Iron discovered in ancient Egyptian beads made around 3,300 BC – almost 3,000 years before the Iron Age – was smelted in outer space and fell to Earth via a meteorite, according to a new study.
Researchers from the UK’s Open University and the University of Manchester used electron microscopes and CT scans to analyse one of the beads, which have confounded metallurgists since their discovery in prehistoric grave pits in 1911. They found it had the high nickel content suggestive of meteorite content. They also observed a distinctive crystalline structure in the metal found only in iron meteorites that cooled extremely slowly inside asteroids as the Solar System was forming.
A 3-D model of the bead’s internal structure revealed that the ancient Egyptians had made it by hammering a cold fragment of the meteorite iron into a thin plate, then bending it into a tube – countering earlier suggestions that the metal was the result of early attempts at hot smelting.
Co-author and Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley of the University of Manchester said: “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/religious properties. They therefore used this remarkable metal to create small objects of beauty and religious significance which were so important to them that they chose to include them in their graves.”