Oldest Known Iron Jewelry Came From Space: Did ‘Alien’ Encounters Help Craft Ancient Egyptian Culture?

The earliest known iron artifacts come from outer space, according to new research from University College London.

By Nsikan Akpan, PhD on August 19, 2013 7:00 PM EDT

The influence of extraterrestrial beings on ancient civilizations is often the stuff of science fiction movies and quack theories, but new archaeological findings from the University College London (UCL) show that alien objects may have spawned the Iron Age. The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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UCL researchers have discovered that nine ancient Egyptian beads, crafted and strung together over 5,000 years ago, contain traces of iron from meteors. The meteorites were set into a necklace with gold and gemstones, highlighting the high value of these otherworldly rocks.

The earth is bombarded with nearly 15,000 tons of meteroids each year, although most burn up in the atmosphere. Terrestial touchdown, such as with the Russian meteor crash in February, is an extremely rare event, making these beads even more exotic than once presumed.

"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," said lead author Thilo Rehren, a professor of archaeology at UCL's satellite campus in Qatar.

These are meteoric iron beads (center), including the tubular lapis lazuli (blue), carnelian (brownish/red), agate, and gold beads that they were originally strung with. Credit: UCL Petrie Museum/Rob Eagle
These are meteoric iron beads (center), including the tubular lapis lazuli (blue), carnelian (brownish/red), agate, and gold beads that they were originally strung with. Credit: UCL Petrie Museum/Rob Eagle

Carbon dating reveals that ancient Egyptians had mastered metalwork with meteoric iron, nearly two millennia before other groups in western Africa and southwestern Asia learned how smelt iron from iron ore. The beads were originally excavated from a cemetery in Gezreh — about 60 miles south of Cairo — that predates the formation the Egyptian dynasty.

The composition of the beads was determined by X-rays, which revealed a unique texture and high concentrations of nickel, cobalt, phosphorous, and germanium. Elevated levels of these elements are characteristic of meteoric iron and not Earth-bound iron ore.

"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 Prof. 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."

The meteoric iron beads.
The meteoric iron beads.
The meteoric iron beads (2).
The meteoric iron beads (2).

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science.

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