These 3,000-Year-Old Treasures Were Forged From Meteoritic Iron

New research reveals that two Bronze Age artifacts from the Treasure of Villena contain iron from a meteor that hit a million years ago

Full Treasure
The Treasure of Villena was discovered in Spain's Iberian Peninsula in 1963. El Museo de Villena

In the ’60s, researchers discovered a trove of Bronze Age treasure in Villena, Spain. While most of the stunning bottles, bowls and bracelets are made of gold and silver, new research has revealed that some of them were forged from another material: iron from a meteor that struck Earth a million years ago.

According to a recent study published in the journal Trabajos de Prehistoria, researchers conducted tests on two of the artifacts—a bracelet and a hollow decorative sphere—made between 1400 and 1200 B.C.E.

The trove’s materials have long mystified researchers. After finding it on the Iberian Peninsula in 1963, archaeologist José María Soler García noted the presence of a “dark leaden metal” among the gold, per El País’ Vicente G. Olaya. The metal was “shiny in some areas, and covered with a ferrous-looking oxide that is mostly cracked.”

To determine the iron’s origins, researchers used mass spectrometry, a technique that measures a molecule’s mass-to-charge ratio. As Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki reports, this analysis revealed that the iron’s nickel composition resembles that of meteoritic iron. These items are the first artifacts made of meteoritic iron ever found in the Iberian Peninsula.

Iron object
One of the iron objects included in the Treasure of Villena El Museo de Villena

“Iron was as valuable as gold or silver, and in this case [it was] used for ornaments or decorative purposes,” study co-author Ignacio Montero Ruiz, a researcher at the Spanish National Research Council’s Institute of History, tells Smithsonian magazine.

The presence of such an “unusual raw material” suggests it was made by highly skilled metalworkers capable of “[developing] new technologies,” adds Montero Ruiz.

But iron is also quite different from more common materials such as copper, gold or silver. As Montero Ruiz says to Live Science, “People who started to work with meteoritic iron and later with terrestrial iron must [have had to] innovate.”

The study’s other co-authors are Salvador Rovira-Llorens of the National Archaeological Museum and Martina Renzi of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority. The trove is held by Villena’s Archaeological Museum, which says on its website that the 66 items are considered the “most important prehistoric treasure in Europe.” Still, the artifacts’ origins remain a mystery.

An iron bracelet that's part of the Treasure of Villena El Museo de Villena

Montero Ruiz tells Smithsonian magazine that objects made from meteoritic iron are rare, and most known examples from this period are connected to eastern Mediterranean cultures. The treasure’s creators “probably had access to a fallen meteorite in the area that allowed them to discover the properties of this material and how to shape it,” he says.

Last year, research revealed that an arrowhead found in Switzerland was made from meteoritic iron. That artifact, however, dates to between 900 and 800 B.C.E.

Researchers also don’t know who owned the Villena treasure, though they think it would have belonged to a community rather than a single individual.

“These two pieces of iron had enormous value. For this reason, they were considered worthy of becoming part of this spectacular ensemble,” says Montero Ruiz, per El País. “Who manufactured them and where this material was obtained are still questions that remain to be answered.”

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