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Ancient Egyptian Beads Made From Meteorites

May 30, 2013 01:02 PM EDT
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The hordes of modern day jewelers cashing in on trendy (and pricey) jewelry made from meteorites are thousands of years late to the game. As it turns out, some ancient Egyptian beads were crafted from the space rocks as well.

A cache of nine iron beads dated from about 3,300 BC - the oldest known iron artifacts from Egypt - were long a mystery to archaeologists, who wondered how the ancient people crafted the beads thousands of years prior to the introduction of iron smelting in the region.

The beads were first discovered in 1911 in a cemetery at Gerzeh about 44 miles (70km) south of Cairo, and since their discovery, their origin has been a matter of debate among archaeologists, some of whom argued that the beads had a low nickel content (not characteristic of a meteorite). Others insisted the beads had high nickel content, which is a signature of iron meteorites.

By analyzing the bead with an electron microscope, scientist could peer into what meteorite scientist Diane Johnson called "little windows," portals that offered a glimpse of the bead's composition. The view offered by the electron microscope allowed Johnson and her team to conclude that the beads were as much as 30 percent nickel, which suggested the rock used to make the beads was indeed meteorite.

Further evidence that the beads were crafted from meteorite is the distinct Widmanstätten pattern, a telltale crystalline structure that is only observed in meteorites that cooled extremely slowly inside their parent asteroids as the solar system was forming, according to a report by Nature.

"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 artifacts," said Philip Withers, a materials science professor at The University of Manchester, where the research on the beads was conducted.

The find also suggests the cultural significance of the beads.

"The sky was very important to the ancient Egyptians," Joyce Tyldesley, an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, UK, and a co-author of the paper, told Nature. "Something that falls from the sky is going to be considered as a gift from the gods."

Such a gift was reserved for royalty. Prior to the introduction of iron smelting in Egypt in the 6th century, the only iron artifacts dated earlier to that were found in the tombs of high-powered Egyptians, such as the pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Johnson, the meteorite specialist, told Nature that if she could get permission to study other early Egyptian iron artifacts, she would love to find out whether they came from meteorites too. 

Johnson and her colleagues' research was published in the Meteoritics and Planetary Science journal. 

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