Ancient Egypt is one of the most compelling ancient civilizations to study, full of mystery and intrigue. How could a culture so long ago have been so advanced? The study of ancient civilizations has been closely tied to the weapons and metals they used—the sporadic use of iron, for instance, has been reported in the Eastern Mediterranean area from the late Neolithic period to the Bronze Age.
Though it is generally assumed that early iron objects were produced from meteoric iron, until recently our knowledge of the metal’s use has been compromised by a lack of detailed analysis. For decades, the meteoritic origin of the iron dagger blade belonging to the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamun has been the subject of debate. Now, using x-ray fluorescence spectrometry, scientists have found clues that confirm not only that the ancient culture used meteoritic iron for the royal weapon, but that they had established mastery of ironworking that is remarkable for King Tut’s time (14th C. BCE).
King Tut, the boy pharaoh, ruled Ancient Egypt between the years 1332 and 1323 BCE. When his tomb was excavated in 1922, scientists discovered the young king’s ornamental blade. The weapon has a unique elemental composition (iron, nickel, and cobalt) indicating that it was built using an iron meteorite. This is rare evidence that the Ancient Egyptians had a strong emphasis on forging ornaments from meteoric iron, long before the Iron Age.
Around the same time, a composite hieroglyphic term meaning “iron of the sky” began appearing on ancient tablets.
“The introduction of the new composite term suggests that the ancient Egyptians were aware that these rare chunks of iron fell from the sky already in the 13th century BCE, anticipating Western culture by more than two millennia,” the research team, led by Daniela Comelli of Milan, wrote in their study.
The team used X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to analyze the blade. The process excites various compounds within the target, emitting radiation that varies in wavelengths depending on which elements are present. This allows researchers to identify its elemental composition without damaging the artifact in any way. It was clear that the dagger’s composition was that of an iron meteorite.
where the Egyptians harvested the iron
The next question was where the Egyptians harvested the iron. After searching through records of 20 meteorites, the team used the dagger’s precise composition to narrow it down to one: the Kharga meteorite, found in 2000 on a limestone plateau in Mersa Matruh.
Scientists suspect the ancient Egyptians saw it falling from the sky, breaking into multiple pieces. They likely traveled hundreds of kilometers to retrieve one of the shards. Today, the source of the King’s weapon only adds to scholars’ fascination with our mysterious ancestors.