Out of this world jewellery found in ancient Egypt

Skilled metalworkers used iron that came to earth in a meteorite to make jewellery

Meteoric iron beads, including the tubular lapis lazuli (blue), carnelian (brownish/red), agate, and gold beads that they were originally strung with. Photograph: UCL Petrie Museum/ Rob Eagle

Meteoric iron beads, including the tubular lapis lazuli (blue), carnelian (brownish/red), agate, and gold beads that they were originally strung with. Photograph: UCL Petrie Museum/ Rob Eagle

Tue, Aug 20, 2013, 15:04

The ancient Egyptians had access to something out of this world when making fine jewellery - iron from outer space.

They would not have realised the metal’s origin of course given it was ferried to earth in meteorites. But the metalworkers of 5,000 years ago were happy to heat it and hammer it and roll it into tubes for the style conscious Egyptians who could afford it.

The source of the iron-nickel alloy remained a mystery until a team of researchers from University College London used elaborate x-ray methods to analyse the nine iron beads, publishing their findings this morning in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The beads were excavated back in 1911 from a pre-dynastic cemetery near el-Gerzeh in lower Egypt. They were originally part of an elaborate necklace which included other high value materials including gold, lapis lazuli, the gemstone carnelian and agate.

The beads and stones eventually landed in UCL’s Petrie Museum and there they sat until lead author Prof Thilo Rehren of the college decided to study the highly corroded iron beads. He wanted to discover whether it was true iron or magnetite which can be mistaken for iron. In the process he discovered the source and learned how the beads were formed.

The metal was a mix of iron, nickel, cobalt, phosphorous and germanium, a sure sign that the metal came to earth in a meteorite and was not dug out of an iron ore deposit.

The iron itself would have been hammered out of pieces of meteorites and then worked into a tube shape by the skilled Egyptian metalworkers. The x-ray methods revealed the telltale evidence of how the beads took form.

“The shape of the beads was obtained by smithing and rolling, most likely involving multiple cycles of hammering, and not by the traditional stone-working techniques such as carving or drilling which were used for the other beads found in the same tomb,” Prof Rehren said.

This was important because it proves that the metalworkers had mastered the smithing of meteoric iron, this a full 2,000 years before the emergence of iron smelting. They learned how to handle this brittle metal and already had the skills needed to benefit from the discovery of iron from iron ore and its replacement of bronze and copper.

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