Tutankhamun's Meteroric Iron Dagger

In 1922, a team led by archeologist Howard Carter (1874-1939) finally discovered the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamun, who ruled during the end of the 18th dynasty. The tomb revealed more than 5,000 exquisite items, that ranged from the solid gold coffin (with his body covered with the famous golden funerary mask) to fresh linen underwear (even in the afterlife you needed a change of underwear).
But among these artifacts was an enigmatig iron blade in a stunning ornamental golden sheath. Howard Carter described the dagger as having a finely manufactured blade made from a homogeneous metal, while the handle is made of fine gold and is decorated with cloisonné and granulation work, ending with a pommel of rock crystal. On one side of the golden sheath is a floral lily motif, while on the other is a pattern of feathers terminating with a jackal’s head.

Examples in Egypt of contemporary smelting during the 18th Dynasty to produce iron are very rare, and likely just produced low-quality iron to be forged into precious objects. As the other blades found in the tomb are relatively crude, many scholars have suggested that the ornamental dagger was imported to Egypt, perhaps as a royal gift from a neighbouring territory or kingdom.

The so-called Amarna letters, diplomatic documents, that date from the 14th century BC mention royal gifts made of iron given to the pharaohs of Egypt from before Tutankhamun’s reign. Interestingly, one of these documents notes that Tushratta, King of the Mitanni (now identified as the Medes), sent iron objects to Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun’s grandfather. Among the lists are iron blades.

Since the 1960’s, researchers suggested the nickel content in the blade was indicative of meteoric origin, with a more recent study in 2016 derived from an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer analysis, indicating that the blade’s composition is mainly iron (Fe), 10.8% nickel (Ni) and 0.58% cobalt (Co)[1].

This study compared the blade composition to 11 meteorites of well-known compositions and 11 certified steel reference materials, concluding that the blade composition and homogeneity, closely correlates with meteorite composition.

This conclusion was further supported by a study published in 2022, which conducted a non-destructive two-dimensional chemical analysis, and suggests that the source meteorite of the blade is octahedrite, one of the most common structural classes of iron meteorites[2].

Ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious objects. Moreover, the high manufacturing quality of Tutankhamun's dagger blade, in comparison with other simple-shaped meteoritic iron artifacts, suggests a significant mastery of ironworking in Tutankhamun's time.

[1] Comelli et al: The Meteoritic Origin of Tutankhamun’s Iron Dagger Blade in Meteoritics and Planetary Science – 2016.
[2] Matsui, et al: The manufacture and origin of the Tutankhamen meteoritic iron dagger in Meteoritics and Planetary Science – 2022. See here.

The Death of Lord Carnarvon (1866-1923)

Just five months after Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen, his benefactor, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnarvon, died. He was just 57. His rather unexpected death within weeks of the tomb's official opening, coupled with the fertile imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, lead to speculations of a curse.
At the time, the cause of the Earl's death was reported as 'pneumonia supervening on [facial] erysipelas'. In normal modern medical terminology, this means 'a streptococcal infection of the skin and underlying soft tissue'.

Pneumonia was thought to be only one of various complications, arising from the progressively invasive infection, that eventually resulted in multiorgan failure.

But Lord Carnarvon wasn't a particularly healthy man. Left a semi-invalid by a near fatal car accident in 1903, he was prone to frequent and severe lung infections. The general belief at the time was that one acute attack of bronchitis could have been the end of him.

In such a debilitated state, Lord Carnarvon's immune system was easily overwhelmed by erysipelas. On March 19, 1923, he suffered a mosquito bite on his cheek which became infected by a razor cut. He was diagnosed with 'erysipelas and streptococcic blood poisoning'.

After much suffering, Lord Carnarvon died in the early morning of April 5. He suffered from a high fever, severe pain, pneumonia in both lungs, and eventually heart and respiratory failure.

Recently, however, feeble-minded documentary makers have linked Lord Carnarvon's death to exposure to aspergillus, which are a group of fungi that produce a mycotoxin when allowed to germinate on certain food products.
[Aspergillus under a microscope]


For Carnarvon to have been exposed to the mycotoxin, he would have had to have entered the tomb. The Times of London reported that he did so on the day of its official opening on February 17, 1923 - a few weeks before he became sick.

However, Howard Carter noted in his diary that Carnarvon first entered the tomb already on November 26, 1922.

