Bling from space

People have a keen eye for unusual objects and an even keener one for the aesthetic. Fossil echinoderms with their five-fold starry shape have been enduringly popular as trinkets since the Palaeolithic. Astonishingly, the gravel terrace at Swanscombe that yielded skull fragments of 400 ka Homo erectus plus many Acheulean tools also contained a flint bi-face ‘hand axe’ with a near perfect echinoid in its blunt grip. It cannot be proven, but the object seems to refute the idea that an artistic sense only arose with anatomically modern humans in the last 100 ka. Our immediate ancestors of the Neolithic sometimes took collecting to extremes in graves half full of fossil sea urchins (McNamara, K.J. 2007. Shepherds’ crowns, fairy loaves and thunderstones: the mythology of fossil echinoids in England. In: Piccardi, L. & Masse, W.B. Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publication 273, 279–294).

Before the invention of metal smelting native gold, iron and copper appear in the archaeological record, undoubtedly because they look and indeed feel so different from the usual pebbles on the beach or just lying around. It is just that element of the odd that continues to draw people, including scientists, into a perpetually stooped posture when the walk across surfaces scattered with pebbles and boulders. The habit is especially hard to shake off for the meteoriticist whose hunting grounds are desert plains and ice caps where oddities are easy to spot, even when rare. So it is interesting when such dogged searchers encounter evidence of long-dead people having done much the same.

By 5300 years ago people had settled in small farming communities in the Nile Valley eventually to develop on the shores of lake – now represented by several smaller water bodies – what is regarded as the world’s first city near modern Faiyum. These Predynastic people buried their dead nearer to the Nile at Gerzeh, often sending them off with grave goods. The site has been continually excavated by professional archaeologists for more than a century, beginning with Sir Flinders Petrie. Two of the graves contained metallic iron beads, which presented a puzzle as iron smelting is only known from the 6th century BCE onwards. Unsurprisingly, the beads came to be regarded as artefacts wrought from an iron meteorite, though their highly altered nature and intrinsic value thwarted attempts at full analysis. Geochemists from the Open and Manchester Universities, and the Natural History Museum have now resolved the issue (Johnson, D. et al. 2013. Analysis of a prehistoric Egyptian iron bead with implications for the use and perception of meteorite iron in ancient Egypt. Meteoritics and Planetary Science, on-line, DOI: 10.1111/maps.12120). Non-destructive electron microscopy and X-ray tomography reveal, respectively, clear signs of the banded Widmanstätten structures and traces of nickel-rich iron alloy (taenite) that typify iron meteorites but are absent from smelted iron. The beads were clearly beaten and rolled into shape, but this working did not destroy the tell-tale evidence of their origin.

Optical, microprobe and CT-scan images of Predynastic iron bead from the Nile Valley (credit: Open University)
Optical, microprobe and CT-scan images of Predynastic iron bead from the Nile Valley (credit: Open University)

This provenance tallies with the appearance in early New Kingdom hieroglyphs of the term biA-n-pt – literally iron-from-the-sky – which was adopted for smelted iron when first made in the 26 to 27th Dynasties. But pharaonic iron was not a poor relation of gold, regarded as flesh of the gods and hence featuring in the masks of Pharaohs such as Tutankhamen, but supposedly what their bones were made from.