All Things Iron from the Bronze Age Had Cosmic Origins

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 5, 2017 1:42 pm
King Tut's dagger, the blade is made of meteoric iron. (Credit: Daniella Comelli)

King Tut’s dagger, the blade is made of meteoric iron. (Credit: Daniella Comelli)

Looks like King Tut’s space dagger wasn’t so special after all. The legendary Egyptian pharaoh was found last year to have been buried with a dagger forged from a meteorite, a truly cosmic artifact fit for a king.

Well, as it turns out, pretty much everything made of iron from that period came from fallen space rocks, taking the “wow” factor down a few notches. That’s not to say that artifacts of meteoric origin are commonplace — they’re not — but in the Bronze Age, if you were working with iron, it’s a safe bet that it fell out of the sky.

Space Metal

Albert Jambon, a researcher at the University Pierre and Marie Curie in France surveyed a collection of Bronze Age iron artifacts with a portable x-ray fluorescence scanner, the same technique that let researchers determine the origin of Tut’s dagger. The imaging technology allows for non-destructive scans, important for examining priceless archaeological artifacts. The scanner picks apart the composition of an object, and Jambon could then determine what kinds of elements are present. He was looking to see if the iron artifacts also contained nickel and cobalt, a strong sign that they were of extraterrestrial origin. Earthly iron contains very little nickel, but it shows up prominently in iron from meteors. Analyzing the iron-cobalt ratio provides further evidence that the iron fell from the sky.

Jambon examined beads from Egypt, a dagger from Turkey, a pendant and axe from Syria and artifacts from China. Not to be left out, he also included Tut’s dagger, in addition to other iron objects from the pharaoh’s tomb. He then compared them to iron that we know came from meteors and iron from Earth. The artifacts were all from between 1300 and 3200 B.C., a date range that lines up with the generally accepted boundaries of the Bronze Age. Though they all came from different places, the levels of nickel and the ratio of iron to cobalt indicated that the metal for each and every one came from space.

From Stone to Iron

The find, published Monday in the Journal of Archaeological Science, adds weight to theories about the general progression of technological development that occurred in ancient societies. There’s a rough three-part breakdown of historic eras: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The nomenclature is quite literal—each age was defined by the kinds of materials societies used to make tools and artwork. The transition from stone to bronze and then to iron has come to represent, however imperfectly, man’s increased technological capabilities and gradual march toward the present day.

All of this is to say that in the Bronze Age, when all of these artifacts were made, they shouldn’t have been working iron. Though some theories hold that the boundary between bronze and iron wasn’t so neat, Jambon’s work casts some doubt on that. Mining and smelting terrestrial iron was more difficult than creating bronze from copper and tin, and involved a reduction process that drew pure metal from unusable iron ore. The technology to do so didn’t appear until later, Jambon’s work suggests, and there weren’t any isolated incidents of iron smithing to muddy the waters.

When ancient peoples stumbled across metallic meteorites, however, the iron was already in its metallic form and could be worked with existing technology. Meteoric iron was their mithril, their adamantium, their Valyrian steel — rare and possessed of qualities no human could recreate.

Until the Iron Age, obviously.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Space & Physics
MORE ABOUT: archaeology
  • Uncle Al

    Iron can be solid state reduction unremarkably obtained from ore in a bloomery. A skilled smith hammers out the dross (e,g, fayalite) and forage welds the bloom into a billet. The metal never being molten, super-equilibrium concentrations of carbon can be created in the iron crystal lattice re wootz crucible steel. The trick is to lace the charge with sacred mushrooms.

    Amanita muscaria, A. regalis, and A. velatipes secrete amavadin to sequester vanadium. About 200 ppm V promotes dendritic carbide growth, then obtaining the patterning and extraordinary ceramic nano-serrated cutting edge of Samurai steel (and Santa’s flying reindeer).

    One is amazed their gods did not drop a hint.

  • OWilson

    Since knowledge is power, Priests and other charlatans kept the secrets of their times locked away and dispensed with care.

    Ancient naturally competetive explorers and mariners had maps that were never shared, and mostly never survived.

    We find out these secrets today by reverse engineering the artifacts. and structures.

    We only know that part of history that they wanted us to share.

    But it still leaves a huge knowledge gap in the historical record. :)

  • MacNutz2 .

    It appears as if it was as special as was thought, at the time. It is one thing to say that all iron objects of the era were made of “sky iron. It is something else to actually posses a piece of sky iron, at the time. Many believed that objects made of sky iron had magical properties.

  • James Kelly

    I think in the wind-blown desert sands meteoric iron chunks will come to the surface to be found. Seems to me the ancient Mideast wold be a great place to find and use meteoric iron. In Europe or North America meteor fragments tend to remain buried in the earth.

  • maxwatson

    “Mining and smelting terrestrial iron was more difficult than creating bronze from copper and alloys like tin”

    Tin’s not an alloy. Bronze is the alloy (of copper and other elements, typically tin). Bronze Age bronze is 5-10% tin. It was probably* easier to find meteoric iron in the Middle East in the Bronze Age than it was to find tin in the quantities these civilisations needed. Hence trading networks were established between civilisations we know about (Egypt, Assyria, the Hittites, Minoa, Mycenea, Troy, etc) and those we don’t (in Europe: the German/Czech Ore Mountains, Cornwall, Brittany and North Western Iberia). There’s a bigger wow factor for me in the size and complexity these networks must have taken (and the cultural traffic that came with it).

    * some smaller mines have been found in, for example, Turkey; there may be other now depleted sources that kick-started the technology. Equally, bronze may have started as a copper/arsenic alloy. Ultimately, though, tin still had to be imported from elsewhere.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar