There are Egyptian artifacts made out of iron that predate evidence of iron smelting in Egypt by thousands of years. The oldest of these are a group of nine tube-shaped beads found in a cemetery in the town of Gerzeh, about 44 miles south of Cairo, and now part of the permanent collection of University of Manchester’s Manchester Museum. They date to between 3350 and 3600 B.C. Since their discovery in 1911, the Gerzeh beads have been subject of studies to determine the source of the iron. In 1928, researchers determined that the beads had the high nickel content characteristic of meteorite iron. Scholars in the 1980s hypothesized that the artifacts may have been the products of accidental smelting. More recent studies found low nickel content on the oxidized bead surface which suggested a terrestrial origin.
A new study by researchers at the at the Open University and the University of Manchester answers the question conclusively: the Gerzeh bead was made from a meteorite. They were not allowed to cut the bead open to test its innards, of course. Instead they used an electron microscope and an X-Ray CT scanner to collect data on the surface and interior of the bead. They found small pockets where the oxidized surface of the bead had crumbled giving them a glimpse into the metal inside. These “little windows,” as Diane Johnson, a meteorite scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, calls them, revealed that the original, non-weathered metal was high in nickel content. As much as 30% of the metal inside the bead was composed of nickel, which strongly suggests a celestial origin.
Researchers also found that the iron had a crystalline structure called a Widmanstätten pattern, a hallmark only found in meteorite iron that has cooled very slowly inside asteroids before breaking off into meteoroids. The team used computed tomography to create a 3D model of the bead with the high-nickel areas in electric blue and the oxidized surface in rust red. They plugged in the data collected from the scans and found that evidence that the bead had been made by hammering a fragment of iron into a thin plate and then curling it around into a cylindrical tube. No smelting, accidental or otherwise, needed.
These early iron artifacts were accorded high value by the ancient Egyptians probably of their heavenly origin. They are only found in tombs of high-status people, including the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamun. Metal that falls from the sky was seen as a gift from the gods, the kind of material which, when included among grave goods, could ensure the deceased makes a swift voyage to the afterlife. It’s possible they may have thought pieces of meteorite iron were pieces of the gods themselves. By the time of the pharaohs, religious texts note that gods have bones made out of iron.
Co-author Dr Joyce Tyldesley, a Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at The University of Manchester, said: “Today, we see iron first and foremost as a practical, rather dull metal. To the ancient Egyptians, however, it was a rare and beautiful material which, as it fell from the sky, surely had some magical/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.”