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Scholars have long discussed the introduction and spread of iron metallurgy in different civilizations. The sporadic use of iron has been reported in the Eastern Mediterranean area from the late Neolithic period to the Bronze Age. Despite the rare existence of smelted iron, it is generally assumed that early iron objects were produced from meteoritic iron. Nevertheless, the methods of working the metal, its use, and diffusion are contentious issues compromised by lack of detailed analysis. Since its discovery in 1925, the meteoritic origin of the iron dagger blade from the sarcophagus of the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamun (14th C. BCE) has been the subject of debate and previous analyses yielded controversial results. We show that the composition of the blade (Fe plus 10.8 wt% Ni and 0.58 wt% Co), accurately determined through portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry, strongly supports its meteoritic origin. In agreement with recent results of metallographic analysis of ancient iron artifacts from Gerzeh, our study confirms that ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious objects. Moreover, the high manufacturing quality of Tutankhamun's dagger blade, in comparison with other simple-shaped meteoritic iron artifacts, suggests a significant mastery of ironworking in Tutankhamun's time.
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The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun’s iron dagger blade
Daniela COMELLI
1*
, Massimo D’ORAZIO
2
, Luigi FOLCO
2
, Mahmud EL-HALWAGY
3
,
Tommaso FRIZZI
4
, Roberto ALBERTI
4
, Valentina CAPOGROSSO
1
, Abdelrazek ELNAGGAR
5
, Hala
HASSAN
3
, Austin NEVIN
6
, Franco PORCELLI
7
, Mohamed G. RASHED
3
, and Gianluca
VALENTINI
1
1
Dipartimento di Fisica, Politecnico di Milano, Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 32, I-20133 Milano, Italy
2
Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, Universit
a di Pisa, Via S. Maria 53, I-56126 Pisa, Italy
3
The Egyptian Museum of Cairo, Tahrir Square, Meret Basha, Qasr an Nile Cairo Governorate 11516, Egypt
4
XGLab S.R.L., Via F. D’Ovidio 3, I-20131 Milano, Italy
5
Restoration Department, Faculty of Archaeology, Fayoum University, P.O. Box 63511, Fayoum, Egypt
6
Istituto di Fotonica e Nanotecnologie Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR-IFN), Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 32, I-20133
Milano, Italy
7
Dipartimento di Scienza Applicata e Tecnologia, Politecnico di Torino, Corso Duca degli Abruzzi 24, I-10129 Torino, Italy
*
Corresponding author. E-mail: daniela.comelli@polimi.it
(Received 18 December 2015; revision accepted 29 March 2016)
Abstract–Scholars have long discussed the introduction and spread of iron metallurgy in
different civilizations. The sporadic use of iron has been reported in the Eastern
Mediterranean area from the late Neolithic period to the Bronze Age. Despite the rare
existence of smelted iron, it is generally assumed that early iron objects were produced from
meteoritic iron. Nevertheless, the methods of working the metal, its use, and diffusion are
contentious issues compromised by lack of detailed analysis. Since its discovery in 1925, the
meteoritic origin of the iron dagger blade from the sarcophagus of the ancient Egyptian
King Tutankhamun (14th C. BCE) has been the subject of debate and previous analyses
yielded controversial results. We show that the composition of the blade (Fe plus 10.8 wt%
Ni and 0.58 wt% Co), accurately determined through portable x-ray fluorescence
spectrometry, strongly supports its meteoritic origin. In agreement with recent results of
metallographic analysis of ancient iron artifacts from Gerzeh, our study confirms that
ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious
objects. Moreover, the high manufacturing quality of Tutankhamun’s dagger blade, in
comparison with other simple-shaped meteoritic iron artifacts, suggests a significant mastery
of ironworking in Tutankhamun’s time.
INTRODUCTION
The working of metal has played such a crucial role
in the evolution of human civilization that historians
conventionally divide ancient eras into “metal” ages,
taking into account the use of copper, bronze, and iron
in sequence. However, it is clear that sharp breaks in
these periods are conventional. In particular, the start
of the iron age has long been discussed.
Ancient Egypt had great mineral resources. The
wide desert areas, in particular the Eastern desert, are
rich in mines and quarries, which have been exploited
since ancient times (Ogden 2000; Klemm and Klemm
2008; Lucas and Harris 2012). Copper, bronze, and
gold have been used since the 4th millennium BCE
(Ogden 2000). In contrast, despite the significant
presence of iron ores in ancient Egypt (Ogden 2000;
Lucas and Harris 2012), the utilitarian use of iron in the
Nile Valley occurred later than in neighboring countries,
with the earliest references to iron smelting dating to
the 1st millennium BCE (Tylecote 1992; Waldbaum
1999; Ogden 2000).
Meteoritics & Planetary Science 1–9 (2016)
doi: 10.1111/maps.12664
1©The Meteoritical Society, 2016.
The sporadic use of iron during the Bronze Age has
been reported in Egypt and the Mediterranean (Photos
1989; Tylecote 1992; Waldbaum 1999; Ogden 2000).
