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5,300 vnens AGo, someone was

ROUND e.c. The beads therefore pose an archaeological conundrum


interred in a sandy grave in the Gerzeh because they were made more than 2,000 years earlier.
cemeteryl 40 miles south of modern Cairo, They come from a time about which little is known, before
Egypt.Clearly an important member of Egyptian writing and the rule of the pharaohs. The source
the community, he or she was buried with of the iron and the manner in which it was worked have
valuable goods, including an ivory pot, a become subjects of great speculation.
stone palette for grinding cosmetics, a copper harpoon, From the whole of pre-IronAge Egypt, some 20 iron arti-
and beaded jewelry In among the gold and carnelian beads facts have been found and dated, including the Gerzeh beads
were some made of iron, a material that, while considered and several fine items from the tomb of Tutankhamun, who
mundane today, must have been regarded as very precious died ca. 1323 s.c. The metal was rare, but definitely present.
'W'as
at the time. A total of seven of these tubular iron beads someone in ancient Egypt working iron far earlier than
were found in rwo Gerzeh tombs in l9ll by archaeologist once thought?'Was the iron an accidental by-product of cop-
Gerald NTainwright. Iron smelting, the extraction of metal per smelting? Did it arrive from a precocious, unidentified
from ore, is thought to have emerged in Egypt around 600 iron industry elsewhere or-as X7ainwright and his colleagues

Archaeologists and planetary scientists experiment with meteorites,


ancient Egypt's first source of precious iron
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ARCHAEOLOGY . Marcn/April 2O15


suggested-from outer space, in the form of meteorites? And, says, which tend to contain more nickel than terrestrial iron
in the case of the Gerzeh iron beads, howwere such small, deli- sources. But by the 1980s, metallurgists threw doubt on this
cate beads made before experience working with the material conclusion, and suggested that the beads could have been made
had become widespread? Now a team of scientists has revisited from a nickel-rich iron ore known as laterite, or from material
the Gerzeh beads and, with a mix of new and old technologies, that was produced accidentally during copper smelting.
is providing some conclusive answers to these questions.
Johnson's expertise on meteorites-she has collected them
since childhood-and access to modern analyrical equipment
IANE JOHNSON, A PLANETARY scientist at the Open brought a fresh perspective to the problem. Her first step was
University in Milton Key'nes, England, developed a to examine the four Gerzeh beads held in English institutions:
passion for Egl,ptian archaeology during a trip to the three at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at Uni_
country five years ago. She enrolled to study for a certificate versiry College London and one at the Manchester Museum.
of higher education in Egyptologlr at the Universiry of Man- "I saw that theywere all corroded and highly oxidized, and I
chester, where she met EgyptologistJoyce Tyldesley and first realized, that analyzing them wouldn't be a trivial task," she
heard about the mystery of the Gerzeh iron beads. "Both of says. Undeterred,Johnson began her examination of the Man-
us are fascinated by ancient riddles and we couldn't resist the
temptation to investigate further," explainsJohnson.
An inch-long bead found in a 5,3OO-year-old grave at Gerzeh in
Early analysis of the Gerzeh beads, published in 1928,
Egypt is made of iron, a rare and prized material at the time. Notes
revealed that they are rich in nickel. This was considered from the original 1911 excavation of the site (bottom right) note
conclusive evidence that they came from meteorites,Johnson the presence of such beads and other precious materials.

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Scans of one of the Gerzeh beads reveal traces of flax fiber upon which it was threaded, and high nickel content suggesting meteoritic origin,

chester bead with photos and then a scanning electron micro- it was cracking along the crystal grains. So she cut her next
scope (SEM) at the Open UniversityThe SEM bombarded the slice parallel to the natural layers between the crystals, akin to
small bead (ess than an inch long) with electrons. The resulting sawing along the grain of a piece ofwood, rather than across it.
scatter of particles revealed detailed information on surface She also decided to turn the furnace up to 800'C very high
(a

