A Dagger from the Sky

Scientists Determine Dagger Buried with King Tut Came from Meteorite Metal
June 14, 2016

Egyptian pharaohs were commonly thought of as descendants of the gods. But arguably the most famous pharaoh, Tutankhamun, may have received a physical gift from the heavens in the form of a dagger. 

New research has shown that an iron dagger buried with Tutankhamun—commonly known as King Tut—was made from an iron alloy only found in meteorites.

King Tut’s tomb was discovered by English Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922, and garnered worldwide attention. The boy-pharaoh, whose reign began when he was nine-years-old, was buried with gold, wine, scents and more than 5,000 other treasures: things that according to Egyptian tradition, he might need in the afterlife.

King Tut's Burial MaskInside his sarcophagus, though, were his solid gold funeral mask, which to this day is one of the most famous images of Egyptology, and two daggers: one made of solid gold, and one with a gold handle and an iron blade.

The iron dagger puzzled Egyptologists. At the time of King Tut’s death, 1323 BCE, crafted objects made of iron were exceedingly rare. The Iron Age is thought to have begun between 1200 and 1000 BCE, and since knowledge of how to smelt iron—the process of separating the metal from its ore—would have been extremely rare if it existed at all in 1323 BCE, the presence of a fully formed and well crafted iron blade was curious.

The question then becomes, if the ancient Egyptians did not know how to get iron from the ore in the ground, where did they get it? The two main sources of metallic iron—as opposed to iron ore—on Earth are the extremely rare telluric iron and meteoritic iron.

Luckily, they differ enough in their chemical composition that scientists can determine which is which through elemental analysis—figuring out the proportion of chemical elements in a substance. Using a technique called X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, scientists beam high energy X-rays into the metal and based on the radiation the metal sends back, they can figure out what it is made of.

The dagger was made mostly of iron but had just over 10 percent nickel and half a percent cobalt. Iron artifacts made on Earth before the Industrial Revolution are never composed of more than four percent nickel, while meteorites regularly contain 5-35 percent nickel. So the metal that made Tutankhamun’s dagger most likely came from space.

Further, the researchers compared the composition of Tutankhamun’s dagger to every known meteorite within 2000 kilometers of the Red Sea, and only one came back with a composition close to the dagger: a meteorite from Kharga, Egypt which contains 11 percent nickel and 0.4 percent cobalt. 

Other iron objects, including a set of beads more than 5,000 years old, have been found in Egyptian burial sites. The beads were also of meteoritic origin and were included in a necklace with gems and gold. Add that to Tutankhamun’s solid gold dagger buried with his iron one. Thus, iron was seen as immensely valuable in ancient Egypt.

Cultures around the world have viewed meteorites with cultural and religious significance for millennia. Within 100 years of Tutankhamun’s death, a hieroglyphic literally translated as “iron from the sky,” became the catch-all phrase for any iron in Egypt, suggesting that the ancient Egyptians not only knew where this metal came from in a crude sense but also ascribed some importance to it.

So a dagger sent from the sky would doubtless be a fitting tool for the son of Amun-Ra, and something he would want with him in the afterlife. 

This research was published in the journal, Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

— Daniel Lane 

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.