Ancient Egyptians Used Meteorites as Jewelry, Say Researchers

British scientists have provided evidence that ancient Egyptians used meteorite iron to make accessories as early as 3,300 BC.

The Gerzeh bead is the earliest discovered use of iron by ancient Egyptians. Scale bar - 1 cm (Diane Johnson et al)

The Gerzeh bead is the earliest discovered use of iron by ancient Egyptians. Scale bar – 1 cm (Diane Johnson et al)

The evidence comes from strings of iron beads which were excavated in 1911 at the Gerzeh cemetery, about 44 miles south of Cairo.

Dating from 3350 to 3600 BC, thousands of years before Egypt’s Iron Age, the necklace bead analyzed was originally assumed to be from a meteorite owing to its composition of nickel-rich iron. But this hypothesis was challenged in the 1980s when academics proposed that much of the early worldwide examples of iron use originally thought to be of meteorite-origin were actually early smelting attempts.

Researchers from the Natural History Museum in London, the Open University in Milton Keynes and the University of Manchester used a combination of electron microscope and X-Ray CT scanner to demonstrate that the nickel-rich chemical composition of the 5,300-year-old Gerzeh bead confirms its meteorite origins.

“This research highlights the application of modern technology to ancient materials not only to understand meteorites better but also to help us understand what ancient cultures considered these materials to be and the importance they placed upon them,” said Dr Diane Johnson from the Open University’s Center for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research, lead author of a paper in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science.

“Meteorite iron had profound implications for the Ancient Egyptians, both in their perception of the iron in the context of its celestial origin and in early metallurgy attempts.”

“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 or religious properties,” said co-author Dr Joyce Tyldesley of the University of Manchester.

“Meteorites have a unique microstructural and chemical fingerprint because they cooled incredibly slowly as they traveled through space. It was really interesting to find that fingerprint turn up in Egyptian artifacts,” concluded Prof Philip Withers, also from the University of Manchester.

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Bibliographic information: Diane Johnson et al. Analysis of a prehistoric Egyptian iron bead with implications for the use and perception of meteorite iron in ancient Egypt. Meteoritics & Planetary Science, article first published online May 20, 2013; doi: 10.1111/maps.12120