structure and chemistrywithout damaging the bead, resolving but plausible temperature for ancient Egyptians, used to make
features just one micron wide, the width of a strand of spider Egyptian marl ware pottery) to see if the extra heat would help.
silk.Johnson was able to direct the electron beam at the fresh- Finally success. She hammered out a thin layer of metal
est bits of metal shining out from underneath the corrosion, and used pliers to bend it into a tubular bead (which she then
which revealed iron containing an average of4.8 percent nickel toasted in a 400"C flame to achieve the color effect).Johnson
byweight. "This made me feel confident that it probablywas had established the proof of concept, but to truly re-create
meteoritic iron, but there was still a chance it could be made the process bywhich the beads were made, she would need to
from naturally occurring nickel-rich iron ore," saysJohnson.
The next step was to look at the crystal structure. Using the
X-ray compuged tomography imaging facility at the University
of Manchester,Johnson and Tyldesley created virtual slices of
the bead, which show that it is a hollow tube containingwoven
strands of fax fiber in the center. "This was almost certainly
the string that the beads were threaded upon," saysJohnson.
Zooming in further, she observed the classic meteoritic signa-
ture-intersecting fingers of long nickel-iron crystals, known
as the Widmanstetten pattern. "It takes millions of years of
cooling to produce crystals of this size, and the only place we
see these kinds of crystals today are in meteorite samples," she
says. Using similar techniques, Thilo Rehren from University The distinctive crystal structure known as the Widmanst5tten
College London and Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, pattern (seen here in an unrelated sample) can take millions
of years to form. lt is a clear marker of meteoritic metal, and is
alongwith his colleagues, has shown that the three Gerzeh iron present in the Gerzeh beads.
beads at the Petrie Museum display the same crystal structure.
The beads are definitely made from meteoritic iron, but that
does not explain how the Egyptians worked the raw material use tools and materials available at the time. She headed back
into such fine decorations. to the Petrie Museum and found what she was looking for in
a storage drawer: a stone tool with a groove across the end
ACK AT HER LAB at the Open UniversityJohnson exam- and a small, bent copper rod. Both are from Egypt and date
ines the results of a series of experiments to answer to before the Gerzeh beads, though there is no evidence that
this question. The product is a tubular iron bead that they had been used in bead production. "They didnt look like
Iooks like a srunning iridescent jewel, shimmering blue, green, anlthing interesting, but after my metalworking experiments
and orange. "These beads are exquisite when they are fresh," I realized that these could have been the kind oftools used to
says Johnson, who wears her handmade meteorite beads on make beads," she says.
a necklace. Using her own precious collection of meteorite Johnson made replica tools and coaxed another thin layer
fragments,Johnson started to experiment with making beads. of meteoritic metal from her collection. (Again she used a
First, she used a modern saw to cut a thin layer of metal, which modern sarg but is still experimenting with means to split
she then hammered to make it thinner, thin enough to roll into meteoritic iron with stone tools). She bent it by placing it
a bead. Disaster struck fairly quickly 'As soon as I hit it, the betvgeen a copper rod and agrooved lump of granite, and ham-
metal fractured and broke apart. This suggested to me that mering gently while turning the rod. Rehren's analysis of the
cold-working wasn't the way to go," saysJohnson. Petrie Museum beads confirmed that the Gerzeh beads were
She used a furnace to heat the metal up to 200"C-approxi- rolled from thin sheets of meteoritic iron in the same way-a
mately the temperature the Egyptians would have used to work surprisingly sophisticated process for the time. "Forming such
copper at that time-and tried again. Once again it fractured, rolled-sheet beads out ofcoarsegrained and rather hard and
andJohnson realized that she needed to find a new approach. brittle meteoritic iron would have required very careful ham-
She studied the way that the metal had fractured and saw that mering of the metal, most likely with intermittent annealing

