An electron microscope and CT scan proves that ancient Egyptians made decorative beads from meteorite materials. Testing was done on items dug up from an ancient burial site outside of Cairo that had been fashioned into a necklace.

Thousands of years before Egyptians entered the iron age, they were using meteorite materials to fashion symbolic items according to scientists at the Open University (OU) and the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Due to their nickel-rich iron content, these items from 3350 to 3600 BC were determined to come from a meteorite.

Controversy has long surrounded the beads (right) which were excavated in 1911 at the Gerzeh cemetery which holds 231 ancient grave pits. Debate regarding the origin of the frequently scrutinized objects was only recently put to rest, more than 100 years after their discovery thanks to advanced technology. New noninvasive analytical methods were used which preserved the integrity of the artifacts. The analysis by OU?s electron microscope combined with x-ray microcomputer tomography at Manchester confirmed they came from the remnants of a meteorite. The tube-shaped beads are consistent with a cold-worked iron meteorite and are not due to an early attempt at smelting.

This analysis is the first use of 3-D microstructural and chemical definition to identify preserved prehistoric metallic iron fragments. Several objects recovered from tomb 67 are shown in the photo from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London. Objects at the top of the image were at the body?s waist, the stringed objects were across the neck. The studied bead is beside the X.

Meteorites are usually placed in three classifications: those comprised mainly of silicates; those composed mostly of metallic iron-nickel; and those containing both metallic and rock-like silicate minerals. An instrument used to analyze the Egyptian jewelry was the FEI Quanta 200 3-D microscope An x-ray was performed with a Nikon 320 kV custom bay. Avizo Fire software built a model from the resulting data set.

The FEI Quanta 200 was used to analyze an 5,300+ year old Egyptian bead. Photo Credit: Nature Protocols

Dr Joyce Tyldesley, a Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Manchester, worked with Project Leader Diane Johnson of OU. She said: "To the ancient Egyptians, [iron] 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."

Co-author Philip Withers, Professor of Materials Science at the University, 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."

Tutankhamen?s tomb contained several items made of iron, including a dagger blade, sixteen miniature blades, a miniature head rest, and an amulet. Originally, due to the heavy nickel content, scientists thought the material was from a meteorite and consistent with cold iron working by Egyptians who did not employ manufacturing hard, high temperature metals, such as nickel-rich iron. However, without further microstructural analysis, the origin is unconfirmed.

The paper, ‘Analysis of a prehistoric Egyptian iron bead with implications for the use and perception of meteorite iron in ancient Egypt,’ is published in the Meteoritics and Planetary Science Journal.