Mysterious Egyptian iron beads came from meteorite

The complexities of ancient Egyptian culture and technology have long been a topic of intense curiosity by western scientists.  One of the most enduring mysteries about their technology was a set of iron beads found in a tomb by early twentieth century archeologists.  If we've learned anything from the discovery of King Tut's tomb, it's that Egyptian royalty were buried surrounded by almost unimaginable riches, so why are these simple iron beads so interesting?  It's not simply because they are old, although these beads were last worn more than five thousand years ago.  What was truly baffling was that they dated from nearly three thousand years before the discovery of iron.  Freeing iron from its naturally-occurring compounds, called smelting, requires temperatures that were simply unattainable to humans at the time.

Ancient Egyptian iron beads were millennia before their time.  To overcome technological limitations, ancient Egyptians made these beads from a meteorite.  (Image credit: The Open University)

Ancient Egyptian iron beads were millennia before their time.  To overcome technological limitations, ancient Egyptians made these beads from a meteorite.  (Image credit: The Open University)

So how could it be that iron was in use for fashion millennia before its use for tools and weaponry?  Early researchers suggested that perhaps these beads were made from iron derived from meteorites.  The heat of entry into the Earth's atmosphere often strips meteorites down to their nearly-pure iron core.  Until now, however, this hypothesis couldn't be tested.  Using state-of-the-art techniques in electron microscopy and x-ray computed tomography, researchers from the Open University and the University of Manchester have conclusively proven the meteoric origin of these amazing beads.  The beads also contain an usually high concentration of nickel, which was the first tipoff that these materials might be of celestial origin.  The decisive proof, however, was much subtler.  Under the incredible magnification of these telescopes, special molecular patterns are visible.  These patterns have only been observed in other meteorites, because they can only form when the metal cooled extremely slowly during the formation of the solar system.

I've always been fascinated by the technological feats of ancient cultures.  From the pyramids to Stonehenge to the Roman aqueducts, ancient peoples clearly possessed a level of engineering capability that seems almost unfathomable today.  More than that, their attentiveness to the world around them was simply astonishing.  Meteorites are known to be religiously important to cultures across the globe.  Surely this importance was derived from their wonder at possessing that which came from the heavens.

Source: The Open University

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