Gold, gems and meteorites! A perfect Egyptian necklace


Beads discovered on a necklace that was first excavated in 1911 have finally been confirmed as being made from space rock.
Researchers from the University College London’s Petrie Museum conducted detailed analysis of the necklace using gamma rays and have been able to prove that the beads, originally believed to be made from iron, were in fact created using fragments of meteorites.
The analysis is also the first time scientists have been able to assess how the beads were formed and it is thought that the Egyptians used the technique of smithing and rolling, which involved hammering the rock several times until it could be flattened and then rolled to form the bead-shaped tubes. Egyptologists from the Open University first scanned beads found in a pre-dynastic cemetery near the village of el-Gerzeh, in Lower Egypt in May, using scanning electron microscopy and computed tomography.
The nickel content of this original metal was found to be high, suggesting that it could have come from a meteorite. The researcher also observed that the metal had a distinctive crystalline structure called a Widmanstätten pattern. This structure is found only in iron meteorites that cooled extremely slowly inside their parent asteroids as the solar system was forming. They found areas where the weathered surface had fallen away, providing what has been described as ‘little windows’ to the preserved metal beneath. Researchers from UCL’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology then used non-invasive neutrons and gamma rays to detect the exact level of nickel and phosphorous in these Egyptian beads.
Lead author of the Journal of Archaeological Science study, Professor Thilo Rehren said that the beads were created by ‘multiple cycles of hammering’ and not by the traditional carving or drilling stone techniques that were used on other beads found in the same tomb. Philip Withers, Professor of Materials Science at The University of Manchester, added: ‘Meteorites have a unique microstructural and chemical fingerprint because they cooled incredibly slowly as they travelled through space.
‘It was really interesting to find that fingerprint turn up in Egyptian artefacts.’ Meteorite iron had profound implications for the ancient Egyptians, both in their perception of the iron in the context of its celestial origin and in early metallurgy attempts. Dr Tyldesley added: ‘Today, we see iron first and foremost as a practical, rather dull metal. To the ancient Egyptians, however, it was a rare and beautiful material which, as it fell from the sky, surely had some magical/religious properties. ‘They therefore used this remarkable metal to create small objects of beauty and religious significance which were so important to them that they chose to include them in their graves.’