During his first ingress into the tomb, Carter described an escape of hot air after he broke through the second sealed door and, in one instance, Carnarvon is described as having crawled along the tomb's floor.

Exposure to mycotoxins can cause a form of pneumonia to which immunocompromised individuals are particularly susceptible, and the contact Lord Carnarvon would have had with the toxic mold, by crawling along the floor and inhaling the hot air, certainly would have proved fatal for a semi-invalid extremely vulnerable to lung infections. But there is no mention in Carter's diary of Lord Carnarvon being ill until March of 1923, four whole months after his initial entry (as well as successive entries) into the tomb.

Furthermore, of the 44 Westerners present at the time, just 25 actually entered the tomb. Lord Carnarvon was the only one to become ill or died soon after its opening.

That Carnarvon's death had anything to do with Tutankhamen's tomb (or curse) is, therefore, highly unlikely.

Rome before the Romans

The legend of Romulus and Remus explains the origin of the ancient city of Rome. Romulus founded the city on the Palatine Hill after he and his brother had been left to die on the bank of the River Tiber by their uncle King Amulius.
[Ruins on the Palatine Hill in Rome]


But there is another legend about the origins of Rome. An even older legend tells us that there was a Greek city which existed in the same place.

In Book VIII of the epic poem 'Aeneid', written in the first century BC by Virgil (70-19 BC), Prince Aeneas of Troy is described as sailing to Italy and visiting the region where Rome would later be established. But when he arrived in the area, there was already a Greek city on the site. It was the city of Pallantium.

The ruler of the city was a king named Evander who 'chose (honoring Pallas, their Pelasgian sire), the name of Pallantium'. That means they honoured the Greek goddess Pallas Athena. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus explained that Evander grew up in the city of Pallantium (from Ancient Greek Pallántion (Παλλάντιον) in Arcadia, Greece. When he moved to Italy and founded a new city, he decided to name it after his home city. According to the same writer, Evander founded the city sixty years before the Trojan War.

Some ancient writers did not consider Pallantium to be a Greek city that came before Rome. Rather, they viewed it as actually being the original Rome. For example, the Greek historian Strabo (64 BC-24 AD) wrote that Rome was originally founded by Arcadians from Greece. This is obviously a reference to the legend of Pallantium. Yet, Strabo does not call it ‘Pallantium’ – he simply calls it ‘Rome’.

Another historian of the first century BC, Ateius Philologus, agreed with this view. He wrote that the city which existed on the site of Rome was actually called ‘Rome’ in Evander’s time. Interestingly, he also wrote that Evander’s Rome was not the original settlement either. Rather, a settlement called Valentia existed there first, and then Evander changed its name to ‘Rome’ when he moved there.

As early as the fifth century BC, the reliable historian Antiochus of Syracuse referred to a Rome that existed before the Trojan War. This supports the story that Virgil presents in the Aeneid, which is based just after that war. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of written information available about the Greek city of Rome that existed before the Romans. Nonetheless, this evidence from Antiochus of Syracuse shows that the legend dates back to at least the fifth century BC.

Archaeologists did find evidence of what might be a Greek colony just next to the Palatine Hill. The Palatine Hill was where the earliest part of Rome was founded, so this is significant. Note the similarity with the Palatine Hill, where Rome was supposedly founded. This evidence of a possible Greek colony dates back to about the middle of the eighth century BC, which is very early in the history of Rome. In fact, this is before there was any major settlement on the Palatine Hill.

Could this have been Evander’s city, the ‘Rome before the Romans’? It is certainly possible. The earliest records of the founding of Rome usually make Romulus a son of Aeneas rather than a distant descendant. This would mean that Evander’s city would have existed fairly soon before Romulus lived, and since Romulus is usually placed in the eighth century BC, the chronology works well with these archaeological findings.


Alexandria is sinking

Some cities have a great future behind them and are now facing oblivience. Venice is sinking (see here) and so is Alexandria.
Of course, some blame the rising sea levels as a result of global warming, but, just like Venice, most of its peril is man made.

Alexandria dates back to 331 B.C, when Alexander the Great chose to build a city surrounded by two bodies of water: the Mediterranean Sea in the north to make it a trade center, and Lake Mariout to the south, where he directed the Greek architect Dinocrat to design “Alexander’s Harbor.”

