National Geographic News
Egyptian Iron Beads-Meteoric.jpg

Three iron beads from Gerzeh, Egypt, are the oldest known example of metalworking.

Photograph by Gianluca Miniaci, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

Jaclyn Skurie

National Geographic

Published August 22, 2013

After a century of uncertainty, researchers have confirmed that the iron used to weld 5,000-year-old Egyptian beads fell from the sky—in the form of a meteorite, that is.

The nine small beads were excavated in 1911 from a tomb in Gerzeh, an ancient cemetery in northern Egypt. Early chemical testing showed traces of nickel, leading scientists to believe they were made from meteoric iron.

The beads were prized as exotic artifacts, strung together on a necklace with precious minerals like gold and carnelian. (Related: "Oldest North American Rock Art May Be 14,800 Years Old.")

Fast forward a few decades to the 1980s, when a fragment from the beads was retested to determine its composition using newer technology called an electron microprobe. The results revealed concentrations of nickel that were too low to confirm whether the iron came from a meteorite.

Still, some scientists remained unconvinced that the beads were entirely man-made, which was an alternative explanation.

Thilo Rehren, a professor at University College London's Institute of Archaeology campus in Qatar, released a study in the Journal of Archaeological Science on Tuesday that says germanium levels—a chemical element not highly concentrated in man-made iron—prove the metal is meteoric.

Using noninvasive neutron and x-ray methods, Rehren and his team tested the inner core of the beads where the original metal was before it corroded. In the 1980 study that found low levels of nickel, scientists only were able to test the bead's outer layer, which had crusted into pure iron rust over time. (Related: "Giant Maya Carvings Found in Guatemala.")

"The label for these beads said: 'Meteoric Iron, question mark,' but with this new research we could say, 'Meteoric Iron, exclamation mark!'" Rehren said.

A Sign of Ancient Welding

In addition to being the oldest discovered artifacts made from meteoric iron, these beads provide novel insight into Egyptian civilization that predates the Iron Age by 2,000 years.

Rehren says the beads are the earliest known sign of metalwork, suggesting that people at that time had already mastered the art of blacksmithing. (See: "Egypt Mummy Pictures: Scans Show Ancient Heart Disease.")

The beads were created from rolling a very thin sheet of metal into a tube. Because meteoric iron is as tough as stainless steel, the process is precise. The brittle iron must be cooled extremely slowly to make sure it does not crack. Once the beads are heated, they are hammered into their nugget-like form.

"You don't always need to have Indiana Jones go out and dig up a new palace or temple," Rehren said.

"It is fascinating to see what museum collections still yield in terms of new information and discoveries."

Follow Jaclyn Skurie on Twitter.

1 comments
Gail Lucas
Gail Lucas

Found this article very interesting thank you.

Share

Feed the World

  • How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    How to Feed Our Growing Planet

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest Photo Galleries

See more photos »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »