How did Bronze Age civilizations manage to forge iron weapons before they had learned how to smelt iron ore? It turns out, they had a little bit of help from the cosmos, as many of the iron artifacts from this era appear to have an extraterrestrial origin.
French scientist Albert Jambon has been working on a new study that’s carried out geochemical analysis on numerous iron artifacts from Bronze Age cultures across the ancient world. His findings, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, strongly suggest that many of these relics were made out of iron meteorites from outer space.
These artifacts included: beads from Gerzeh in Egypt (dating from 3200 BCE); a dagger from Alaca Höyük in Turkey (around 2500 BCE); a pendant from Umm el-Marra in Syria (approximately 2300 BCE); an axe from Ugarit in Syria (1400 BCE); relics from the Shang dynasty civilization in China (1400 BCE); and the dagger, bracelet, and headrest of Tutankhamun (1350 BCE).
Using a technique known as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, he discovered that each of these Bronze Age artifacts was most likely forged from meteorite iron.
Scientists are able to work this out by looking for traces of nickel within the materials. When celestial bodies, such as Earth and other planets, are formed, virtually all nickel drifts down to the molten iron core. As such, it’s rare to find nickel in surface iron ore. Meteorites, however, are often the result of a shattered planet flinging off pieces of rock, thereby bringing nickel and cobalt out from their depths. If the iron has high levels of nickel and cobalt, it’s safe to say it came from a meteorite and not terrestrial iron ores from Earth’s surface.
Although meteorite iron also comes “ready-made” in its iron form without the need for smelting, Jambon argues that this practice was not that common. His study mainly looked at the geochemical origin of the artifacts and didn’t divulge into the historical or cultural trends behind them. However, it’s fair to assume that meteoritic irons were reserved for the elites of society and their most prized possessions. He notes that the practice of using meteoritic iron was almost totally abandoned by the Iron Age after humans learned how to smelt terrestrial iron ores.
Last year scientists discovered that Tutankhamun, the notorious boy pharaoh of ancient Egypt, had a “space dagger” forged from iron of meteoritic origin. In the words of the researchers on that project, the use of meteors suggests ancient people were “aware that these rare chunks of iron fell from the sky”.