Ancient Egyptian jewelry came from outer space, say scientists
An analysis of beads discovered in a 5,000-year-old Egyptian tomb reveals their surprising origins, say archaeologists.
Ancient Egyptian beads found in a 5,000-year-old tomb were made from iron meteorites that fell to Earth from space, according to a new study. The beads, which are the oldest known iron artifacts in the world, were crafted roughly 2,000 years before Egypt's Iron Age.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Space Photos of the Day: Asteroids
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In 1911, nine tube-shaped beads were excavated from an ancient cemetery near the village of el-Gerzeh, which is located south of Cairo, said study lead author Thilo Rehren, a professor at UCL Qatar, a Western Asian outpost of the University College London's Institute of Archaeology. The tomb dates back to approximately 3200 B.C., the researchers said.
Inside the tomb, which belonged to a teenage boy, the iron beads were strung together into a necklace alongside other exotic materials, including gold and gemstones. Early tests of the beads' composition revealed curiously high concentrations of nickel, a telltale signature of iron meteorites. [See Photos of the Egyptian Beads & Other Meteorite Jewels]
RECOMMENDED: Are you scientifically literate? Take our quiz
"Even 100 years ago, [the beads] attracted attention as being something strange," Rehren told LiveScience.
But without definitive proof of the beads' cosmic origins, questions persisted over whether similar amounts of nickel could be present in human-made iron. By scanning the iron beads with beams of neutrons and gamma rays, the researchers found high concentrations of cobalt, phosphorous and germanium; these elements were present at levels that only occur in iron meteorites.
"It's really exciting, because we were able to detect sufficient cobalt and germanium in these beads to confirm they're meteoritic," Rehren said. "We had assumed this was the case for 100 years, but it's nice to be able to put an exclamation mark on the label, rather than a question mark."
The X-ray technology also revealed that the beads had been hammered into thin sheets before being meticulously rolled into tubes.
"This meteoritic iron, it's very hard material that you find in lumps, and yet here we see it in thin beads," Rehren said. "The real question is, how were they made?"