Scientists have long speculated that the ancient Egyptians used metal from meteorites to make iron objects.Now an analysis found in Tutankhamun’s tomb has provided strong evidence that this was the case – and that the Egyptians knew the iron had come from the sky. But why did they use such an unusual source for the metal when there’s plenty of iron here on Earth?
Until recently, we didn’t think that the ancient Egyptians were particularly good at producing iron objects until late in their history, around 500 BC. There’s no archaeological evidence for significant iron working anywhere in the Nile Valley. Even the large amounts of iron-rich smelting waste products found in the Delta region could actually have been produced by attempts to make copper. When Tutankhamun died – 800 years earlier – iron was a rarer material than gold.
The most common natural source of metal iron on Earth is iron ores – rocks that contain iron chemically bonded to other elements. These were processed by heating them with other materials (smelting) to extract a low-quality form of iron, which is then beaten with hammers to remove impurities. This requires considerable know-how, effort and tools that we have no evidence for in ancient Egypt.
There were supplies of iron ore in both Egypt and the Sinai peninsula and textual sources indicate that Egyptians were aware of the metal from early in their history. But the ore was mostly used to create pigments for art and make up. One explanation for this may be that the readily accessible iron ores were of poor quality so couldn’t be worked into more useful metal.
But iron doesn’t just come from iron ore. There is evidence that numerous prehistoric societies worldwide which did not have access to ores or knowledge of smelting made use of metallic iron found in occasional meteorites. This precious gift from nature still required shaping into a useful form, often resulting in very basic iron objects, such as small thin metal pieces that could be used as blades or bent into shapes.
If ancient Egyptians knew that iron could be found in meteorites that came from the sky – the place of the gods – it may have been symbolically important to them. As a result, they could have seen all iron as a divine material that wasn’t appropriate to work into a practical, everyday form and that should be reserved only for high-status people.
Meteorites may have even played a more direct role in state religion. For example, the “Benben” stone worshipped in the sun temple of the god Ra at Heliopolis is thought to have possibly a meteorite. The word “benben” is derived from the verb “weben”, meaning “to shine”.
The ancient language also offers clues as to how how iron was perceived by Egyptians – and that they knew meteorites were a source of the metal. The earliest hieroglyphic word for iron was greatly debated by translators, who frequently confused the words for copper and iron. The word “bi-A” was eventually translated as “iron”, but could easily have referred a range of hard, dense.
The word was used in many texts including the funerary Pyramid Texts, early religious writings dating from approximately 2375BC but likely to have been composed far earlier, carved on the internal walls of some pyramids. These textual references to iron connect it with aspects of the sky and with the bones of the dead king who will live for ever as an undying star in the sky.
From the beginning of the 19th Dynasty (approximately 1295BC) a new hieroglyphic word for iron appeared: “bi-A-n-pt”, which literally translates as iron from the sky. Why this new word appears in this exact form at this time is unknown but it was later applied to all metallic iron. An obvious explanation for the sudden emergence of the word would be a major impact event or large shower of meteorites.
This would have been witnessed by much of the ancient Egyptian population, leaving little uncertainty as to where exactly the mysterious iron came from. One possible candidate event is the Gebel Kamil meteorite impact in southern Egypt. Although its exact date remains unknown, based upon nearby archaeology we know it occurred within the past 5000 years.