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Ancient Egyptian jewellery 'out of this world'

20 August 2013

Meteoric iron beads. Credit: UCL Petrie Museum/Rob Eagle

Research led by Thilo Rehren with Institute and European colleagues has shown that ancient Egyptian iron beads at the UCL Petrie Museum were hammered from pieces of meteorites.

The objects, which trace their origins to outer space rather than from iron ore, also predate the emergence of iron smelting by two millennia and were originally strung into a necklace together with other exotic minerals such as gold and gemstones, revealing the high value of this exotic material in ancient times.

Excavated in 1911, in a pre-dynastic cemetery near the village of el-Gerzeh in Lower Egypt, the beads were already completely corroded when they were discovered. As a result, the team used x-ray methods to determine whether the beads were actually meteoric iron, and not magnetite, which can often be mistaken to be corroded iron due to similar properties.

Meteoric iron beads. Credit: UCL Petrie Museum/Rob Eagle

As Thilo indicates:

  • “The really exciting outcome of this research is that we were for the first time able to demonstrate conclusively that there are typical trace elements such as cobalt and germanium present in these beads, at levels that only occur in meteoritic iron. We are also excited to be able to see the internal structure of the beads, revealing how they were rolled and hammered into form. This is very different technology from the usual stone bead drilling, and shows quite an advanced understanding of how the metal smiths worked this rather difficult material.”

The study, published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science, confirms that already in the fourth millennium BC metalworkers had mastered the smithing of meteoritic iron, an iron-nickel alloy much harder and more brittle than the more commonly worked copper.

Reference

Rehren, Th., et al., 5,000 years old Egyptian iron beads made from hammered meteoritic iron, Journal of Archaeological Science (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2013.06.002


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