This is a guest blog post by Dr Diane Johnson, research associate on the AHRC Innovation Award ‘Iron from the Sky: The Science and Culture of Iron in Ancient Egypt’. This post originally appeared on the Iron from the Sky project website,

My fascination with iron in ancient Egypt began about 4 years ago when I started to consider if any overlap existed in my two favorite subjects; meteoritics and Egyptology. Working as part of a group specializing in meteorite studies at the Open University and studying Egyptology online with the University of Manchester, it was a natural progression to research this area.

First I encountered references to iron beads excavated from prehistoric Egyptian graves at the Gerzeh cemetery1, these pre-date evidence of large scale iron smelting in Egypt by over 2500 years which made me (and other academics in the past) wonder over the possible use of meteorite iron by these early Egyptians. But could modern analytical science help prove it? With this question my first major ancient Egyptian challenge had arrived! After examining 3 Gerzeh iron beads at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL, then further examination of a Gerzeh iron bead at The Manchester Museum, I noted that all were highly oxidised and realised this would not be a trivial task.

I started analysing the Manchester Museum bead, first photographing, then using a scanning electron microscope at the Open University to visualise what remained of the bead microstructure and measuring the chemistry of the preserved metal fragments. Then back at the University of Manchester in the x-ray Imaging Facility, we produced an x-ray CT model of the bead which illustrated the variations in its structure and composition in 3 dimensions.

How did the results look? The micro-structures we observed and their composition were consistent with that of an octahedral iron meteorite that had been worked into a small thin sheet and bent into a tube shaped bead. So for the first time using modern technology we recorded conclusive proof that the earliest known use of iron by Egyptians was from a meteorite2.

Electron Microscope

What we could not confirm was if the people who worked this iron, in about 3400BC, knew it came from the sky; no writing existed at this time in Egypt to tell us. All we know about their opinion of iron is derived from the contents of their graves. These tell us that iron was rare and found with other high quality grave goods, some of these goods had been transported long distances and were found in very few graves. This implies that meteorite iron was awarded special status and appears to imply its owners had a high status within their communities. If the meteorite iron was recognized to have arrived from the sky, a place of gods, this would have given it even more value and perhaps further enhance the status of its owner. We do not yet fully understand what ancient Egyptians thought of iron prior to its use becoming common, but this research project, funded by an AHRC Science in Culture Innovation Award, will bridge the gaps in our knowledge of this intriguing and elusive subject.

(1). Wainwright, G. A. (1912) Pre-dynastic iron beads in Egypt. Revue Archéologique (19) p255-259. (2). Johnson, D., Tyldesley, J., Lowe, T., Withers, P.J., Grady, M.M. (2013) Analysis of a prehistoric Egyptian iron bead with implications for the use and perception of meteorite iron in ancient Egypt. 48,6, 997-1006, Meteoritics and Planetary Science (3).

This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about the AHRC Innovation Award ‘Iron from the Sky: The Science and Culture of Iron in Ancient Egypt’ is available here.

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