-178 (2000).
(5). The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London.

Tutankhamun meteorite iron dagger blade

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)

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.

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

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

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?

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"

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.

References

Comelli, D., et al. (2016) The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun’s iron dagger blade, Meteoritics and Planetary Science, DOI: 10.1111/maps.12664

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. Vol.48, 6, 997-1006,  Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

Johnson D, Tyldesley J., (2013) Iron from the sky: Meteorites in ancient Egypt, Meteorite magazine, 9, 4, 8-13.

Johnson D., Tyldesley J., (2014) Iron from the sky, Geoscientist 24, 3, 10-15.

Johnson D., Tyldesley J., (2014) The metal that fell from the sky, Ancient Egypt magazine, 14,4,82, 43-47.

Helmi, F., Barakat, K. (1995) Micro Analysis of Tutankhamun’s Dagger. In Proceedings of the first international conference on Ancient Egyptian Mining & Metallurgy and Conservation of Metallic Artifacts, Cairo: Egyptian Antiquities Organizational Press.

Piaskowski, J. (1982) A study of the origin of the ancient high nickel iron generally regarded as meteoritic. In Early Technology, Wertime T.A., Wertime S.F. (eds.), p237-423, Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Rehren, Th., et al., (2013) 5,000 years old Egyptian iron beads made from hammered meteoritic iron, Journal of Archaeological Science.

Roth, A. M. (1993) Fingers, Stars, and the ‘Opening of the Mouth’: The Nature and Function of the ntrwj-Blades. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (79), p57-79.

Wainwright, G. A. (1912) Pre-dynastic iron beads in Egypt. Revue Archéologique (19) p255-259.

Prehistoric Meteorite Iron of Greenland

People of many different cultures, with different beliefs and of different times have interacted with meteorites. Sometimes the meteorite is valued as a functional material used as a tool, for others meteorites can be symbolic or even objects of worship.

Around 10,000 years ago a large impact occurred in north western Greenland, a large meteor had entered Earth’s atmosphere and multiple large iron meteorite fragments had survived lodging themselves into the ground. This occurred long before any people inhabited this area, from around 1000BCE an Arctic Inuit population developed in this area, with an estimated population of only about 300 people.

Qaarqutsiaq, a local boy of Cape York, 1909, image: Danish National Museum

Qaarqutsiaq, a local boy of Cape York, 1909, image: Danish National Museum

The largest of these meteorite fragments weighs about 31 tonnes which the local inhabitants named “Ahnighito” or “tent”, presumably as its shape in profile was triangular as a tent profile. The other two large fragments that local people interacted with were named “woman” (weighing in at 3 tonnes) and “dog” (400kg).

The meteorite named “Tent” at Cape York, image: Robert Peary archives

The meteorite named “Tent” at Cape York, image: Robert Peary archives

The meteorites appear to have been a very valuable commodity as a local natural source of iron, although difficult to work using basic tools, which were mainly hammer stones. The local men would have to walk for about 3 days from their homes to the site of the meteorites where they had constructed temporary stone buildings to provide them with shelter while the meteorites were being worked. Surrounding the meteorite named “Woman” were thousands of small stone boulders which appear to have been the tool of choice to work the meteorite.

The meteorite named “Woman” surrounded by thousands of stone boulders which were being used as tools to work the meteorite iron, image: Robert Peary archives

The meteorite named “Woman” surrounded by thousands of stone boulders which were being used as tools to work the meteorite iron, image: Robert Peary archives

Although some debate exists as to how they were worked; some believe the boulders were used to split and fragment smaller pieces of iron from the large masses which could then be flattened, ground sharp and incorporated into tools such as knifes or harpoons, others believe that natural small fragments produced by the impact were collected and the large meteorite pieces were used as an iron anvil with hammer stones to split and flatten the much smaller fragments. As no-one ever witnessed the Inuit methods of meteorite iron working we cannot be certain as to the method used, although microstructural analysis of chemistry and texture of these tools does give us further clues and this is made more complicated by some iron tools coming into Cape York via trade, hence scientific analysis is crucial in deriving an understanding of the use of meteorite iron at Cape York.

Harpoon tip made of meteorite iron by the local people of Cape York (owned by Natural History Museum, London, currently on display at The British Museum)

Harpoon tip made of meteorite iron by the local people of Cape York (owned by Natural History Museum, London, currently on display at The British Museum)

The area of land occupied by the local Inuit was boarded on 3 sides by glaciers their fourth boundary was sea, this made life difficult, limiting their opportunities to explore and led to their belief of being the only humans in the world, this view only changed when early explorers arrived. It was surprising to the earliest Cape York visitors that locally made tools had iron components such as knife blades and harpoon tips, given that the local environment was so harsh, a difficult environment to source materials for iron smelting in addition to the difficulty for people to survive in so far north in cold temperatures, the local inhabitants were a big surprise to the early explorers that stopped at Cape York on route to the North Pole.

