May 31st, 2013 by James Ayre
Ancient Egyptians utilized meteorites for the creation of some of the symbolic jewelry and accessories that they would bury with their dead, new research has conclusively shown. It had previously been theorized that a string of iron beads that were found back in 1911, and dated to somewhere between 3350 to 3600 BC, were composed of meteorite — owing to the nickel-iron rich composition. But the theory fell out of favor with academics in the eighties when an alternate theory became dominant. But the new research, from The Open University (OU) and The University of Manchester, has shown that — without a doubt — the beads were created out of an iron meteorite.
The string of iron beads that this research is based on were excavated back in 1911 at the Gerzeh cemetery, which is a burial site about 70 km south of Cairo. Excavated is the word used, but perhaps grave-robbing is more accurate? The beads were part of the “retinue” of items buried with an “important” dead person. They date back to about 3350 to 3600 BC, which is a couple of thousands of years before the “time period” that modern scholars refers to as Egypt’s Iron Age.
Of course such boundaries between “ages” are artificial — to the people living between them the “boundaries” between these ages would have been imperceptible, much as the “collapse” of the Roman Empire was quite a slow affair, taking several hundred years, at the least. Not a cataclysmic change that came out of nowhere and completely changed their way of living. Likewise the things/circumstances/knowledge that characterized Egypt’s Iron Age didn’t appear out of nowhere, and had likely been stewing and surfacing periodically in the centuries and millennia before.
Back to the new research — in order to determine nether the bead was of meteoric origin the researchers analyzed its composition. Researchers at the Open University and Manchester’s School of Materials used a combination of the OU’s electron microscope and the University’s X-Ray CT scanner to investigate the chemical composition of the bear. What they found was that the bead is very similar to that of meteorites — nickel-rich.
Diane Johnson, lead researcher, said: “This research highlights the application of modern technology to ancient materials not only to understand meteorites better but also to help us understand what ancient cultures considered these materials to be and the importance they placed upon them.”
Dr Joyce Tyldesley is a Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at The University of Manchester and worked on the research. She speculates: “Today, we see iron first and foremost as a practical, rather dull metal. To the ancient Egyptians, however, it was a rare and beautiful material which, as it fell from the sky, surely had some magical/religious properties. They therefore used this remarkable metal to create small objects of beauty and religious significance which were so important to them that they chose to include them in their graves.”
A lot of speculation there… But oh well. Interesting finding either way. Meteorites and meteors certainly still capture people’s attention and imagination.
Philip Withers, Professor of Materials Science at The University of Manchester, added: “Meteorites have a unique microstructural and chemical fingerprint because they cooled incredibly slowly as they travelled through space. It was really interesting to find that fingerprint turn up in Egyptian artefacts.”
The new findings were published in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.
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