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King Tut's dagger blade made from meteorite, study confirms (cbc.ca)
223 points by benbreen on June 3, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments

The bronze age in that part of the world was around 3300 to 1200BC. Tutankhamen ruled from 1332 to 1323. From that alone we might suppose why a bit of proper iron was more valuable than gold. (the Hittite secret of iron wasn't for another 275 years despite Mika Waltari's poignant novel "The Egyptian" which had the Hittites flashing their iron about the court of King Tut)

>Hittite secret of iron wasn't for another 275 years despite Mika Waltari's poignant novel "The Egyptian" which had the Hittites flashing their iron about the court of King Tut

I think several sources are saying that Hittites had some iron artifacts already around 1800 BC and had iron works in 1380 BC?

I don't recall that scene from the book, but anyway, Waltari wrote it during WW II using just library sources in Helsinki; he never set foot in Egypt. (He said "I have lived in Egypt although I've never been there.")

He had the audacity to say that after reading books? /jk

I get laughed at when I'm asked "how do you know so much about [place]?" and the answer is "The Internet" :)

I love reading comments like this. Every time I see a historical scene in a movie I always know there's someone out there commenting on the inaccuracies.

Interesting I didnt know that at all. Your "proper iron was more valuable" comment reminds me of about a little different period from a documentary that I watched that talked about the time around 700BC where Umayyad empires used silver coins while gold and copper coins were used in Egypt/Syria.

Not to mention that aluminum used to be more valuable than silver.


> Napoleon III of France is reputed to have held a banquet where the most honored guests were given aluminium utensils, while the others made do with gold.


Correct, I believe this was also what I read about how it being more valuable allowed these ancient civilizations who had access to it, to have some more monetary value to their coins and also showed their political influence (Ex: a picture of their leader ) when they traded with other civilizations overseas

>I read about how it being more valuable allowed these ancient civilizations who had access to it, to have some more monetary value to their coins and also showed their political influence (Ex: a picture of their leader )

Probably 1 of 3 reasons Gold was valuable at all to the ancients:

1. Gold is the most malleable of all the metals, making it easy to coin in extreme detail.

2. Antimicrobial properties (probably known to the ancients).

3. Oh look, its shiny!!! We are no less vain now, than then. Or perhaps no less vain then, than now.

Edit: Sorry I think you were referencing aluminum.

You forgot:

0. Gold doesn't corrode/oxydize/otherwise react easily with most common elements, thus keeping it properties over extremely long periods of time.

I doubt they knew or cared about 2). They did care about 1) being malleable and therefore easy to turn into pretty objects. They also cared that 3) it was shiny. But the main selling point was the fact that those pretty, shiny things lasted and could even be passed to the next generation ;)

Yep. I originally included that and erased it for some reason.

You are probably right about 2 as well, the reasons I like to think they might have been aware: 1.) there were Amphora made of both silver and gold; and 2.) they recognized the antimicrobial properties of other things (example: honey on wounds to avoid infection).

Obviously the Amphora could simply be chalked up to displays of wealth, but I would think they observed the delay in food/beverage degradation in those Amphora compared to standard clay. I guess the funny thing with gold is even today we don't have broad industrial usage (probably good because of the limited supply), though I I suppose trace amounts are used in some modern electronics.

Gold was also the heaviest known element until the middle of the 19th century, which means that all impurities swim at the top and so it is easy to purify simply by melting it. Plus you can assay it by a touchstone. So there are a lot properties that make Gold the best metal for coins.

This only applies to impurities that don't dissolve in, or alloy with gold. For example, silver and copper cannot be removed from gold simply by melting because they form solution alloys that don't segregate in the molten state. Some solution alloys of gold include crown gold (silver, copper, gold) and white gold (palladium, nickel, gold).

This is actually a crucial point in the later parts of Neal Stephensons Quicksilver/Baroque cycle.

Planet Money did an interesting episode on this, taking the opposite perspective: properties of other elements that made them less suitable.


CE. Umayyads were a muslim caliphate, which would have been pretty odd to exist 1300 years before Mohammed.

700CE rather than BC.

On a tangentially related point, I attended a Christian private school where we were taught that it stood for Common Error, rather the Era, and that it's was somehow a diabolic plan to subvert Christianity. This among other reasons us probably why I am now an atheist.

Small point, consistent use of BCE/CE is preferable mixed usage or use of BC/AD. Thou shouldst not cross the streams... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Era

BCE/CE is preferable to BC/AD in all cases.

