Iron from the Sky: the Science and Culture of Iron in Ancient Egypt

Innovation Award

Project Team:

Principal Investigator:

Professor Monica Grady, The Open University


Dr Paul Nicholson, Cardiff University

Postdoctoral Researcher:

Dr Diane Johnson, The Open University

Project Partners:

Dr Joyce Tyldesley, University of Manchester

Bolton Museum

British Museum

The Manchester Museum

The Natural History Museum

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

Award Information:

There is limited evidence of iron in ancient Egypt in early times as most of this iron appears to have fallen from the sky as meteorites, so we have little understanding of the role iron played in ancient Egyptian civilization. What the ancient Egyptians thought of it is not understood. However they were fashioning meteorite iron fragments into jewelry from as early as pre-historic times around 5500 years ago. These were discovered in the graves of 2 important people and some later examples are known of iron objects from Royal tombs including that of king Tutankhamen, which indicates the importance of iron. If they did know it originated from the sky which was the place of the gods they would have valued it greatly. Our project will explore how iron was used across Egypt at different times by examining museum collections to see the different types of objects Egyptians used iron to produce. Evidence of what they thought iron to be will be derived from many sources including museum artefacts and ancient texts. The earliest references to iron in Egyptian texts are frequently as iron bones of gods, we are yet to fully understand what these mean. We know that dark dense heavy mammal fossils which have a very similar visual appearance to weathered iron were sometimes placed within burial shafts and tombs some even being wrapped in their own linen shrouds. As the ancient Egyptians frequently considered animals to represent gods these type of fossils may be the inspiration for the early ideas of iron bones, this in turn could have had a significant influence on the early use of iron and the ancient Egyptian attitude to it. Our study will scientifically explore the origins of these fossils, identifying which mammals are present considering their cultural role and association with representations of gods in ancient Egypt.

Project dates: October 2014- October 2015