A handful of iron objects likely dates to the Old
Kingdom (3rd millennium BCE) onward (Waldbaum
1999; Ogden 2000), with the most ancient iron ones
dated to about 3200 BCE (Stevenson 2009). It is
generally assumed that early iron objects were produced
from meteoritic material, despite the rare existence of
smelted iron fortuitously obtained as a by-product of
copper and bronze smelting (Bjorkman 1973; Photos
1989; Tylecote 1992; Bard 1999; Waldbaum 1999; Ogden
2000). During the Bronze Age, iron was definitely rare,
its value was greater than that of gold (Burney 2004),
and it was primarily used for the production of
ornamental, ritual, and ceremonial objects (Bjorkman
1973; Tylecote 1992; Waldbaum 1999). This suggests
that either early iron artifacts were unsuitable for
utilitarian and military purposes or working techniques
for producing the metal in large quantities had not yet
been mastered (Waldbaum 1999). By the end of the
2nd millennium BCE, iron had come into common use
in most of the eastern Mediterranean, although the
rates at which it was substituted for bronze vary from
region to region (Tylecote 1992; Waldbaum 1999;
Ogden 2000).
Over the past 50 years, the interest in the use of
meteoritic iron and in the introduction and spread of
iron smelting technology in the Mediterranean area
has increased steadily (Bjorkman 1973; Photos 1989;
Tylecote 1992). Different historical and philological
studies have addressed these topics (Piaskowski 1982;
Photos 1989). Compositional and structural analyses
of ancient iron findings have been performed and
reported (Bjorkman 1973; Photos 1989; Waldbaum
1999), but despite few cases (Johnson et al. 2013;
Rehren et al. 2013), the common lack of detailed
information on analytical methods and of robust data
hinders their utility in answering broader questions
(Photos 1989; Waldbaum 1999). Investigations are
further hampered by the difficulty in obtaining
permissions to analyze rare and precious artifacts with
either destructive or nondestructive techniques (Photos
1989).
Beyond the Mediterranean area, the fall of meteorites
was perceived as a divine message in other ancient
cultures. It is generally accepted that other civilizations
around the world, including the Inuit people; the ancient
civilizations in Tibet, Syria and Mesopotamia (Buchwald
2005; Buchner et al. 2012); and the prehistoric Hopewell
people living in Eastern North America from 400 BCE to
400 CE, used meteoritic iron for the production of small
tools and ceremonial objects (Prufer 1962). Nonetheless,
only few detailed scientific analyses have clearly reported
the identification of meteoritic iron in ancient artifacts.
These include several iron tools made by the Inuit people
in Greenland, recognized as being made of small
fragments of the Cape York iron meteorite shower
(Buchwald 1992); the ancient “iron man” Buddhist
sculpture, likely carved from a fragment of the Chinga
meteorite (Buchner et al. 2012); two funerary iron
bracelets and an axe excavated in two different Polish
archaeological sites (Kotowiecki 2004); and, less recently,
a few masses of meteoritic iron from the Hopewell culture
(Prufer 1962).
Of the rare surviving examples of iron objects from
ancient Egyptian culture, the most famous is the dagger
from the tomb of the ancient Egyptian King
Tutankhamun. The history of King Tutankhamun (18th
dynasty, 14th C. BCE) has fascinated scientists and the
general public since the discovery of his spectacular
tomb in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter (Carter
and Mace 1923-1927-1933). In 1925, Carter found two
daggers in the wrapping of the mummy: one on the
right thigh with a blade of iron (Fig. 1) and the other
on the abdomen with a blade of gold (Carter and Mace
1923-1927-1933). The former (Carter no. 256K, JE
61585) is the object of our study. The dagger has a
finely manufactured blade, made of nonrusted,
apparently homogeneous metal (Fig. 2). Its handle is
made of fine gold, is decorated with cloisonn
eand
granulation work, and ends with a pommel of rock
crystal (Feldman 2006; Zaki 2008). Its gold sheath is
decorated with a floral lily motif on one side and with a
feathers pattern on the other side, terminating with a
jackal’s head.
1
Among the iron objects discovered in
Tutankhamun’s tomb, which also include 16 miniature
iron blades, a miniature head rest, and a bracelet with
the Udjat eye of iron,
2
the dagger is the one that has
most attracted interest from archaeologists and
historians, mainly in relation to the origin of the metal
and to the employed working technology (Bjorkman
1973; Photos 1989; Tylecote 1992; Waldbaum 1999;
Johnson et al. 2013). As already observed by Carter, the
iron objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb highlight some
innovative features of the use and trade of iron in the
Late Bronze Age (Carter and Mace 1923-1927-1933).
Interestingly, diplomatic documents from the Egyptian
royal archives from the 14th C. BCE (the Amarna
letters) mention royal gifts made of iron in the period
immediately before the Tutankhamun’s reign. In
particular, it is reported that Tushratta, King of
Mitanni, sent precious iron objects to Amenhotep III,
1
Carter card: http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/carter/256k-c256k-1.html.
2
Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation. http://www.
griffith.ox.ac.uk/discoveringTut/ (2014).
2 D. Comelli et al.
who may have been the grandfather of Tutankhamun.
Daggers with iron blades and a gilded iron hand
bracelet are mentioned in the list (McNutt 1990;
Morkot 2010; Lucas and Harris 2012; Rainey 2014).
