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King Tut’s Dagger that Was Made from Stuff that Literally Came from Outer Space

King Tut's Dagger

King Tutankhamun ruled Egypt’s 18th Dynasty for about nine years before his death in 1323 BCE during the Late Bronze Age when Egypt was at the height of its power. His popularity and the academic interest in him is so great because of the fact that his tomb was the most completely intact one discovered so far. He was also one of the few kings of Egypt who was worshiped as a deity with temples built as far away as Nubia. So, it is probably not surprising that King Tut’s dagger should be among the many archaeological treasures found in the tomb, though its origin has been a topic of much interest among archaeologists.

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King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered by English archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 following a search for it in the Valley of Kings, Egypt. Apart from the king’s mummy, the tomb housed 5,398 items including a very special dagger in the wrappings of the mummy.

Howard Carter Opening King Tut's Tomb
Howard Carter Opening King Tut’s Tomb. Image Source: Harry Burton

The search and excavation of the 14th-century tomb of the 19-year-old pharaoh was funded by George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, in 1915. Though the tomb was uncovered and robbed a few times, it was completely forgotten between 12th and 11th centuries BCE and became buried under stone chips either dumped there after work on newer tombs or washed by floods.

Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun
Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun. Image Source: Roland Unger

The tomb contained a few thousand objects including thrones, a solid gold coffin, face masks, bowls, trumpets, chalices, food and drink, footwear, and linen underwear, all probably meant to assist the king in his afterlife. A few iron objects—a headrest inside a mask, a golden bracelet with an amulet, and a dagger with golden hilt—were wrapped with the mummy. Apart from the dagger which showed refined craftsmanship, the objects were crudely made.

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The dagger attracted scholarly attention since its discovery because its blade is made of iron, an extremely rare metal in the Bronze Age, leading to a theory that it has meteoric origins. 

King Tut's Dagger
Image credit: Daniela Comelli/Polytechnic University of Milan

The dagger’s iron blade was set into a decorated gold handle with a crystal knob at its end. Its sheath is also gold and decorated with the head of a jackal and ornate patterns of feathers and lilies. Iron smelting and manufacturing were so rare at that time that iron was considered more valuable than gold. It was only used for ritualistic, artistic, ceremonial, and gift-giving purposes.

The presence of iron has fascinated many archaeologists, and it has been one of the many things earnestly discussed by them as no archaeological evidence for iron smelting existed until 6th century BCE. Though the high nickel content in the dagger indicates its meteoric origin, there hasn’t been any conclusive proof of that theory. Historically, testing ancient Egyptian artifacts has proven difficult because getting permission for any kind of direct testing is near to impossible.

Owing to the technological developments in the past two decades, especially the X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy that allows detection of chemical composition non-destructively, scientists were able to prove that the dagger’s composition falls within that of the 76 iron meteorites previously discovered. 

Portable Micro-X-ray Fluorescence Machine
Portable Micro-X-ray Fluorescence Machine. Image Source: RichardMcCoy

When a material is bombarded with high-energy X-rays or gamma rays, it emits characteristic rays called X-ray fluorescence. This technique is used for the chemical analysis of various objects in forensic science, archaeology, art, and geochemistry. The results of the dagger’s test, published in June 2016, showed that it contained mostly iron with 11% nickel and 0.6% cobalt. Not only is the composition similar to that of iron meteorites, but the nickel-to-cobalt ratio is also comparable to that of materials made from iron meteorites.

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Meteoric iron is the purest form of iron in an alloy available before the Iron Age and constitutes the major part of iron meteorites. Iron meteorites are believed to be fragments of cores of large, extremely old asteroids and planetesimals.

Toluca Iron Meteorite
Toluca Iron Meteorite. Image Source: H. Raab

Meteoric iron occurs in two different phases—kamacite and taenite—and is made of iron-nickel alloy. Iron meteorites are rare compared to stony meteorites. They have the same spectral characteristics in the visible and near-infrared region seen in M-type asteroids and planetesimals, solid objects that are believed to exist in protoplanetary and debris disks around a star.

Hoba Meteorite
Hoba Meteorite. Image Source: Sergio Conti

Though only 5.7% of the meteorites seen falling are iron ones, they make up 90% (500 tons) in mass of all the known meteorites because of their higher density. Also, they are more likely to survive atmospheric entry and weathering on Earth. The largest known iron meteorite, discovered in 1920, is the Hoba or the Hoba West that lies where it fell in the Otjozondjupa Region, Namibia. Its mass is estimated to be more than 60 tons, and it has the largest mass of naturally occurring iron on Earth.

King Tut wasn’t the only one from the Bronze Age to whom meteoric iron held special significance. A handful of iron artifacts were found in and around the Fertile Crescent, the oldest dating as far back as 3,200 BCE. 

Possible Bronze Age or Iron Age Artifact
Possible Bronze Age or Iron Age Artifact. Image Source: Cambridgeshire County Council

In 1911, metallic beads were found on a man found in a tomb dated back to the 4th millennium BCE in the Gerzeh cemetery located 70 kilometers from Cairo. One of the beads tested in 2013 gave the first conclusive evidence that iron artifacts made during the Bronze Age were made of meteoric iron. Other artifacts include a dagger dated 2500 BCE found at the site Alaca Höyük in Turkey, an iron pendant dated 2300 BCE from Umm el-Marra in Syria, and axes dated 1400 BCE from both Syria and China.

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