Ancient Egyptian bead 'from meteorite', say researchers

Images of the iron bead Researchers used an electron microscope and X-ray scanner for analysis

Analysis of an iron bead has proved ancient Egyptians created jewellery from meteorites, experts have said.

Researchers at the Open University and University of Manchester have made the claim following analysis of the bead, which dates from 3,350 to 3,600BC.

Previously, it had been claimed the 2cm bead was a product of smelting.

However, researchers found the bead had a "nickel-rich chemical composition [which] confirms its meteorite origins", a Manchester spokesman said.

The bead, which was excavated from a burial site south of Cairo in 1911, dates from around 2,500 years before the Iron Age and predates the rise of the Pharaohs by around 400 years.

The spokesman said the jewellery, known as the Gerzeh bead after the name of the site, was the "earliest discovered use of iron by the Egyptians".

'Unique fingerprint'

Identifying iron-nickel meteorites

Widmanstatten patterns in a meteor
  • Iron-nickel meteorites are usually made of two minerals - kamacite and taenite - and can be identified by distinctive crystalline patterns, known as Widmanstatten patterns, which run through them
  • The patterns are named after early 19th Century scientist Count Alois von Beckh Widmanstatten, who first observed them
  • The patterns usually form internally, but can be seen on the surface when the meteorite is exposed to etching by acid or erosion by wind-blown sand, due to the two minerals differing resistance to these processes

Source: NASA

The bead forms part of Manchester Museum's Egyptology collection and was loaned to the University of Manchester and Open University for analysis.

It was suggested in a study in the 1920s that it may have come from a meteorite, but that was rejected by experts in the 1980s who said accidental early smelting could also have been the origin of the mix of iron and nickel.

Scholars from Manchester and the Open University used a combination of an electron microscope and an X-ray scanner to prove the mix of the metals could only have come from a meteorite, the spokesman said.

The University of Manchester's Professor Philip Withers said the composition was identifiable as "meteorites have a unique micro-structural and chemical fingerprint because they cooled incredibly slowly as they travelled through space".

He added that it was "really interesting to find that fingerprint turn up in Egyptian artefacts".

Dr Joyce Tyldesley, a senior lecturer in Egyptology, said meteorite iron would have had profound significance for the ancient Egyptians.

"Today, we see iron first and foremost as a practical, rather dull metal [but] to the ancient Egyptians, it was a rare and beautiful material which, as it fell from the sky, surely had some magical or religious properties," she said.

"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."

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