Results of previous analyses of Tutankhamun’s iron
funerary objects have proved controversial. Bjorkman
(1973) referred to a meteoritic origin of the iron dagger
on the basis of its high nickel content determined
through an analytical study performed in 1970;
however, to the best of our knowledge, this study has
not been published and the analytical techniques used at
that time were not specified. In 1994, analysis of the
dagger’s iron blade by X-ray fluorescence (XRF)
spectrometry revealed a Ni content of 2.8 wt%, which
was considered inconsistent with meteoritic iron by the
authors (Helmi and Barakat 1995).
Iron meteorites are mostly made of Fe and Ni, with
minor quantities of Co, P, S, and C, and trace amounts of
other siderophile and chalcophile elements (Haak and
McCoy 2003). Their chemical compositions are typically
determined by means of sensitive, yet destructive,
analytical methods, including instrumental neutron
activation analysis (Wasson and Sedwick 1969) and
inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (D’Orazio
and Folco 2003). XRF measurements, carried out in the
laboratory and, more recently, with the aid of portable or
handheld devices, have been widely used for the bulk
Fig. 1. The mummy of King Tutankhamun. Black and white
picture of Tutankhamun mummy showing the iron dagger
(34.2 cm long) placed on the right thigh (arrowed). Copyright
Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.
Fig. 2. The iron dagger of King Tutankhamun. Color picture
of the iron dagger (Carter no. 256K, JE 61585) with its gold
sheath. The full length of the dagger is 34.2 cm.
The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun’s iron dagger 3
nondestructive analysis of meteorites since the late 1960s
and early 1970s (Reed 1972; Zurfluh et al. 2011; Gemelli
et al. 2015).
In this work, we have determined the bulk
composition of the Tutankhamun’s iron dagger
blade using state-of-the-art, nondestructive XRF
analysis. In the last 20 years, a dramatic improvement
in solid-state detectors technology has allowed new
analytical applications. Modern energy dispersive XRF
spectrometers exhibit typical energy resolutions below
140 eV @Mn Kaline (West et al. 2013), allowing the
deconvolution of close peaks (Redus and Huber 2012),
as required for correctly estimating minor amounts of
cobalt in meteoritic irons.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Samples
XRF measurements were performed on
Tutankhamun’s dagger, 11 meteorites of well-known
composition, and 11 certified steel reference materials.
The full list of analyzed samples is provided in Table 1.
The number of point analyses for each sample is also
reported. The location of the two point analyses on
Tutankhamun’s iron dagger blade is reported in
supporting information (Fig. S1).
Portable XRF Spectrometry
The XRF spectrometer (ELIO, XGLab srl, Italy) is
based on a 25 mm
2
active area silicon drift detector and
on a 50 kV-4W X-ray tube generator, which employs a
Rh anode. The excitation X-ray beam is collimated to a
~1.2 mm spot diameter on the sample surface. The
typical energy resolution of the spectrometer is below
135 eV, which is helpful in detecting the asymmetry of
the Fe Kbpeak due to the presence of an underlying
low-intensity Co Kapeak, as is often the case in iron
meteoritic samples.
Analysis of the dagger blade was carried out at the
Egyptian Museum of Cairo. The XRF head was
mounted on a stable tripod equipped with a lateral side
arm (60 cm long).
Table 1. Samples analyzed by XRF spectroscopy.
Sample
No. of
analysis
points
Ni
wt%
Co
wt%
Estimated
Ni wt%
Estimated
Co wt% References
Campo del Cielo 21 6.73 0.46 6.82 0.35 0.52 0.03 Wasson and Kallemeyn (2002)
Canyon Diablo 32 6.93 0.47 7.09 0.34 0.55 0.04 Wasson and Kallemeyn (2002)
Chinga 20 16.5 0.58 15.71 0.33 0.57 0.04 Buchner et al. (2012)
Dronino 12 9.81 0.55 9.83 0.30 0.57 0.04 Russell et al. (2004)
Gebel Kamil 17 20.60 0.76 20.68 0.46 0.70 0.05 D’Orazio et al. (2011)
Gibeon 16 7.99 0.39 7.90 0.33 0.43 0.03 Wasson and Richardson (2001)
Hoba 1 16.30 0.78 17.08 0.36 0.69 0.05 Campbell and Humayun (2005)
North Chile 1 5.65 0.454 6.16 0.36 0.51 0.03 Wasson et al. (1989)
NWA 5289 12 9.02 0.40 9.94 0.30 0.41 0.03 Weisberg (2008)
Tambo Quemado 10 10.15 0.56 9.44 0.31 0.50 0.03 D’Orazio and Folco (2003)
Tres Castillos 7 9.23 0.51 8.57 0.32 0.47 0.03 Wasson et al. (1998)
ARMI AISI 303 1 9.5 0.20 8.65 0.32 0.10 0.03 Reference values from ARMI certificate
NIST SRM 1262b 1 0.60 0.30 1.72 0.48 0.36 0.03 Reference values from NIST certificate
NIST SRM 1158 1 36.10 0.01 40.57 1.15 0.05 0.04 Reference values from NIST certificate
SS-CRM 461/1 4 6.12 n.d. 6.13 0.36 0.04 0.04 BAS Bureau of Analysed Samples Ltd.*
SS-CRM 462/1 4 12.85 n.d. 12.04 0.30 0.04 0.04 BAS Bureau of Analysed Samples Ltd.*