But the location was a barren area. So the engineers needed to establish a complex, intelligent system to supply water from the Nile through canals, and then distribute water through a branched pipeline system and store it in underground tanks.

Parts of this old pipeline system still exist but are not functioning, as the new city is built on the top of the many ancient cities that came ahead of it. And this is in itself another cause of subsidence.

Every year the city sinks by more than three millimetres, undermined by dams on the Nile that hold back the river silt that once consolidated its soil, and the problem is exacerbated by gas extraction offshore. Add to that the unchecked building of ever larger (and thus heavier) constructions that force out groundwater.

Even by the United Nations' best case scenario, a third of the city will be underwater or uninhabitable by 2050, with 1.5 million of its six million people forced to flee their homes. Already hundreds of Alexandrians have had to abandon their apartments weakened by flooding in 2015 and again in 2020.

Even without a possible rise in seal levels, a third of the highly productive agricultural land in the Nile Delta could be inundated by salt water.
Across the Delta, the sea has already advanced inland more than three kilometres since the 1960s, swallowing up Rosetta's iconic 19th-century lighthouse in the 1980s.

All this is happening as Alexandria's population is exploding, with nearly two million more people arriving in the last decade, while investment in infrastructure, as elsewhere in Egypt, has lagged. The city's governor, Mohamed al-Sharif, weakly said that the crumbling drainage system for its roads was built to absorb one million cubic metres of rain. But with the more violent storms that have come with climate change, "today we can get 18 million cubic metres falling in a single day".

"Yes, the threat exists and we don't deny it, but we're launching projects to attenuate it," the head of the authority protecting Egypt's coastline Abdel Qader said. A huge belt of reeds is being planted along 69 kilometres of coastline. "Sand sticks around them and together they form a natural barrier," he said.

It all seems a bit too little too late. As the Chinese philosopher and politician Confucius (ca. 551-ca. 479 BC) once said: "A man who does not plan long ahead will find trouble at his door.”

Remember that the lost tomb of Alexander the Great must be located somewhere in Alexandria, and that the tomb of Cleopatra (and Mark Anthony) is possibly also nearby in Taposiris Magna. They could be lost forever.

The hunt for the tomb of Cleopatra (and Mark Anthony)

Archaeologist Kathleen Martínez (1966) of the University of Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) and her team are researching a temple complex in the ancient Egyptian city of Taposiris Magna. The ruined city is situated some 50 kilometres southwest of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. In 2022 they uncovered a vast tunnel that experts are referring to as a 'geometric miracle'. The structure runs 13 meters below the ground. The 2-meter tall tunnel had been hewn through an incredible 1,305 meters of sandstone. However, parts of the tunnel are flooded. Its purpose is currently unknown.
Its design, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said, is remarkably similar to the 1,036-meter Tunnel of Eupalinos (Ευπαλίνιον όρυγμα), an aqueduct from 6th century BC on the Greek island of Samos.

Martínez, who has been working in Taposiris Magna since 2004 in search of the lost tomb of Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC), believes that the tunnel could be a promising lead. Previously, the excavations did yield some promising clues, but no definitive proof regarding the whereabouts of Cleopatra's tomb has been found.

The city of Taposiris Magna was founded around 280 BC by Ptolemy II, the son of Alexander the Great's renowned general and one of Cleopatra's forebears. The temple itself, the team believes, was dedicated to the god Osiris and his queen, the goddess Isis, the deity with whom Cleopatra courted a strong association. Coins bearing the names and likenesses of Cleopatra and Alexander the Great have been found there, as well as figurines of Isis.
It is quite possible that Cleopatra and her husband Mark Antony (83-30 BC) may have been interred in one single tomb, because her last wish was that she be buried with Mark Anthony. A wish that was granted by Ceasar. It is also possible that Mark Anthony was cremated, which could mean that Cleopatra can still embrace the urn which contains his ashes.

The next stage will be exploring the nearby Mediterranean. Between 320 and 1303 CE, a series of earthquakes rocked the coast. These caused parts of the temple to collapse and other parts were swallowed by the raging sea. In addition, excavations had previously revealed a network of tunnels stretching from the brackish Lake Mariout to the Mediterranean.

But according to Zahi Hawass (1947), former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, there's "no evidence" that Cleopatra is buried at Taposiris Magna. "I believe now that Cleopatra was buried in her tomb that she built next to her palace and it is (now) under the water," the old man claimed in 2021. "Her tomb will never be found."