A view of the Widmanstatten structure within the Cape York meteorite, image credit: Captmondo

A view of the Widmanstatten structure within the Cape York meteorite, image credit: Captmondo

Stories of the meteorites at Cape York reached the scientific world by around 1818, numerous expeditions followed which all failed to identify any meteorites, initially the Inuit were protective of the meteorites and when questioned referred to the iron as coming from a place they described as an “iron mountain”. Eventually the persuasive American naval Arctic explorer Robert Peary managed to influence a local man to help find the location of the meteorites in 1894.

Robert Peary, explorer and first non-local to see the Cape York meteorites, image: Robert Peary archives

Robert Peary, explorer and first non-local to see the Cape York meteorites, image: Robert Peary archives

“Tent” being loaded onto the ship to transport it to the USA, image: Robert Peary archives

“Tent” being loaded onto the ship to transport it to the USA, image: Robert Peary archives

”Tent” arriving on the wharf at New York, USA. Transfer of the meteorite named “Tent” from Cape York, Greenland to New York, USA,  image: Robert Peary archives.

”Tent” arriving on the wharf at New York, USA. image: Robert Peary archives.

Peary subsequently removed three of the large meteorites and shipped them back to New York along with a range of Inuit artefacts, Inuit human remains and even a small group of live Inuit people for the purpose of study with plans to return the people to Cape York the following year. The removal of people was a controversial decision which proved disastrous for the individual Inuit involved it sadly resulted in the death of all but one.

Minik Wallace as a boy in New York, USA, the only surviving Inuit of the group from Cape York, Greenland.

Minik Wallace as a boy in New York, USA, the only surviving Inuit of the group from Cape York, Greenland.

There are many issues associated with the complex role an iron meteorite played within this small community of people in an extreme environment; practical, cultural, ethical, moral and scientific to name but a few. It is both a fascinating and sad story to learn of the fate of the Cape York meteorite and the people associated with it, an amazing example of the influence an iron meteorite had on a group of pre-historic people.

Learn more about the Cape York meteorites and their original Inuit owners on the links below:

American Museum of Natural History

Minik and the Meteor

Meteoritical Society Database description of Cape York meteorite

Cape York entry in Handbook of Iron Meteorites by VF Buchwald

Mysterious ancient linen bundles

On a damp and grey Monday morning I set out on a different type of day at work. Inside a plastic anonymous looking box was something very unusual that needed specialist scientific analysis to unlock a mystery thousands of years in the making.

Bolton Museum

Bolton Museum

Inside the box was an object on loan from Bolton Museum, a small ancient Egyptian linen bundle from a rock cut tomb at Qau el-kebir, a village in upper Egypt recognized as a cult center of the god Seth, it was found along with a second bundle by the archaeologist Flinders Petrie during excavation in 1923.

The still wrapped ancient linen bundle, now also supported by modern string

The still wrapped ancient linen bundle, now also supported by modern string

The other bundle was unwrapped at excavation to determine its contents, curiously they were fragments of dark dense fossilized bones.

The other unwrapped ancient linen bundle

The other unwrapped ancient linen bundle

Did this second still wrapped bundle contain the same fragments or something else? Could it contain clues to the meaning or purpose of these bundles in this ancient funerary context? Nearby an excavation at Matmar led by archaeologist Guy Brunton had uncovered an ancient reused burial shaft containing large dark fossilized bones which were considered to be mainly hippopotamus, interestingly the form of the hippo was frequently used to depict Seth.

The ancient Egyptian god Seth as a hippopotamus, depiction on temple wall at Kom Ombo

The ancient Egyptian god Seth as a hippopotamus, depiction on temple wall at Edfu

If we look to ancient texts to give us clues on the meaning of these bones, the Pyramid texts (early Egyptian theological texts) make reference to gods having bones of iron, it is possible that these heavily mineralized dark fossils could have been interpreted by ancient Egyptians as being bones of iron, this led some to call these fossils the ‘bones of Seth’. They also have a very similar appearance to weathered iron meteorites. The fossils are described in the official excavation report which promised a special publication on the fossils to follow but no follow on studies of these fossils were ever published. Today, thousands of years since the bundle was wrapped I would attempt to determine its content. Not wanting to disturb the bundle by physically unwrapping it, x-ray CT scanning would be used to view its contents in three dimensions. So to the Imaging and Analysis Centre at the Natural History Museum in London, where the bundle was placed inside a CT scanner.