SS-CRM 463/1 4 10.20 0.12 10.20 0.30 0.07 0.04 BAS Bureau of Analysed Samples Ltd.*
SS-CRM 464/1 4 20.05 0.05 20.78 0.46 0.01 0.04 BAS Bureau of Analysed Samples Ltd.*
SS-CRM 465/1 4 9.24 0.05 9.20 0.31 0.04 0.04 BAS Bureau of Analysed Samples Ltd.*
SS-CRM 466/2 4 10.20 0.02 10.02 0.30 0.01 0.04 BAS Bureau of Analysed Samples Ltd.*
SS-CRM 467/1 4 9.21 n.d. 9.10 0.31 0.02 0.04 BAS Bureau of Analysed Samples Ltd.*
SS-CRM 468/1 4 8.90 0.02 8.89 0.31 0.02 0.04 BAS Bureau of Analysed Samples Ltd.*
Tutankhamun’s iron
dagger blade
2 10.85 0.30 0.58 0.04
The list includes 22 reference samples (11 meteorites of well-known composition and 11 certified steel reference materials) and Tutankhamun’s
iron dagger blade. In the list, we have reported: the number of analysis points; Ni and Co reference concentrations of samples used for XRF
calibration; Ni and Co concentrations estimated following linear calibration of XRF data provided within a 95% confidence interval. * http//
basrid.co.uk/ (2015)
4 D. Comelli et al.
Analysis of meteorites of well-known composition
and of certified steel reference materials was carried out
in the XGLab laboratory. The XRF head was mounted
on a benchtop stand.
For all measurements, the following experimental
conditions were used: working distance ~1.4 cm, tube
voltage =50 kV, tube anode current =80 lA,
acquisition time =120 s.
XRF Data Analysis
The parameters of a model of the shape of the Fe
Kbpeak detected by the employed XRF spectrometer
were retrieved by using XRF data of a Co-poor steel
sample (NIST SRM 1158; Table 1). For this purpose,
the Fe Kbpeak was modeled as the sum of a
Gaussian and a complementary error function (Jorch
and Campbell 1977) (Fig. 3b, red line). In XRF data
of samples with detectable Co concentrations, a clear
asymmetry of the Fe Kbpeak is visible, induced by
the superposition of the close Co Kapeak. In order
to highlight this asymmetry in the XRF dagger
spectrum, the right part of the Fe Kbpeak has been
fitted with the same model (Fig. 3b, black line).
Estimate of Ni and Co wt% in analysis points of
Tutankhamun’s dagger has been performed with the
following two step-procedure:
1. XRF spectra of all samples were processed to
quantify the integrated area (expressed as emission
counts per sec) of the detected XRF peaks. We used
the PyMca software (Sol
e et al. 2007), based on a
nonlinear least-squares fitting procedure which
optimizes zero, gain, noise, and Fano factors for the
entire fitting region and for all XRF peaks
simultaneously. The background was estimated with
the strip background model.
2. Fitted values of the integrated area of Ni (Kaand
Kb) and Co (Ka) XRF peaks of reference samples
(meteorites of well-known composition and certified
steel reference materials) were used for assessing the
Ni and Co linearity calibration curves. We
employed a robust linear regression model, little
affected by outliers, which models the relationship
between the wt% composition of the considered
element (Ni or Co) and the median value of the
related integrated peak area within each sample.
Compositional and class information of a set of 76
iron meteorites with composition similar to
Tutankhamun’s blade (see Fig. 6) has been provided
through access to the Meteorite Information Database
(MetBase 7.3; J
orn Koblitz 2015).
RESULTS
XRF measurements carried out at the Egyptian
Museum of Cairo on two areas of the surface of the
dagger blade demonstrate that Fe and Ni are the main
bulk constituents (Fig. 3a). The presence of minor
concentrations of Co leads to a clear asymmetry in the
Fe Kbemission peak (Fig. 3b).
a
b
Fig. 3. XRF spectrum of Tutankhamun’s dagger blade. a)
Median XRF spectrum of Tutankhamun’s dagger blade (black
line). Vertical error bars depict the interquartile range of the
XRF emitted counts. b) Median XRF spectra of the dagger
(black squares) and of the Co-poor (0.01 wt%) NIST SRM
1158 steel reference sample (red circles). Each spectrum was
fitted with a Gaussian curve peaked at the Fe Kbline
(continuous black and red line), which reveals the asymmetry
of the Fe Kbemission peak in the spectrum of the dagger,
namely a shoulder in correspondence of the Co Kaline.
The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun’s iron dagger 5
Quantitative determination of the Ni and Co
contents in the dagger was carried out by the external
calibration method using XRF data from 11 steel metal
standards and 11 iron meteorites of well-known
composition (Table 1, Figs. 4 and 5). This allowed the
determination of 10.8 0.3 wt% Ni and 0.58 0.04
wt% Co, within a 95% confidence interval (Table 1).
The blade’s high Ni content, along with the minor
amount of Co and a Ni/Co ratio of ~20, strongly
suggests an extraterrestrial origin.
