It was revealed in May 2016 that the dagger found beside the thigh of King Tutankhamun in 1925 was made from iron taken from a meteorite. Italian researchers were able to identify the extraterrestrial origins of the iron blade after they determined that it was 11 percent nickel, a concentration far higher than the natural Earth-based nickel concentration of iron of 4 percent and similar to that of other tested meteorites. This procedure was carried out with the modern technique of X-ray fluorescence spectrometry.
X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry technology was invented in the mid-Twentieth Century, but gained greater popularity in the decades that followed. XRF is based on the principle that when individual atoms are excited by an external energy source, they will emit X-ray photons or some other characteristic energy or wavelength. Through X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, researchers can measure the photons being emitted from a sample, allowing them to determine its atomic structure without causing physical damage to it.
ASTM E1621-13 – Standard Guide for Elemental Analysis by Wavelength Dispersive X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometry is the official standard for preparing and conducting X-ray fluorescence spectrometry tests for samples of solid metals, ores, and related materials. This document addresses guidelines for the equipment components and accessories, reagents, and reference materials that go into the preparation and testing of the sample as well as the procedure for data collection and mitigation of radiation hazards.
As coined by early British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, “Archaeology is destruction”. The process of excavating remnants from ancient civilizations almost always leads to the immediate decimation of recovered artifacts. The archaeological technique is not to simply save the tangible pieces of history and prehistory, but instead to make strong scientific observations that craft a body of knowledge of the past that exists in present day.
However, X-ray fluorescence spectrometry can help preserve some of the artifacts that do survive after excavation. Many of these, now displayed in museums, need to be partially destroyed to undergo many kinds of testing. XRF and other non-invasive techniques limit the destructive nature of archaeology.
By using XRF spectrometry, researchers were able to preserve a priceless ancient artifact while acquiring a better understanding of it. We now know that King Tut’s dagger blade, intended for decoration, not battle, was crafted with iron from a meteorite, a metal that would have been considered a status of his wealth at the time. The iron blade would likely have been more valuable than the gold that makes up the handle of the dagger. Ancient Egyptians called it “iron from the sky”.
Even though this gives more insight into King Tut and his burial, this discovery has implications greater than the boy king. In fact, the discovery of King Tut in the first place was only so important because it gave modern scholars an understanding of ancient Egyptian burials. An iron dagger is generally out of place during the pharaoh’s time of death around 1300 BCE, mainly because it was during the end of the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age wouldn’t begin in Egypt for another several hundred years.
However, it is not uncommon for artifacts carved out of meteorites to be in the archaeological record. In fact, many early ancient Egyptian iron artifacts are reported to have been crafted out of meteoric iron. In 2009, nine small beads, excavated from a tomb in Gerzeh and dated to about 3200 BCE, were proven to have been made of meteoritic iron and carefully hammered into thin sheets. With these two findings, it is now highly plausible that the ancient Egyptians made use of basic ironworks activities (possibly even smelting) with the then-highly precious metal long before they began mining iron ore.
For those who’d like to read the peer-reviewed publication: “The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun’s iron dagger blade” (Comelli et al 2016)