Ancient Egyptian jewellery carved from a meteorite


By Jacob Aron

THINK iron jewellery is down-to-earth? Not for the ancient Egyptians, it wasn’t. A 5300-year-old necklace bead found in an Egyptian tomb was made with iron from a meteorite.

Evidence for iron smelting in Egypt dates back to the 6th century BC, but archaeologists have found much older iron artefacts in the region, including in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Such artefacts are “pretty much exclusive to high-status tombs”, says Diane Johnson of the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK. Previous analyses of the oldest of these – nine iron beads from a cemetery near the Nile – proved inconclusive on their origins.

Now Johnson and colleagues have taken another look at one of the beads (pictured) and concluded that it is indeed from a meteorite. The surface of the bead had low levels of nickel, but the levels inside were as high as they would be in a meteorite.

But the clincher was evidence of a distinctive crystal structure – known as the Widmanstätten pattern – that only forms when iron and nickel cools very slowly, as it does in meteoroids (Meteoritics & Planetary Science, doi.org/mmb).

It is “very convincing” that the beads come from a meteorite, says Meenakshi Wadhwa of the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Ancient bling was out of this world”


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