1. The Ni content in the bulk metal of most iron
meteorites ranges from 5 wt% to 35 wt%, whereas
it never exceeds 4 wt% in historical iron artifacts
from terrestrial ores produced before the 19th C
(Tylecote 1992).
2. The Ni/Co ratio in the dagger blade is consistent with
that of iron meteorites (average Ni/Co = 18 2)
(Mittlefehldt et al. 1998), which have preserved the
primitive chondritic ratio ( 21) (Tagle and Berlin
2008) during planetary differentiation in the early
solar system.
Remarkably, a representative set of 76 iron
meteorites with a moderately high Ni content (1012
wt%), i.e., with composition similar to Tutankhamun’s
blade, have average Co content of 0.57 wt% (0.08;
1r) (Fig. 6).
On the sole basis of the Ni and Co contents
determined in this work, the meteorite used to fashion
the dagger blade cannot be classified into a specific
chemical or structural group. Nevertheless, considering
the set of 76 iron meteorites mentioned above (Fig. 6),
we observe that (1) 25% are ungrouped irons, 22%
belong to the IAB complex, 20% to the IID chemical
group, 18% to IIIAB, 15% to IIC, IIF, IIIE, IVA; (2)
more than 50% have fine (mm scale) or very fine (lm
scale) homogeneous structures (e.g., iron meteorites
belonging to the ataxite, and fine, finest and plessitic
octahedrite structural groups; Fig. 6). Smithing iron
meteorites with such homogenous and fine structures
are expected to produce a homogeneous structureless
iron artifact like the iron blade of Tutankhamun’s
dagger. Future microstructural analysis of the dagger, if
allowed, would provide significant information on the
employed manufacturing method.
In order to investigate if known iron meteorites
within the ancient Egyptian trade sphere could be
linked to the studied blade, we sorted all the known
iron meteorites found in the region from the MetBase.
Within an area 2000 km in radius arbitrarily centered in
Fig. 4. Ni linearity calibration curve. Calibration curve plot of
Ni content (wt%) as a function of the sum of the integrated
area of Ni Kaand Kbpeaks (expressed as emission counts per
sec). Meteorites and steel reference samples of known
composition are shown (black filled squares and blue filled
diamonds, respectively). For each sample, the median values
of the emission counts are reported, with horizontal error bars
depicting the related interquartile range. The retrieved linear
regression (R
2
= 0.99) (black continuous line) within a 95%
CI (gray continuous lines) is shown. The estimated Ni
concentration in Tutankhamun’s iron dagger is indicated by
the red star. In the inset, a zoomed portion of the graph is
shown.
Fig. 5. Co linearity calibration curve. Calibration curve plot
of Co content (wt%) as a function of the integrated area of
Co Kapeak (expressed as emission counts per sec). Meteorites
and steel reference samples of known composition are shown
(black filled squares and blue filled diamonds, respectively).
For each sample, the median values of the emission counts are
reported, with horizontal error bars depicting the related
interquartile range. The retrieved linear regression (R
2
= 0.95)
(black continuous line) within a 95% CI (gray continuous
lines) is shown. The estimated Co concentration in
Tutankhamun’s iron dagger blade is indicated by the red filled
star.
6 D. Comelli et al.
the Red Sea, Egypt (i.e., extending from central-eastern
Sahara to the Arabic Peninsula, Mesopotamia, Iran,
and Eastern Mediterranean area), 20 iron meteorite
finds are present in the database. Only one, group IVA,
the fine octahedrite, named Kharga (Egypt, 31°07057N,
25°02050E, found 2000, May 8, 1 kg; Grossman and
Zipfel 2001), has Ni and Co contents (11.77 wt% and
0.437 wt%, respectively) within 10% of the composition
of the studied blade (Fig. 6).
CONCLUSIONS
Recently it has been reported that the most ancient
Egyptian iron artifacts, i.e., nine small beads, excavated
from a tomb in Gerzeh (Egypt) and dated about 3200
BCE (Stevenson 2009), are made of meteoritic iron,
carefully hammered into thin sheets (Johnson et al.
2013; Rehren et al. 2013). Our finding confirms that
excavations of important burials, including that of King
Tutankhamun, have uncovered pre-Iron Age artifacts of
meteoritic origin (Johnson et al. 2013).
As the only two valuable iron artifacts from ancient
Egypt so far accurately analyzed are of meteoritic
origin, we suggest that ancient Egyptian attributed great
value to meteoritic iron for the production of fine
ornamental or ceremonial objects up until the 14th C.
BCE. Smelting of iron, if any, has likely produced low-
quality iron to be forged into precious objects. In this
context, the high manufacturing quality of
Tutankhamun’s dagger blade is evidence of early
successful iron smithing in the 14th C. BCE. Indeed,
only further in situ, nondestructive compositional
analysis of other time-constrained ancient iron artifacts
present in world collections, which include the other
iron objects discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb, will
provide significant insights into the use of meteoritic
iron and into the reconstruction of the evolution of the
metal working technologies in the Mediterranean.