Kathleen Martínez respectfully disagrees.

Tunisia: Menzel Bourguiba

Most cities around the Mediterranean will proudly trace their origins back millennia. Several of them were early colonies of the ancient Greeks, while others were founded by Romans. Carthage in Tunisia, for instance, was a settlement that evolved into a city-state and then into an empire. It was founded by the Phoenicians in the ninth century BC, flourished and was eventually reduced to rubble by the Romans in 146 BC, who later rebuilt the city.
But not every city can be proud of their ancient heritage. In the very north of Tunisia lies Menzel Bourguiba. It cannot trace its origins back to the remote past.

In 1897 Tunisia was a French protectorate. France, wanting to protect its 'African province', decided to build an arsenal on a strategic and secluded location between lakes Ichkeul and Bizerte. A town, needed for non-military personnel and their families, was built on a nearby site. It was named Ferryville to honour the French minister Jules Ferry (1832-1893), the 'inspiration' of the French protectorate of Tunisia. The French expats found the city so beautiful that they lovingly called it 'Petit Paris' ('Little Paris').

Tunisia finally achieved independence from France in 1956 and one can imagine that a city that bears the name of a French usurper was 'tainted'. For that obvious reason, its name was quickly changed to Menzel Bourguiba, which means 'House of Bourguiba'. It is named in honour of the first president of the independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba (1903-2000).
These days, the arsenal has become a ailing shipyard to repair merchant ships. It saw its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s, when Tunisia had a much larger merchant fleet and the (then) Soviet Union used the shipyard to drydock its ships. At that time, the yard employed over 1,300 people.

Now, Menzel Bourguiba is a somewhat sleepy town with more than 54,000 inhabitants. It is surrounded by olive trees and is hemmed in by the turquoise-coloured water of both lakes. Sometimes a city has a great future behind it.

Losing the Sea of Marmara

Can a harbour get lost? Can you misplace an entire sea?

The Sea of Marmara connects the Black Sea to the north with the Mediterranean to the south. It has a two-layer current system made up of these compositionally very different bodies of water, flowing to and fro in opposite directions. As less salty, nutrient-rich Black Sea water flows through the Bosphorus – the channel through Istanbul that separates Europe from Asia - it meets the saline, nutrient deficient Mediterranean water in the Sea of Marmara. According to marine scientists, the coexistence of these waters - two currents stacked on top of each other – creates a unique and nutrient rich environment.
For centuries this unique marine ecosystem has been home to a multitude of species of fish, dolphins, crustaceans, mollusks, and corals. Not anymore.

Since the 1970s, the coasts around the Sea of Marmara has seen rapid industrialization and urbanization which resulted in intense pollution. The Sea of Marmara has been slowly filling up with polluted wastewater. Most recently, in late 2020, wastewater from the nearby Ergene River, one of the world’s most polluted rivers, also started to be discharged into the Sea of Marmara, channelled through a 59 kilometer-long pipe out into the open sea. When the local municipality in the city of Edirne studied the water, they found excessive levels of pollutants, including cyanide, nitrogen, chromium, lead, and copper.

Toxic wastewater from factories along the Sea of Marmara’s coast is also discharged into the sea. In addition to this, waste from large ships, excessive fishing, and extensive land reclamation projects using land fill along its coasts have added to the Sea of Marmara’s burden. As a result, the Sea of Marmara has seen frequent episodes of red tide and enormous blooms in green algae.
In the summer of 2021, an unexpected explosion of mucilage, a thick substance produced by algae that has earned the nickname 'sea snot', led to the death of thousands of sea creatures. Triggered by warming temperatures and excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the sea, the mucilage acted as a blanket on the shores. It prevented oxygen and sunlight from entering the water, clogged the gills of fish, and killed thousands of spawning fish, crabs, and stingrays.

The plan to create a new waterway linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara will further disrupt the delicate ecological balance between them and put Turkey’s freshwater resources at risk.

Levent Artüz, a hydrologist, says that the Sea of Marmara has hit “rock bottom.” He says that the mucilage crisis, caused by the unusually rapid proliferation of microscopic phytoplankton, is just another symptom of an ecosystem that is currently wildly imbalanced. Artüz makes the dramatic claim that the Sea of Marmara has already died, and now exists as a lifeless body of water.