Yes, Bronze Age people did make objects out of iron, but they didn’t make the iron themselves: instead, they got it from rocks they saw falling from the sky.
Despite the name, Bronze Age people did in fact make objects out of iron. These items were extremely rare, and highly treasured by the people who made them – the most famous example being the iron dagger found in Tutanhmaun’s tomb. But over the years, enough iron artefacts have cropped up on other Bronze Age sites that it forced archaeologists to ask the question: was there, in fact, iron smelting in the Bronze Age?
The Iron Age in Anatolia and the Caucasus begins around 1200 BC, but iron objects start appearing about 2,000 years earlier. In 2016, a study finally showed that King Tut’s dagger was in fact forged using iron from a meteorite, as many archaeologists had suspected. But what about all the other objects? Now, a new chemical analysis published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, confirms that they too were made from meteoritic iron. In short, the answer is a resounding no; Bronze Age people did not smelt their own iron; the stuff they used fell ready-made from the sky.
To gain this insight, Albert Jambon, a researcher at the University Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris, used a portable x-ray fluorescence scanner to investigate as many Bronze Age iron artefacts as he could get access to, including Egyptian including beads from Gerzeh, Egypt (3200 BCE); a dagger from Alaca Höyük, Turkey (2500 BCE); a pendant from Umm el-Marra, Syria (2300 BCE); an axe from Ugarit, Syria (1400 BCE), artefacts from the Shang dynasty civilization, China (1400 BCE); and the dagger, bracelet, and headrest from the tomb Tutankhamen, Egypt (1350 BCE).
Using the scanner, he was able to create a ‘chemical fingerprint’ that could establish whether the iron was from earth or space (iron smelted on earth has a distinctively different ratios of nickel and cobalt than does iron that originates in space).
Interestingly, the places where many of the artefacts examined in the study do go on to become centers of iron smelting, but the results from these earlier artefacts were all the same – they contained meteoritic amounts of nickel, suggesting that the iron had fallen ready-made from the sky.
But that’s not a disappointing result. Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, of the University of Manchester, has argued that ancient Egyptians would have revered celestial objects that had plunged to earth. In fact, they referred to it as ‘metal from heaven’.
“The sky was very important to the ancient Egyptians,” she told Nature, when speaking about her work on some of the beads from Tutankhamun’s tomb. “Something that falls from the sky is going to be considered as a gift from the gods.”
And, as Jambon points out in his abstract, firm proof that people were using meteoritic iron ‘opens the possibility of tracking when and where the first smelting operations happened, the threshold of a new era. It emphasizes the importance of analytical methods for properly studying the evolution of the use of metals and metal working technologies in our past cultures.’
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