Finally, our finding provides important insight into
the use of the term “iron”, quoted in relationship with
the sky in Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Egyptian
ancient texts (Bjorkman 1973; Waldbaum 1999): beside
the hieroglyphic “ ,” which already existed before
the XIX dynasty with a broad meaning (as “mineral,
metal, iron”) (Erman and Grapow 1982; Hannig 2003,
2006), a new composite term “ ,” literally
translated as “iron of the sky,” came into use in the
19th dynasty (13th C. BCE) to describe all types of
iron (Bell and Alpher 1969; Erman and Grapow 1982).
In the same period, we can note a text at Karnak
probably describing a meteorite
3
(Kitchen 1975). The
introduction of the new composite term suggests that
the ancient Egyptians, in the wake of other ancient
Fig. 6. Co versus Ni diagram for Tutankhamun’s iron dagger blade (black star) and for iron meteorites with a moderately high
Ni content (1012 wt%), i.e., with composition similar to the Tutankhamun’s blade, sorted by chemical and structural groups.
3
Database Research Unit ISMA-CNR “Egyptian Curses” (PRIN 2009
“The Seven Plagues”): http://webgis.iia.cnr.it/eGIStto/.
The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun’s iron dagger 7
people of the Mediterranean area, were aware that
these rare chunks of iron fell from the sky already in
the 13th C. BCE, anticipating Western culture by more
than two millennia.
Acknowledgments—We thank Prof. Marco Virgilio
Boniardi for providing the reference steel samples, Alan E.
Rubin and Timothy J. McCoy for their valuable revisions,
and Kevin Righter for the editorial handling. Part of this
study has been financially supported by the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the
Egyptian ministry of Scientific ResearchProgetti di
Grande Rilevanza, Protocollo Esecutivo ITALIA-
EGITTO, PGR 00101 and PGR 00107.
Editorial Handling—Dr. Kevin Righter
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SUPPORTING INFORMATION
Additional supporting information may be found in
the online version of this article:
Fig. S1. Location of spot analyses on the iron
dagger blade: Close-up color image of the iron dagger
(Carter no. 256K, JE 61585) with location of the two
spot analyses (red circles) ~1.2 mm in diameter
performed by XRF spectrometry.
The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun’s iron dagger 9
... Among these are two funerary iron bracelets and an ax excavated from two different Polish archaeological sites [2] and an ancient "iron man" Buddhist sculpture carved from a fragment of the Chinga meteorite [3]. Probably the most important discovery was that of Comelli et al. [4] regarding the meteoritic origin of the iron dagger blade recovered in the sarcophagus of the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamen (14th C. BCE), which was the subject of many debates due to previous analyses yielding controversial results. The study [4] determined accurately, using portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF), the composition of the blade (Fe plus 10.8 wt% Ni and 0.58 wt% Co), which strongly supports its meteoritic origin and confirms that ancient Egyptians attributed a great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious objects. ...
... Probably the most important discovery was that of Comelli et al. [4] regarding the meteoritic origin of the iron dagger blade recovered in the sarcophagus of the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamen (14th C. BCE), which was the subject of many debates due to previous analyses yielding controversial results. The study [4] determined accurately, using portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF), the composition of the blade (Fe plus 10.8 wt% Ni and 0.58 wt% Co), which strongly supports its meteoritic origin and confirms that ancient Egyptians attributed a great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious objects. ...
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Up until now, a few artifacts made of meteoritic iron have been discovered worldwide, though none in Morocco. The number of these objects has rarely been verified, as museums generally do not allow artifacts to be tested, and they are often confused with common smelted objects of the Iron Age. In this work, portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) and scanning electron microscopy energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDS) have been used to analyze three iron dagger blades recovered in two localities near Imilchil and Missour in Morocco. The composition of one blade (7.2 wt% Ni and 1.1 wt% Co) strongly supports its meteoritic origin, whereas it was not so for the other two ones. The results of this work provide the first case of the exploitation of meteoritic iron as a metal source in Morocco.
... The dagger has its blade made of iron. This iron is coming from a meteorite as it has been confirmed recently by means of a non-invasive X-ray technique [Comelli et al., 2016]. In fact, since the 1960s, the high nickel content in the metal has been guessed as featuring a meteoric origin of the iron [Bjorkman, 1973]. ...
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Before the Iron Age, that is before the advent of iron smelting, the main source of the metal was meteoric iron. Here we propose a discussion about the use of this iron to make artifacts by people of ancient Egypt and China. For Egypt, we will report as the meteoric iron appeared, according to the British writer Alan Alford, in the Pyramid Texts. It is also told that of iron was made one of the ritual tools used during the “opening of the mouth ceremony”, an ancient Egyptian ritual described in funerary texts. One of the shapes of this tool resembled the asterism of the circumpolar stars of the Big Dipper. The iron of Tutankhamun’s dagger and of the Kamil Crater will be discussed too. Then, we will consider China, where meteoric iron was forged onto the blades of bronze weapons. We will discuss also the Hongshan Culture, famous for its jade artifacts. Modern artifacts, defined as Hongshan iron meteorites, show asterisms (the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia) carved on them, but the literature that we will mention here, about this Chinese neolithic culture, is not stressing any use of meteorites. In any case, it is true that the Nine Stars of the Big Dipper have been represented by Neolithic China. For what concerns the meteorites, as in the ancient Egypt, people of China considered the heavens as the source of meteoric iron.