No it is not. BC/AD has been in use for hundreds of years and is just fine. You can use BCE/CE if you want but it is no more valid than BC/AD.

So they didn't even need to have a clue as to its origin for it to be precious, that's interesting. Can you recommend any good reading to become acquainted with the technology of that time period, in that region?

I was interested to find a book about this as well but came up short. However, these articles might be of interest:

J. Waldbaum, "The coming of iron in the Eastern Mediterranean: thirty years of archaeological and technological research" in The Archaeometallurgy of the Asian Old World (1996).

Thilo Rehren et al, "5,000 years old Egyptian iron beads made from hammered meteoritic iron," Journal of Archaeological Science (2013). Link: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440313...

One theory about the origins of black stone embedded in the Kaaba in Mecca (whose worship dates back far beyond Islamic times) is that it's also composed of meteoric material.

Perfect, thanks very much for taking the time to respond so helpfully.

This is a good book on it https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ancient-Egyptian-Materials-Technolo... not been able to find a copy online though.

To make copper from ore you take the ore, which is conveniently typically a very distinctive bright blue/green rock, and you put it in the middle of a hot campfire. The carbon monoxide in the fire reduces the ore and then melting the copper separates it from its impurities. This is similar to the way you'd get tin or lead or several other metals. Then, to make bronze you combine specific weights of raw copper and tin, melt them together, and pour the melted metal into a mold. Now, there are lots of complexities in this process but those are mostly to improve it, and importantly those improvements can be got at through incremental trial and error. This is possible because copper, tin, et al have fairly low melting points compared to the impurities in their ores and compared to silicates (glass), and also because cast bronze is a strong form of bronze.

Iron, on the other hand, is a very different beast. The carbon monoxide trick works just as well with iron, but the relevant working temperatures of iron are way higher than with copper. Which means that you need a more advanced furnace to work with iron. However, the melting point of iron is higher than the melting point of its impurities, so you can't use the same trick you can with copper to purify it. Instead what you have to do is hold iron at around its welding temperature, and you melt the impurities within the iron. What you end up with is an iron "sponge" (or bloom) that you then remove from the furnace and beat with hammers to squirt out all the remaining molten impurities. Worse yet, cast iron is not a particularly good material in comparison to cast bronze, especially for tools and weapons. The proper way to make tools from iron is to make steel, and to forge it (heating it and beating it with hammers and other implements into shape). There are yet additional complexities involving quenching and cooling that can greatly affect the material properties of forged steel. All of these things are very much unlike bronze working and also require a lot of non-obvious steps to improve the process from one step to the next.

All of which is why the bronze age lasted for such a long time, even though some elements of iron working were known (from, for example, working with meteorites). The big advantages of iron working are that the materials (iron ore, etc.) are fairly common everywhere if you know where to find them (compared to the rarity of tin) and iron/steel implements can be mended and recycled extremely easily, even in the field.

As a side note, Tutankhamun is an interesting figure largely due to his father, Akhenaten, who completely upset the entire Egyptian religious system. Akhenaten demanded that the egyptians worship him directly, and he in turn worshiped the god Aten, forsaking all other gods in the egyptian pantheon. This was a big deal due to the importance of the religious bureaucracy at the time, among other reasons. When Tutankhamun (originally Tutankhaten) came to rule after his father's death he restored the old ways, including the importance of the religious establishment. It's thought by many that king tut's lavish funeral gifts are in large part from the religious order, as a thank you to bringing them back to prominence and power.

"As a side note, Tutankhamun is an interesting figure largely due to his father, Akhenaten, who completely upset the entire Egyptian religious system. Akhenaten demanded that the egyptians worship him directly, and he in turn worshiped the god Aten, forsaking all other gods in the egyptian pantheon. This was a big deal due to the importance of the religious bureaucracy at the time, among other reasons. When Tutankhamun (originally Tutankhaten) came to rule after his father's death he restored the old ways, including the importance of the religious establishment."

Which is the origin of his name. We write "Tutankhamun", but his name is literally "Tut-Ankh-Amun" - the Ankh of Amun, or the life of Amun (the God he restored).

"Tutankhamun means "Living Image of Amun"."[1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tutankhamun

However strange this might seem on the news site of a Silicon Valley VC hub, this comment is truly worthy of HackerNews.

Thank you, sir, for this insightful post!

