(Photo : courtesy Open University)
A thousand years or so before the Iron Age was in full swing in the Middle East, Egyptians were apparently already crafting jewelry and other items from nickel-iron, dropped from the cosmos.
Researchers have discovered an ancient Egyptian trinket molded from nickel-iron, which can only be obtained by visiting the center of the earth or mining rocks from space, meteorites.
The latter technique, researchers explain in the May 20 issue of the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science1, was how ancient Egyptians most likely obtained the iron in question obtained many centuries before the earliest signs of iron smelting in the region.
The find also suggests how much regard Egyptians placed on things that rained from above, as the many facets of their spiritual beliefs were forming.
"The sky was very important to the ancient Egyptians," Joyce Tyldesley, an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom and a co-author of the paper, was quoted saying in a report by Nature. "Something that falls from the sky is going to be considered as a gift from the gods."
A tube-shaped bead was one of nine found in 1911 in a cemetery at Gerzeh, about 44 miles south of Cairo. The cache dates from about 3,300 B.C., making the beads the oldest known iron artifacts from Egypt.
The researchers were not able to cut the bead open, but they regardless found areas where the weathered surface had fallen away, through which they were able to examine portions of the preserved metal beneath.
Analysis with a microscope showed that the nickel content of the metal beneath was as high as 30 percent, a clear indication the material was indeed from the heavens.
To further determine the connection to outer space the exploration team observed proved the metal had a distinctive crystalline structure called a Widmanstätten pattern, which is a structure found only in iron meteorites that cooled very slowly inside their parent asteroids as the solar system was forming.
Then, using X-ray scanner technology, the researchers built up a three-dimensional model of the bead's internal structure, showing that the ancient Egyptians had made it by hammering a fragment of iron from the meteorite into a thin plate, then bending it into a tube.
The first record of iron smelting in ancient Egypt appears from the 6th Century B.C.
Only a very few iron artifacts have been discovered from before that time and all of them were found in high-status graves, such as that of the pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Campbell Price, a curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum who was not a member of the study team, told Nature that nothing is known for certain about the Egyptians' religious beliefs before the advent of writing, but later, during the time of the pharaohs, the gods were believed to have bones made of iron.
He speculates that meteorites may have inspired such a belief, as the celestial rocks could have been interpreted as the physical remains of gods falling to Earth.