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... All classes of meteorites are found in the hot deserts including many rare and indispensable for scientific research ones. Most of Martian and lunar meteorites, angrites and other rare types are from the hot deserts (Chennaoui Aoudjehane 2018), (Table 1) In Libya and Oman, there are large meteorite strewnfields with known geographic coordinates and a serial name plus a number such as Dar El Ghani (DAG xxx), Hamada Al Hamra (HAH xxx), Shisr xxx, … In Egypt, there is one famous Martian meteorite fall, Nakhla, as well as the most ancient meteoritic iron, found in the King Tut treasure (Comelli et al. 2016). In Saudi Arabia, there is a recent impact meteorite crater: the Wabar crater, while the black stone in the "Hajar Al Aswad" is said to be possibly a meteorite. ...
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... All classes of meteorites are found in the hot deserts including many rare and indispensable for scientific research ones. Most of Martian and lunar meteorites, angrites and other rare types are from the hot deserts (Chennaoui Aoudjehane 2018), (Table 1) In Libya and Oman, there are large meteorite strewnfields with known geographic coordinates and a serial name plus a number such as Dar El Ghani (DAG xxx), Hamada Al Hamra (HAH xxx), Shisr xxx, … In Egypt, there is one famous Martian meteorite fall, Nakhla, as well as the most ancient meteoritic iron, found in the King Tut treasure (Comelli et al. 2016). In Saudi Arabia, there is a recent impact meteorite crater: the Wabar crater, while the black stone in the "Hajar Al Aswad" is said to be possibly a meteorite. ...
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Vor hundert Jahren, 1922, entdeckte der britische Archäologe Howard Carter im Tal der Könige das fast vollständig erhaltene Grab des altägyptischen Pharaos Tutanchamuns aus dem 14. Jahrhundert vor unserer Zeitrechnung. Neben der Mumie und der allgemein bekannten blaugoldenen Totenmaske enthielt die Ruhestätte zahlreiche Grabbeigaben, darunter war auch ein Dolch mit einer Eisenklinge – über hundert Jahre vor Beginn der eigentlichen Eisenzeit. Vor hundert Jahren, 1922, entdeckte der britische Archäologe Howard Carter im Tal der Könige das fast vollständig erhaltene Grab des altägyptischen Pharaos Tutanchamuns aus dem 14. Jahrhundert vor unserer Zeitrechnung. Neben der Mumie und der allgemein bekannten blaugoldenen Totenmaske enthielt die Ruhestätte zahlreiche Grabbeigaben, darunter war auch ein Dolch mit einer Eisenklinge – über hundert Jahre vor Beginn der eigentlichen Eisenzeit.
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Meteorites are ultrabasic, basic or intermediate extraterrestrial rocks with most of them containing chondrules. They are crucial not only to the apparition of water and life on Earth but also to the mass extinction of species. Meteorites are mostly found in cold deserts such as Antarctica and hot ones such as Oman, Sahara and Chili. The Sahara, and especially the Moroccan one, provides a significant number of meteorites for researchers and collectors all over the world. Despite the richness of the Arab world in meteorites, there is a lack of interest in research on meteoritics and planetary science. This disinterest is a waste of opportunities to contribute to an innovative and promising field of research. It is also a waste of Geoheritage. In Morocco, since 2001, we started a strategy to develop and promote meteoritics and planetary science, based on three axes: research, education and communication. This strategy can be applied to other Arab countries allowing them to partake in the international scientific scene.
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We evaluate the performance of a hand-held XRF (HHXRF) spectrometer for the bulk analysis of iron meteorites. Analytical precision and accuracy were tested on metal alloy certified reference materials and iron meteorites of known chemical composition. With minimal sample preparation (i.e., flat or roughly polished surfaces) HHXRF allowed the precise and accurate determination of most elements heavier than Mg, with concentrations greater than 0.01% m/m in metal alloy CRMs, and of major elements Fe and Ni and minor elements Co, P and S (generally ranging from 0.1 to 1% m/m) in iron meteorites. In addition, multiple HHXRF spot analyses could be used to determine the bulk chemical composition of iron meteorites, which are often characterised by sulfide and phosphide accessory minerals. In particular, it was possible to estimate the P and S bulk contents, which are of critical importance for the petrogenesis and evolution of Fe-Ni rich liquids and iron meteorites. This study thus validates HHXRF as a valuable tool for use in meteoritics, allowing the rapid, non-destructive (1) identification of the extraterrestrial origin of metallic objects (i.e., archaeological artefacts); (2) preliminary chemical classification of iron meteorites; (3) identification of mislabelled/unlabelled specimens in museums and private collections and (4) bulk analysis of iron meteorites.This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
Article
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The fall of meteorites has been interpreted as divine messages by multitudinous cultures since prehistoric times, and meteorites are still adored as heavenly bodies. Stony meteorites were used to carve birds and other works of art; jewelry and knifes were produced of meteoritic iron for instance by the Inuit society. We here present an approximately 10.6 kg Buddhist sculpture (the “iron man”) made of an iron meteorite, which represents a particularity in religious art and meteorite science. The specific contents of the crucial main (Fe, Ni, Co) and trace (Cr, Ga, Ge) elements indicate an ataxitic iron meteorite with high Ni contents (approximately 16 wt%) and Co (approximately 0.6 wt%) that was used to produce the artifact. In addition, the platinum group elements (PGEs), as well as the internal PGE ratios, exhibit a meteoritic signature. The geochemical data of the meteorite generally match the element values known from fragments of the Chinga ataxite (ungrouped iron) meteorite strewn field discovered in 1913. The provenance of the meteorite as well as of the piece of art strongly points to the border region of eastern Siberia and Mongolia, accordingly. The sculpture possibly portrays the Buddhist god Vaiśravana and might originate in the Bon culture of the eleventh century. However, the ethnological and art historical details of the “iron man” sculpture, as well as the timing of the sculpturing, currently remain speculative.
