The Ancient Egyptians Had Iron Because They Harvested Fallen Meteors

Modern chemical analysis confirms that ancient Egyptians used iron from meteorites

This ancient Egyptian iron bead dates back to roughly 3300 BC. Photo: The Open University / The University of Manchester

To the ancient Egyptians, iron was known as the “metal of heaven,” says the University College London. “In the hieroglyphic language of the ancient Egyptians it was pronounced ba-en-pet, meaning either stone or metal of Heaven.” For thousands of years before they learned to smelt iron ore, Egyptians were crafting beads and trinkets from it, harvesting the metal from fallen meteorites. The rarity of the metal gave it a special place in Egyptian society, says Nature: “Iron was very strongly associated with royalty and power.”

For the past century, researchers have been locked in debate over whether the iron in a set of 5,000 year-old beads, dating back to ancient Egypt, came from a meteorite or was crafted as the byproduct of accidental smelting. A new study, says Nature, has confirmed that the iron beads hail from the heavens. The beads contain high concentrations of nickel and show a distinct crystal structure known as a Widmanstätten pattern, says New Scientist, both evidence that the iron came from a meteor.

According to Cardiff University’s Paul Nicholson in his 2000 book, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, “the availability of iron on anything but a fortuitous or sporadic scale had to await the development of iron smelting.”

The relatively late adoption of this technology owes more to the complexitities of the processes than to a lack of supplies, since iron ores are actually abundant world-wide. Iron production requires temperatures of around 1,100—1,150 °C.

Iron smelting didn’t appear in Egypt until the 6th century B.C., 2700 years after the estimated date of the iron beads.

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