Natural History Museum, London

Natural History Museum, London

The bundle was sat onto a turntable with an x-ray source at one side and an x-ray detector at the opposite side of the bundle. The source would switch on causing x-rays to pass through the bundle, the highest density components of the bundle would absorb more x-rays than lower density components, this produces contrast on the images recorded by the x-ray detector, the turntable is then rotated by a small angle and the process repeated again until it has recorded images through 360o

Inside the xray CT scanner at the imaging centre NHM,London. Xray source on left of image, bundle on turntable behind it is one of the xray detector plates

Inside the x-ray CT scanner at the Imaging and Analysis Centre, NHM, London. X-ray source on left of image, on the right of image the bundle on turntable behind it is one of the x-ray detector plates.

This method produces thousands of x-ray projection images which were recorded along with the corresponding position of the bundle, from this data a computer algorithm can be used to produce a series of virtual slice images through the bundle.

Dan checking the positioning of the bundle in the scanner

Dan Sykes- CT scanning expert at the NHM, checking the positioning of the bundle in the scanner.

The detail on these images can be interpreted or used to build a virtual model of the object which allows us to visualize the interior of such an object and the three dimensional arrangement of all its components.

An external view of the virtual model linen bundle created by x-ray CT scanning

An external view of the virtual model linen bundle created by x-ray CT scanning

Do these bundles represent the mortal remains of an ancient Egyptian god? Were they functional of ancient Egyptian worship as holy relics? We cannot yet answer these questions as we are still interpreting the results of the CT study but can confirm that it did show the bundle to contain objects, these and the linen wrapping itself give clues to the meaning of these unusual, intriguing bundles. They provide a potential source of evidence about the perception of iron by ancient Egyptians and its possible theological function made accessible to us by non-invasive scientific imaging technology.

Iron from the sky- how it started!

My fascination with iron in ancient Egypt began about 4 years ago when I started to consider if any overlap existed in my two favorite subjects; meteoritics and Egyptology. Working as part of a group specializing in meteorite studies at the Open University and studying Egyptology online with the University of Manchester, it was a natural progression to research this area.

First I encountered references to iron beads excavated from prehistoric Egyptian graves at the Gerzeh cemetery1, these pre-date evidence of large scale iron smelting in Egypt by over 2500 years which made me (and other academics in the past) wonder over the possible use of meteorite iron by these early Egyptians. But could modern analytical science help prove it? With this question my first major ancient Egyptian challenge had arrived! After examining 3 Gerzeh iron beads at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL, then further examination of a Gerzeh iron bead at The Manchester Museum, I noted that all were highly oxidised and realised this would not be a trivial task.

Gerzeh iron bead, The Manchester Museum 5303,

Gerzeh iron bead, The Manchester Museum 5303, image: A.Tindle, Open University

I started analysing the Manchester Museum bead, first photographing, then using a scanning electron microscope at the Open University to visualise what remained of the bead microstructure and measuring the chemistry of the preserved metal fragments. Then back at the University of Manchester in the x-ray Imaging Facility, we produced an x-ray CT model of the bead which illustrated the variations in its structure and composition in 3 dimensions.

How did the results look? The micro-structures we observed and their composition were consistent with that of an octahedral iron meteorite that had been worked into a small thin sheet and bent into a tube shaped bead. So for the first time using modern technology we recorded conclusive proof that the earliest known use of iron by Egyptians was from a meteorite2.

Inside the scanning electron microscope when the Gerzeh bead was being analysed end on.

Inside the scanning electron microscope when the Gerzeh bead was being analysed end on.

What we could not confirm was if the people who worked this iron, in about 3400BC, knew it came from the sky; no writing existed at this time in Egypt to tell us. All we know about their opinion of iron is derived from the contents of their graves. These tell us that iron was rare and found with other high quality grave goods, some of these goods had been transported long distances and were found in very few graves. This implies that meteorite iron was awarded special status and appears to imply its owners had a high status within their communities. If the meteorite iron was recognized to have arrived from the sky, a place of gods, this would have given it even more value and perhaps further enhance the status of its owner. We do not yet fully understand what ancient Egyptians thought of iron prior to its use becoming common, but this research project, funded by an AHRC Science in Culture Innovation Award3, will bridge the gaps in our knowledge of this intriguing and elusive subject.

Diane Johnson

(1). Wainwright, G. A. (1912) Pre-dynastic iron beads in Egypt. Revue Archéologique (19) p255-259. (2). 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 (3). AHRC Science in Culture