Article
Professor R. Pleiner of the Institute of Archaeology, Prague, who has provided this review of Dr Tylecote’s book, is one of theforemost authorities on the origins of ironmaking. He is Secretary of the Comite pour la Siderurgie Ancienne de I’Union Internationale des Sciences Prehistoriques et Protohistoriques, whose offices are also in Prague. Professor Pleiner has made a special study of replica-smelting of early furnaces and some of his recent publications include ‘Metallographic report on early iron artefacts’ (Stockholm, 1975), ‘Origins of the shaft furnace in European ironmaking’ (Prague, 1975),!‘Ironmaking in pre-medieval Central Europe’ (Miinster, 1975), ‘The problem of the beginningof the iron age in India’ (Berlin, 1972), ‘Forging and blacksmiths’ art in Moravia’ (Krakow, i971), ‘Experimental smelting of steel in early medievalfurnaces’ (Prague, 1969), ‘The beginnings of the iron age in ancient Persia’ (Prague, 1967), and ‘The work of the early European smith’ (Prague, 1962).
Article
We tested a handheld X-ray fluorescence instrument with adaptable matrix correction for its suitability in meteoritics. We report here the instrument setup, precision and accuracy and present examples of applications. With a measuring time of 300 s, it is possible to collect accurate data for K, Ca, Ti, Cr, Mn, Fe, Co, Ni, Sr and Ba that are needed for the identification of doubtful meteorites and the nondestructive classification of chondrites and achondrites. The factory-supplied calibration curve of the instrument was fine tuned for our purposes with the use of well-analyzed meteorite powders, pressed pellets and meteorite hand specimens as standards. Relative errors of 10% to 20% are reached for the mentioned elements. The instrument was tested in the hot desert of Oman while searching for meteorites and also in the laboratory while doing research on meteorites. The main applications of the instrument are the identification and classification of meteorites, the quantification of terrestrial elemental contamination (Sr and Ba) and detection of Mn-rich desert varnish. It is possible to discriminate the major meteorite groups using Fe/Mn and Ni values. Handheld X-ray fluorescence is also useful in identifying meteorites belonging to the same fall event. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Article
Data are reported for thirty iron meteorites that are members of the magmatic groups, for three main group pallasites, one anomalous mesosiderite, and for three ungrouped irons and an ungrouped pallasite that are similar to IIIAB irons in their Ni, Ga, and Ge contents. The set includes four observed falls (11% of iron falls) Ban Rong Du, Chisenga, Nyaung and Sterlitamak, and Zaisho, one of two known pallasite falls. Two of the ungrouped irons (Ban Rong Du and Mount Howe 88403) and the ungrouped pallasite Yamato 8451, although having Ni, Ga, and Ge contents in the same general range as IIIAB, have very different contents of Co and exhibit significant differences for several other elements; they are clearly not related to IIIAB or to its little sister, group IIIE. A fourth ungrouped iron, Tres Castillos, chiefly differs from IIIAB in terms of its low Ga and high Ge contents; its Ga/Ge ratio is 35% higher than that of any other IIIAB iron. We report data on four new IIAB irons, all falling within established fields; the Bilibino iron is somewhat unusual, having a low Ir content (0.12 μg/g) and a structure altered by reheating. The IVA irons are also typical. One, Albion, may be a mislabeled specimen of Gibeon; another, Page City, exhibits large cracks (up to 3 cm). The Chaunskij anomalous mesosiderite has exceptionally high Ni and very low Ir concentrations. Two of three new main group pallasites are anomalous; Pecora Escarpment 91004 has an Ir content above the normal range, and Zaisho has an exceptionally high Fa content in the olivine.
Article
How should one select the best detector for a particular measurement in energy dispersive X‐ray fluorescence (EDXRF)? How should one select the optimum system configuration, i.e. the best shaping time and beam current? Manufacturers provide a variety of specifications, such as energy resolution and maximum count rate, but these are indirectly related to the end use of an EDXRF instrument, the measurement and detection limit of the measured elemental concentrations.We suggest in this paper using the time required to achieve a given statistical uncertainty as a figure of merit. We derive scaling rules for this figure of merit based on conventional specifications, including energy resolution, peaking time, maximum count rate, detector area, and intrinsic efficiency. These scaling rules also include the peak to background ratio of a photopeak and the number of overlapping peaks. We then show how this figure of merit can be used to select the optimum detector and spectrometer configuration for specific applications and compare the results to data obtained with typical systems. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.