Egyptian iron-working: out of this world

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Analysis of the make-up of Egypt’s oldest iron artefacts has confirmed that the 5,500-year-old beads were made from a meteorite. Image: Open University

Ancient Egypt’s oldest iron artefacts were made from meteorite, new research has confirmed.

The 9 small, tubular beads were found in graves at Gerzeh, a  Pre-Dynastic cemetery about 70km (43 miles) south of Cairo, in 1911-1912. Dated to c.3600-3350 BC, they significantly pre-date the earliest evidence for iron smelting in Egypt, which is thought to have begun in the 6th century BC.

Initial analysis, highlighting the beads’ high nickel content, had suggested that they could have been made from iron meteorite. This was disputed in the 1980s, however, when it was proposed that many examples of prehistoric iron use worldwide, previously thought to be made from meteors, could actually represent early attempts at smelting.

Nine iron beads were found in two graves at Gerzeh, south of Cairo. Image: Open University

Now a study by the Open University and the University of Manchester has laid to rest decades of debate, confirming that the beads’ material is indeed meteoric. Researchers used a combination of scanning electron microscopy and micro x-ray computer tomography to examine the internal structure and chemical make-up of the beads, revealing a distribution of metal bands and oxides consistent with weathered iron meteorite.

‘Meteorites have a unique microstructural and chemical fingerprint because they cooled incredibly slowly as they travelled through space,’ Philip Withers, Professor of Material Science at the University of Manchester, said. ‘It was really interesting to find that fingerprint turn up in Egyptian artefacts.’

Dr Joyce Tyldesley, Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Manchester, added: ‘Today we see iron first and foremost as a practical, rather dull metal, but to the Ancient Egyptians it was a rare and beautiful material which, as it fell from the sky, surely had some magical or religious properties. They therefore used this remarkable metal to create small objects of beauty and religious significance which were so important to them that they chose to include them in their graves.’

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