There's plenty in there that's directly applicable other than just generally interesting. History of technology stuff aside, there's a lesson in the bronze/iron age transition in regards to A/B testing driving development and even agile. It's practically impossible to A/B testing evolve your way from bronze working to iron working, and it's difficult to do so even if you're doing directed development using an agile model. You have to try different things and have diverse, competing projects if you want to make that leap, and you have to allow time for new technologies to reach maturity. That has applicability not just in providing enough resources to develop "next gen" platforms or what-have-you but also in avoiding committing too early to something new before it's fully baked. Even if you could see the hypothetical advantages of iron working way back in the mid-bronze age it didn't make sense to switch until much later.

Some technological advancements are easy to access, others require a lot more investment to mature, and often it's the second category which are superior. Given the general lack of investment in serious R&D by most of SV, and how much the tech industry in general has backed away from pure research, I think there are some applicable lessons there.

> Tutankhamun is an interesting figure largely due to his father, Akhenaten

No. he is famous because his tomb was found intact by Howard carter.

"Famous" and "interesting" are two different things.

eh my brain swapped interesting for famous. to make up for that comment here is an interesting tidbit .

The word chemistry/alchemy comes from ancient word for Egypt - Khmet, because they were such experts at metal.

In domino's defense, being the son of Akenaten isn't necessarily all that interesting in itself. Akenaten is the interesting one; Tutankhamun is just a short-lived pharaoh who returned to normalcy. He's like the Gerald Ford of pharoahs.

>Tutankhamun is just a short-lived pharaoh who returned to normalcy.

Do you think he was he was too young( too developmentally challenged?) to be making such momentous decisions. I've heard that it was mostly his mentors and generals ( HOremHeb ?) making those decisions.

I'm not an Egyptologist but Tutankhamun was 9 when he became Pharoah and it's hard to imagine any civilization letting a 9 year old actually run things. I'm sure there was a long regency. Keeping in mind his reign (and life) suspiciously ended at age 18, the circumstantial evidence would suggest that he was never really in charge.

The Egyptians called iron the 'metal of heaven', 'ba-en-pet' because it came from meteorites. This was back in the bronze age, they could work it but not make it themselves yet. Meteorite iron is known to be magnetic as well so it's possible this would have seemed 'magical' as well.

I;m surprised nobody has mentioned the many other cultures that made tools out of space iron, both before and long after the Egyptians.


"For centuries, Inuit living near the meteorites used them as a source of metal for tools and harpoons. The Inuit would work the metal using cold forging—that is, by stamping and hammering it."

As others have mentioned, different metals and the propensity to work them require differing amounts of knowledge. They also require vastly different amounts of fuel.

Egypt was fuel-starved. Its only arable region is along the banks of the Nile river, a band at best a few kilometers wide, which to this day remains the population center of the country. Wood came either from up-river (rarely), or from other points in the Mediterranean. I'm weak on the specifics, but the ancient references to the Pines of Lebanon bear on this.

Meteoric iron is valuable because it is molecularly pure iron. It's essentially supernova ash -- what's left after the final stages of stellar fusion result in least-nuclear-potential atoms, iron and nickel. It's molecularly pure because it hasn't rusted -- in space, no one can hear you rust, either.

Iron on Earth is rusted in large part due to the early stages of biological evolution in which the great oxygenation event occurred, and with it the great rusting -- oxidation of what was, at the time, pure molecular iron lying on Earth's surface, with the now newly-available oxygen. Semlting is a de-oxidation process.

Many of the great iron ore fields are also the result of biological activity -- early-stage microbial life using iron (I am not sure of how specifically) in its own metabolic processes, and depositing large stratified bands of iron as a result. These ores are 1-3 billion years old. As with other resources, they're among those humans have been tearing through, literally, at an amazing clip over the past 200 years.

Iron smelting prior to the age of coal was performed using charcoal. Charcoal kilns -- you can find pictures online -- are large beehive-shaped stone structures which were stacked full of wood and lit afire. The wood was pyrolised but not combusted, pushing out the impurities. This is close in chemical properties to coal which is, in essence, wood subject to somewhat longer pyrolisation processes, as well as geological formation.

And the modern switch from charcoal to coal (originally sea-coal, opportunistically harvested chunks broken from open seams along the English seashore) occurred as what had been a heavily-forested Britain was exhausting its own renewable wood resource and turned instead to coal. An activity which already by the late 1700s was recognised as unsustainable (John Williams, A Natural History of the Mineral Kingdom, 1789).

