The Origin Of Tutankhamun’s Dagger Finally Revealed

You may already be familiar with King Tutankhamun’s fabled space dagger – an iron weapon forged from meteorite rock and entombed with the ancient Egyptian pharaoh. Now, a new study has revealed more details about this fascinating and mysterious artifact.

The Two Sides Of Tutankhamun's Dagger
The two sides of Tutankhamun’s dagger. 
Credit: T. Matsui et al./Meteorit. 

Extensive chemical analysis involving high-resolution photography and X-rays revealed the type of meteorite the dagger was likely forged from, as well as the process used to make it. Furthermore, it appears that the object was not made in Egypt at all, but rather was presented as a gift to King Tut or one of his ancestors.

Perhaps most significant is the discovery of so-called Widmanstätten structures in the dagger, indicative of the long nickel-iron crystals found in iron octahedrite meteorites, the most common type of iron meteorite.

“To understand the manufacture and origin of the dagger, we conducted non-contact, non-destructive two-dimensional chemical analysis,” planetary scientist Tomoko Arai of the Chiba Institute of Technology in Japan told Gizmodo. “We noticed a criss-cross texture present in places on both sides [of the dagger], suggesting a Widmanstätten structure, typical of [an] octahedrite iron meteorite. That was our WOW moment.”

Widmanstatten structure
Widmanstätten structure in an octahedrite meteorite from Namibia. 
Credit: Kevin Walsh.

In order to maintain that pattern, a relatively low-temperature forging technique was most likely used to cast the weapon. The researchers believe the dagger was made at temperatures below 1,742 degrees Fahrenheit (950 degrees Celsius)—much higher than that, and the pattern would have disappeared.

This object’s origin story is supported by the black dots on the blade and within a crack in the blade’s surface. These sulfur-rich areas are likely caused by the heating of troilite, an iron sulfide mineral found in iron meteorites.

King Tutankhamun’s Dagger Was Made Outside Of Egypt

As for the chemical composition of the hilt, analysis reveals that the decorative stones were probably set with lime plaster, a process not commonly adopted in Egypt until much later in history. That means the dagger probably came from somewhere else.

The researchers point out that the Amarna letters could give us some clues here: These important clay tablets dating from around 1360-1332 BC are a collection of diplomatic correspondence from ancient Egypt and mention an iron dagger that was given to one of the ancestors of Tutankhamun as a gift.

The Origin Of Tutankhamun's Dagger Finally Revealed
Above: The dagger as photographed in 1925. d) Photograph of an enlarged portion of one side of the blade with a prominent crack.  e) Photograph of an enlarged portion of one side of the leaf with dark spots.  Credit: T. Matsui et al./Meteorit. Planet. Sci.

“The gold hilt hints at [the dagger’s] foreign origin, possibly from Mitanni, Anatolia, as suggested by one of the Amarna letters which say that the king of Mitanni presented a gold-hilted iron dagger to Amenhotep III, the Tutankhamun’s grandfather,” the researchers write in their article.

This idea that the dagger came from outside of Egypt has been suggested before, but now we have more evidence. Additional studies should be able to establish whether it is a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation.

Prime matter of heaven

Before the Iron Age and its associated technologies developed, most iron artifacts were probably forged from meteorite fragments that had fallen from space. This would not have been an easy process, and would most likely involve a lot of trial and error.

The hilt, top, and scabbard of the iron Tutankhamun's Dagger found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The hilt, top, and scabbard of the iron dagger found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. 
Credit: Chiba Institute of Technology.

Tsutomu Saito, professor of cultural properties science at the National Museum of Japanese History in Japan, was not part of the current study but has worked on previous research on iron forging that predates the Iron Age.

“The study provides evidence that ancient peoples had reached the conditions that we scientifically predicted,” Saito told the Asahi Shimbun, suggesting that blacksmiths of the time used both instinct and experience to find the right temperatures to make their wares.

Speckled color patterns indicate an analogous elemental distribution.  In the S and Cl maps, the areas of high concentration are heterogeneously present.  Color scale bar numbers show integrated counts in the peak area of each element
Speckled color patterns indicate an analogous elemental distribution.  In the S and Cl maps, the areas of high concentration are heterogeneously present.  Color scale bar numbers show integrated counts in the peak area of each element.  Credit: T. Matsui et al./Meteorit.  Planet.  Sci.

“This is an important finding that shows the starting point of humanity’s quest to develop iron-making technology,” he added.

The research has been published in Meteoritics & Planetary Science.

Source: Asahi/Gizmodo/SciAl 

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