By Robin Ngo • 06/07/2016
King Tut owned a dagger that was out of this world—literally. Researchers have recently published a study in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science that supports what has long been suspected: The ancient Egyptians were using meteoritic iron well before the spread of iron smelting technology.
In 1925, famed archaeologist Howard Carter—who three years earlier had discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings—found in the pharaoh’s mummy wrapping two daggers: one with a blade of gold and one with a blade of iron. The iron-bladed dagger, finely made with a gold handle and pommel of rock crystal, has long been the subject of debate, as it predates the pervasiveness of iron smelting technology (the extraction of iron from its ore) in the Mediterranean by several centuries. King Tut—whose father Akhenaten established during his reign worship of a single god, the sun-disk Aten—ruled c. 1332–1323 B.C.E. in the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt.
Iron objects dating to the Bronze Age have been found sporadically throughout the Mediterranean, the oldest of which are nine small beads that were excavated from a 3200 B.C.E. tomb in Gerzeh, Egypt. While iron was sometimes obtained at this time as a byproduct of copper and bronze smelting, scholars assumed that during the Bronze Age, objects manufactured in ironworking were made from meteoritic iron.
The recent study on King Tut’s dagger, led by researchers from Italy and Egypt, used X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry to analyze the composition of the iron blade. Iron meteorites mostly contain iron and nickel, and the results of the XRF analysis on King Tut’s dagger confirm that the blade is mostly composed of iron and nickel. Its chemical composition, according to the researchers, “strongly suggests an extraterrestrial origin.” The results are consistent with a 2013 study on the fourth-millennium B.C.E. iron beads from Gerzeh, which used scanning electron microscopy and micro X-ray microcomputer tomography and confirmed that the beads were composed of meteoritic iron.
The researchers of King Tut’s dagger point out that by the 13th century B.C.E., the ancient Egyptians had a hieroglyphic term for “iron of the sky,” and that a text from Karnak likely describes a meteorite. Just as we often look up at the sky in fascination, so too the ancient Egyptians must have regarded the sky—with its gifts sent to earth—with wonder.