Discussed at greater length in William Stanley Jevons' The Coal Question:


Is it quite normal to call him King "Tut"?

I have always thought -- without any evidence -- of it as an American Thing. Like Farenheit temperatures.

As a kid I learned on TV about a pharaoh named Tutenkhamon, and at some point became aware of some Egyptian named "King Tut", who must surely be the same dude.

Though come to think of it, now that we have this interweb thingy, it's worth checking...

> The discoveries in the tomb were prominent news in the 1920s. Tutankhamen came to be called by a modern neologism, "King Tut". Ancient Egyptian references became common in popular culture, including Tin Pan Alley songs; the most popular of the latter was "Old King Tut" by Harry Von Tilzer from 1923, which was recorded by such prominent artists of the time as Jones & Hare and Sophie Tucker.


The shortening certainly works better in newspaper headlines and song lyrics!

It's oddly informal, like saying "Queen E" when you mean Elizabeth II.

But I guess Tut won't mind.

Princess Di


People view old Egyptian culture as one homogeneous whole when in fact there were major tech changes over the millennia. Some elements like the formal writing did stay somewhat constant.

First, the dyration of dynasty was one and a half times longer than our time back to Jesus. That is a long time! Maybe the Catholic Church starts to approach with some factors staying constant during 2000 years and others changing.

Second there were major tech upgrades at times icluding the adoption of the wheel, the horse and iron weapons. Enemy armies discovered these first, beat up Egyptians, who then eventually learned these new techs.

>People view old Egyptian culture as one homogeneous whole when in fact there were major tech changes over the millennia.

I think viewing them as homogenous has basis in the fact that their religion, belief systems, social structures remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

Ofcourse they built better boats, better tools, better tombs, better textiles, better mummifications techniques; but underlying philosophy and religion was virtually unchanged from old dynasty to Cleopatra.

The Met's Egyptian exhibits have artifacts spanning those millennia. I just had no idea. I went in blasé about ancient Egypt and left determined to become an Egyptologist.


How did the ancient Egyptians know it came from the sky?


They probably see it. Let's make up a story without any proof that it's real:

In some place in the countryside, they see a light moving in the sky and a not very far explosion. (The ones that see a nearby explosion are dead.) Imagine something like the meteorite at Russia a few years ago. (From the videos it looks like a nice show if it doesn't land on your head.)

The local governor/priest/whatever heard about it and send a crew to the site, let's say 5-10 persons. They found some molten glass and a strange metal stone, that is like bronze but has a weird color.

They share the story for generations, if you are lucky someone they wrote an inform for the pharaoh. Everyone think they are nuts, but a they have this weird stone.

Wait a few centuries, and repeat this a few times, and now you have a collection of weird stones and/or the weapons/tools made with them, and they share a similar story. So the story is not long so weird.

Anyway, the knife made with the stone is better than the usual knives, and it has a nice story, so someone send it to the pharaoh.

Or it's special because it literally came from the heavens (to them) so it must be to make the weapons for the kings, possibly even sent by the gods for just that purpose, especially if it happened to blow up some people the people in power didn't like in the process of smashing into the ground.

All of that is pure speculation on my part, but it'd be really interesting to find out how far off my guess is.

One could also imagine an event where a small cluster of meteorites moving through the solar system did not get pulled into the asteroid belt, but instead showered the Earth for a few decades, or even a century, with a few impressive streaks in the sky every year. Even if only one landing site in ten was identified, you may have dozens of sources of pure ore.

Check out the documentary Secrets of the Viking Sword. Goes into great depth concerning the materials and methods used in creating the Ulfberht blades. Don't remember meteorites being mentioned though. Maybe they simply didn't mention it in this documentary.

I think Viking swords were made hundreds of years after this, when the basics of iron production were known in most parts of the world?

The Vikings were around a little under 2000 years after Tutankhamun.

The Viking swords in question were early examples of steel of some surprising quality. Iron technologies had existed for 1000 years at that point around Europe.

apparently the Vikings got the steel for their swords from as far away as Central Asia and India. and that steel was critical to the superior performance of those blades.



The famed Ulfberht sword is believed to have used steel forged in northern Iran, and transported through the Volga trade route (that followed the Volga river into the Caspian sea):


Something that is also mentioned in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Which someone already mentioned in reference to gold. In really is an amazing dive into history, even if it's not 100% accurate.

Aliens built the pyramids confirmed. Tutankhamon was a reptilian.

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