38 ARCHAEOLOGY . March,/Apri 2O15


{heating and slow cooling} to fust create and then roll the sheet iron-related materials (such as hematite, an iron oxide) or any
without cracking it," Rehren. "This demonstrates a very
says material that had a visual resemblance to fresh or weathered
high level of skill of the predynastic smiths." iron. But there was no term for metallic iron until around
Placing her own newly minted beads in the SEM,Johnson 1295 s.c., when bia-n-pr, which literally translates as ,,iron
compared the structure with that of an unworked piece of from the sky" first appeared in Egyptian texts. ,,This word
iron meteorite. She could immediately see that the warming was applied to all metallic iron from this time onwards, and
caused the nickel to migrate, creating nickel-rich bands. ',This its sudden emergence in the language could be connected to a
makes the metal stronger and less friable," she explains. And major event, such as a large impact or shower of meteorites,',
once the meteoritic metal had been hammered into a bead, says Tyldesley
the nickel rich bands became wavy in appezrance. 'While
it is only Tyldesley's speculation, the Gebel Kamil
Under the SEM, the Gerzeh bead had the same nickel-rich meteorite might have been seen falling from the sky suggesting
bands. In addition, the spacing between them is indicative of that the metal from it--so unlike any other known material ai
the type of meteorite the metal had come from. "The distance the time-could have been regarded as a "gift from the gods."
between these nickel bands in the Gerzeh bead fit with it com- Indeed, almost all known pieces of early iron in Egypt are
ing from an octahedrite meteorite-a type that was once the symbolic or ritual artifacts. For example, Tutankhamun was
core of a small planet or large asteroid," saysJohnson. buriedwith a daggerwith a shalp iron blade (which could have
been ritual, practical, or both), a miniature model headrest
T-l ACH rEAR, ARoUND 40,000 tons of mereorite material made from iron, and an iron amulet on agold bracelet, as well
fl enters Earth's atmosphere, but most burns up before as 16 small models of chisels with iron blades. Most of these
l-lreaching the ground. Almost all of the interstellar lumps items are thought to be made of meteoritic iron, except for the
that survive the atmosphere are primarily "stony'Lless than dagger, which mayhave been smelted elsewhere and imported
l0 percent are iron meteorites. It certainly is a rare material, as part ofa royal dowry "Theywere all recovered from graves
but one that would be easy to spot in Egypt, where the dark, and therefore were likely to have had some connection with
shiny metal stands out against desert sands. In 2008, geolo- the funeral and/or rebirth of the deceased," explainsTyldesley
gists discovered an iron meteorite impact crater in the desert Furthermore, evidence so far suggests that only the most
at Gebel Kamil in southern Eg;rpt that dates to within the highly regarded people were buried with meteoritic iron. ,,The
last 5,000 years. "The crater is around 45 meters [150 feet] in context in which the iron beads were found at Gerzeh clearly
diameter and itwould have been a significant event to w.itness," indicates that this was considered to be an exotic, special
saysJohnson, "a massive fueball in the sky and a sonic boom as material," saysAlice Stevenson, curator at the Petrie Museum.
it arrived, perhaps similar to the Chelyabinsk meteor, which One of the graves there, which contained two iron beads, also
struck the Ural region of Russia in February 2013." However, held an impressive diversiry of valuable materials: lapis lazuli
the fragments of meteorite from the crater dont match the fromAfghanistan and obsidian fromTirrkey or Ethiopia. It is
structure or chemistry of the Gerzeh beads. likely that whoever was able to trade for and accumulate such
Though this meteor.ite likelywasnt the source of the Ger material had a significant social profile and connections, and
zeh beads, it may have brought metallic iron into the ancient may have been considered to have specialist, esoteric knowl-
Egyptian lexicon and imagination. The Eg;rptians akeady edge. "The collection of such materials would also have been
had a general term for "iron," which possibly represented visually impressive to others, inspiring awe," adds Stevenson.
"Lapis being a vibrant blue, obsidian a glossy black, and the
After some trial and error, researchers were able to make iron beads, asJohnson's newwork is showing, being iridescent
beads from meteoritic iron, almost entirely with techniques and striking in color and pattern."
that would have been available to ancient Egyptians, The color I7e'll probably never know why two special people were
comes from toasting in a 4OOoC flame,
buried at Gerzeh with iron beads, butJohnson and her col-
leagues are still investigating the Egptian iron mystery Now
they are analyzing the composition of other known iron
artifacts and delving deeper into the written record in order
to gain a greater understanding of the perception of iron in
ancient Egypt. "'We want to know if iron was rarely used
because it was considered a gift from the gods,
or because it was merely difficult ro work com-
pared to bronze," e4plainsJohnson. They also
hope to document when iron went from being
symbolic, ceremonial, and prized to usefirl,
functional, and utilitarian. I

Kate Ravilious is a science journalist based in


Tork,UK.

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