A dagger buried with King Tutankhamun was made from extraterrestrial iron from a meterorite, according to a new analysis.
Two daggers - one iron and one with a blade of gold - were discovered in 1925 within the wrapping of the boy king, who was mummified more than 3,300 years ago and has mesmerised modern Egyptologists. The iron blade, which had a gold handle, rock crystal pommel and lily and jackal-decorated sheath, has puzzled researchers because ironwork was rare in ancient Egypt.
European researchers used an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to find a high nickel content and particular levels of cobalt that "strongly suggest an extraterrestrial origin," according to the analysis published in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science.
The scientists compared the composition to known meteorites around the Red Sea coast of Egypt, and found similar readings in one of them — Kharga, west of Alexandria.
In 2013, nine blackened iron beads, excavated from a cemetery near the Nile in northern Egypt, were found to have been beaten out of meteorite fragments, and also a nickel-iron alloy. The beads are far older than the young Pharaoh, dating to 3,200 BC.
"As the only two valuable iron artefacts from ancient Egypt so far accurately analysed are of meteoritic origin," wrote the team that analysed the dagger, "we suggest that ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of fine ornamental or ceremonial objects."
They noted that around the 13th century BC, a term "literally translated as 'iron of the sky' came into use."
"The introduction of the new composite term suggests that the ancient Egyptians were aware that these rare chunks of iron fell from the sky" already in the 13th century BC, anticipating Western culture by "more than two millennia," the researchers wrote.
Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley, of the University of Manchester, also noted that the people of Tut's time would have revered celestial objects that had plunged to earth.
"The sky was very important to the ancient Egyptians," she told Nature, referring to her work on the meteoritic beads. "Something that falls from the sky is going to be considered as a gift from the gods."