Andrew Wade

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ScienceShot: Iron From the Sky

For decades, archaeologists have debated the origins of several small iron beads excavated from ancient Egyptian graves in a site known as Gerzeh cemetery. Dating to around 3300 B.C.E., the tube-shaped ornaments (pictured) are the oldest known iron artifacts in Egypt. In fact, this jewelry greatly predates the iron tools and weapons tools that Egyptians began regularly producing from smelted iron around the 6th century B.C.E. But there's another possible origin for the iron that doesn't rely on smelting and human metallurgists: meteorites. The iron beads contain nickel, an element often found at high levels in the extraterrestrial rocks. Now, scientists have declared the mystery solved. A new study published in Meteoritics & Planetary Science reveals that the iron in at least one of the Gerzeh beads came from outer space. By combining scanning electron microscopy with x-ray computer tomography to examine the bead's microstructure and chemistry, a British research team determined that the iron possessed a structural and microchemical signature known as the Widmanstätten pattern that is unique to weathered iron meteorites. Exactly why ancient Egyptians used this extraterrestrial iron for precious grave gifts is not known, but they may have believed that it offered especially powerful protection in the afterlife. Certainly, the new study is bound to prompt other researchers to reexamine other early iron artifacts, such as the small iron blades, headrest, and amulet discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamen, who died around 1327 B.C.E.

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