Tutankhamun's Meteoric 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. The results from a more recent study in 2016, derived from an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer analysis, indicated that the blade’s composition is mainly iron (Fe), 10.8% nickel (Ni) and 0.58% cobalt (Co)[1].

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

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