In 1924, two years after he began excavating Egyptian King Tutankhamun’s (Tut) burial chamber, British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter finally discovered what he had been seeking: The young pharaoh’s well-preserved sarcophagus. In addition to the scores of precious jewels, amulets, and bracelets that had been buried alongside, Carter also unearthed two daggers wrapped around the boy king’s body. One was carved completely out of solid gold. The other also featured a gold handle, but its blade appeared to be made from iron.
Though the gold dagger was certainly valuable, it was the latter that intrigued experts more. That’s because 14th-century Egyptian artisans largely worked with metals like tin, copper, or gold which have low melting points. They did not have the technology to create the high amount of energy needed to extract iron from iron ore.
Some researchers theorized that the blade might have been made from meteorite iron. They believed that while the craftsmen could not melt the extraterrestrial rock, which is an alloy of iron and other metals like nickel, they could hammer it into weapons like King Tut’s dagger. However, the findings could never be substantiated. Now, 91 years since the dagger was first discovered, scientists from Italy and Egypt have finally been able to verify that King Tut’s dagger was indeed carved with iron from an ancient meteorite.
Solving this age-old mystery was no easy task given the delicate nature of the old dagger. To ensure that the ancient artifact was not damaged, the team of researchers from the Polytechnic University of Turin, the University of Pisa and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, used a portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) machine to examine the dagger. The non-invasive technique entailed bombarding the dagger with X-rays and observing the radiation emitted in response. Since each metal gives out a different wavelength of radiation, the scientists were easily able to determine the different metals in the dagger.
Their findings, which were published in the journal Meteorites and Planetary Science, earlier this year, revealed that, in addition to iron, the dagger also contains nickel and cobalt. These same proportions were observed in the 11 meteorites that fell within a 1,250-mile radius of the area during King Tut’s time. Specifically, its configuration is almost identical to that of a meteorite called Khara that was discovered in Marsa Matruh, a seaport that lies 150 miles from Alexandria, where the young boy king ruled from 1333 B.C. to 1323 B.C.
The researchers say the craftsmen knew that they were using extraterrestrial metal and believe that “ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of fine ornamental or ceremonial objects." A recently discovered hieroglyph, which translates to “iron of the sky,” seems to confirm their hypothesis. The team now plans to study other iron objects found in the tomb to learn more about how meteoritic iron was used and how ancient Egyptians worked with the space metal.
Resources: newatlas.com, eos.org, extremetech.org