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Earliest known iron artifacts came from meteorite, researchers say

According to a news release from the University College London, researchers have demonstrated that ancient Egyptian iron beads kept at the UCL Petrie Museum were made from pieces of meteorites, as opposed to iron ore. The ancient Egyptian beads, which chart their inception to outer space, also precede the rise of iron smelting by 2,000 years.

Painstakingly crafted into thin sheets before being  shaped into tubes, the nine beads were initially joined together into a necklace along with other enticing minerals like gold and gemstones, showing the high value of this alluring material more than 5,000 years ago.

“They were rolled and hammered into shape,” said lead author Thilo Rehren of the University College London in a statement. “The shape of the beads was obtained by smithing and rolling, most likely involving multiple cycles of hammering, and not by the traditional stone-working techniques such as carving or drilling which were used for the other beads found in the same tomb.”

The researchers’ findings reveal that in the fourth millennium BC metalworkers had already perfected the smithing of meteoritic iron, an iron-nickel mixture that is a lot harder and more delicate than the more frequently worked copper, creating methods that played major roles in the iron age.

Thus, metalworkers had already almost 2,000 years of knowledge of engaging with meteoritic iron when iron smelting was instituted in the mid-second millennium BC. This information was crucial for the growth of iron smelting and the generation of iron from iron ore, allowing iron to take the place of copper and bronze as the main metals utilized.

Discovered in 1911, the ancient Egyptian beads were already entirely rusted when they were found. As a consequence, the researchers utilized x-ray techniques to figure out whether the beads were genuinely meteoric iron, and not magnetite, which can frequently be confused with rusted iron because of similar properties.

By scrutinizing the ancient Egyptian beads with beams of neutrons and gamma-rays, the researchers discovered the particular texture and high concentration of nickel, cobalt, phosphorous and germanium that is indicative of meteoric iron.

“The really exciting outcome of this research is that we were for the first time able to demonstrate conclusively that there are typical trace elements such as cobalt and germanium present in these beads, at levels that only occur in meteoritic iron,” said Rehren.

“We are also excited to be able to see the internal structure of the beads, revealing how they were rolled and hammered into form. This is very different technology from the usual stone bead drilling, and shows quite an advanced understanding of how the metal smiths worked this rather difficult material.”

According to Smithsonian.com, iron was known as the “metal of heaven” to the ancient Egyptians. The scarcity of the metal meant it had a distinguished place in Egyptian society. In other words, iron was a metal of mythical character to the ancient Egyptians.

The study is discussed in greater detail in the Journal of Archaeological Science.