In A Nutshell
Archaeologists have discovered iron jewelry in Egypt that dates back more than 2,000 years before the process of iron forging was brought to the region. Based on the composition of the iron, it’s almost certain that the jewelry was crafted from a meteorite that crashed into the desert.
The Whole Bushel
In 1911, a team of archaeologists began digging up an old cemetery in el-Gerzeh, a small Egyptian town about 70 kilometers (43.5 mi) from Cairo. They weren’t expecting much—just some fragments of an old civilization that could possibly teach them more about the way pre-Biblical Egyptians lived. What they found was an ancient tomb buried beneath the earth for nearly five millennia, a tomb that held secrets they could have never imagined.
Wrapped around the neck of a young boy’s remains was a string of nine cylindrical beads. They were dull, lackluster objects with no striking characteristics, except one: They were made out of iron. Historians believe that the Iron Age began in Egypt sometime around 600 B.C., which was when Egyptians specifically began smelting their own iron. The tomb, on the other hand, was dated to about 3350 B.C.—about 2.5 millennia before anything iron could have been buried in it. So where did the iron come from?
It came from space.
The theory of the Egyptian space beads was first proposed in 1928, based on the nickel content of the iron. Iron meteorites commonly have about 30 percent nickel, and that exactly matched the composition of the iron beads. However, it was only recently that tests have been able to confirm the extraterrestrial origin of the metal.
Through a combination of X-ray scanning and electron microscope analysis, researchers confirmed not only the nickel content, but a unique crystal structure called a Widmanstätten pattern. That specific form of crystallization is found in plenty of places, but none of them are on this planet. A Widmanstätten pattern forms when molten iron and nickel cool very, very slowly—at a rate of about 100 degrees every million years. The only meteorites with that pattern were forged in the cosmic furnace that enveloped this region of space when the solar system was forming.
While the prehistoric Egyptians couldn’t have known that, they did know the iron came to the Earth wrapped in the fiery core of what must have appeared to be a star falling from the sky, and was therefore extremely special. Without a forge of their own to reheat the iron, they crafted the beads through the tedious process of hammering it into long, thin sheets (again, without the help of iron tools). Once the iron had been flattened, it was painstakingly rolled into tightly wound cylinders. It’s very possible that the beads held a spiritual or magical significance for the Egyptians, which would explain why they were buried in the tomb alongside other, much more valuable beads made of gold and gemstones.
This isn’t the first discovery that meteorites were occasionally used to craft iron items in the ancient world, although it’s certainly the oldest. An iron knife was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen, who was buried around 1400 B.C. It was also forged from the heart of a meteorite and is considered one of the most valuable artifacts from the tomb.