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King Tut’s Metalwork Mysteries

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Innovations in metal are not necessarily recent developments. Some date from an earlier time.

And some date from a way earlier time.

King Tutankhamun’s iron dagger has long proven a source of puzzlement for scientists. Now a new study claims to have identified its provenance.

A recent study confirms this 3,300-year-old tool found entombed with the Egyptian monarch was made with iron from a meteorite.

The knife—which is 34.2 cm and sports a gold handle and flower-and-feather-motif-decorated gold sheath—is one of several iron artifacts discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb. These include 16 miniature iron blades, a miniature headrest, and a bracelet with the Udjat eye of iron. But it’s the dagger that’s attracted the most interest from archaeologists and historians, mainly due to the metal’s origin.

In 1970, one researcher declared that the dagger must have come from a meteor based on its high nickel content. But the study was never published, and the meteor idea eventually faded into the background. Then, in 1994 an analysis of the blade by X-ray fluorescence spectrometry revealed a nickel content that was considered inconsistent with meteoritic iron.

This latest round of research, led by an associate professor at the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy, also employed X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to analyze the blade’s composition. Its results, published this week in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, “strongly suggest” that the blade carried materials of “extraterrestrial origin.” More than that, its impressive manufacturing quality indicates a significant mastery of ironworking.

“Beyond the Mediterranean area, the fall of meteorites was perceived as a divine message in other ancient cultures,” the researchers write. “Our study confirms that ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious objects.”

Tutankhamun was only 19 when he died in the 14th century BC. The unearthing of his sarcophagus in Luxor, Egypt, in 1922 inspired a rush of interest in him, and in the history of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

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