The University College London (UCL) Petrie Museum in London is home to ancient Egyptian iron beads that were once thought to be hammered out of traditional iron ore. Researchers from UCL have dispelled this notion, revealing that the earliest jewelry artifacts were actually made from materials from outer space.
UCL Archaeologist and Professor Thilo Rehren is uncovering fascinating new evidence on the ancient Egyptian beads. He says, “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.”
Finding out where the beads came from
“Even 100 years ago, [the beads] attracted attention as being something strange,” Rehren said. Rehren and a team of researchers are proving that the beads are actually cosmic jewelry, hammered from pieces of meteorites. Their evidence suggests that the ore used to make the beads originates from an era existing two millenniums before communities learned how to smelt and tamper traditional iron ore into iron.
The beads from the UCL Petrie Museum were discovered in 1911 near the village of el-Gerzeh in Lower Egypt. Dug up in a cemetery that dates back to approximately 3200 B.C., the beads were found to be corroded to their core. Using x-rays, the researchers have determined the continuity of the beads. They’ve concluded that the beads do not come from magnetite, which typically resembles meteoric iron, but actually come from meteoric iron from outer space origins. Scanning the beads further with neutron beams and gamma-rays, the researchers determined that the unique textures of nickel, phosphorous, cobalt, and germanium were indeed reminiscent of meteoric iron. The neutron beams and gamma-rays also helped them bypass more invasive testing that could have damaged the rare objects.
“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,” Professor Rehren said.
How the beads were made
Rehren continues, “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.”
Their study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, further explains how the rock from outer space was meticulously hammered into thin sheets and then rolled into tubes that were woven around wooden sticks to create 0.8-inch-long, tube-shaped beads.
The nine beads from the museum are thought to be at least 5000 years old. They make up a necklace that was very valuable for its time and included gold and other precious gems. Their results suggest that during the fourth millennium BC, meteoritic iron work had already been mastered.
This meteoritic iron-nickel alloy is a much harder and more brittle rock that predated copper and traditional iron ore work. This meteoritic iron work was the first basic training ground for blacksmiths, helping to pave the way for future learning of copper work and traditional iron work.