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King Tut's Dagger Is 'Out of This World'

The iron dagger found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amun dates to around 1350 B.C., about 200 years before the Iron Age. Daggers, axes and jewelry made from rare iron during the Bronze Age are literally out of this world, according to new research finding that ancient artisans crafted these metal artifacts with iron from outer space carried to Earth by meteorites. The finding upends the idea that a few artisans during the Bronze Age in the ancient Near East knew how to make iron by smelting it from Earth's crust. Instead, it appears that Bronze Age metalworkers sought out meteorites to make these treasures, said study author  Albert Jambon, a French archaeo-metallurgist and a professor at thePierre and Marie Curie University, in Paris.

"Iron from the Bronze Age are meteoritic, invalidating speculations about precocious [early] smelting during the Bronze Age," Jambon wrote in the study. Jambon tested the ancient iron daggers, including one from Pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amun's tomb in Egypt, iron axes and pieces of iron jewelry from the ancient Near East and China with X-ray scans to identify their metals.

Last year, a study using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry determined that Tutankhamun’s dagger was made with iron containing nearly 11 percent nickel and traces of cobalt: a characteristic of extraterrestrial iron found in many of the iron meteorites that have rained down on Earth for billions of years. Most of the iron meteorites that smash into Earth each year are thought to have formed in the metal-heavy cores of planetesimal — small bodies in the protoplanetary disk of debris that orbited the sun during the early stages of the solar system. As a result, these meteorites contain high levels of nickel or cobalt. In contrast, iron smelted from terrestrial iron ores, which are mined from our planet's outer crust, contain less than 1 percent nickel or cobalt, far less than the levels found in iron-rich space rocks.

Jambon used a portable XRF analyzer to scan other ancient iron objects and iron meteorites in museums, as well as iron in private collections in Europe and the Middle East. His research showed that all the iron in the tested artifacts came from meteorites, and not from terrestrial smelting. The findings suggested that iron meteorites were the only source of that metal until the discovery of smelting iron from terrestrial iron ore, probably in Anatolia and the Caucasus around 3,200 years ago, Jambon said.

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