The Meteorite Age

Royal Tomb at Alaca Höyük where a hoard of meteorite objects was discovered. – CC credited to Bernard Gagnon

Metals played a crucial role in the advancement of human civilization that ancient eras, the Bronze and Iron Ages, have been named after them. But pinpointing an actual date on which humans first worked metal into objects is hard to do. In Europe, this could have been as early as 7000 BCE. Brightly coloured copper and gold were utilised first, while extraction of tin and iron came later. A move from the Stone to the Bronze Age was made possible in about 2500 BCE due to the discovery that smelting copper with tin created the durable alloy Bronze. While the move to the Iron Age came much later, about 1200 BCE. Iron is widespread in the geological landscape but extraction and smelting of this metal into a usable form proved incredibly complex. Therefore perplexing is the existence of Iron objects which predate the Iron Age, some of these objects are at least 9000 years old and are from as early as the first worked metals. Another source of iron is non-terrestrial. It arrives on Earth from outer space in the form of meteorites and it has been suggested that the utilisation of meteorites found on the surface could explain the presence of iron objects which predate the Iron Age. This would make meteorite objects some of the earliest encounters that humans had with metal.

It is not difficult to imagine that people would have admired and craved something unique, much in the way we do today. This is an easy concept to understand in a modern context, as in today’s world ‘things’ matter; there is no denying we currently live in a material world. Objects enrich our lives; we use them as embellishments and allow them to express our identities and our hopes and fears. This is not a modern phenomenon, walking around any museum we can see how longstanding the relationship to material objects is. In a world without modern materials and predating the times when the method to smelt iron was common knowledge, the properties of iron would have been special and even without knowledge of its origin would have seemed otherworldly. Manipulation of this material most likely occurred with cold hammering as open fires would not have the heat for smelting the metal. It would have shown the object to be shiny, durable, hard but malleable and made of something which could become useful such as a tool, sharp dagger, talisman or simple beads. There is no suggestion that in all cases people saw the meteorite fall and collected the deposit but in some examples, there is a real possibility this was the case.  

The examples of worked meteorite objects below will demonstrate how rare and highly prized this material was. This is not an exhaustive list as the exact number of prehistoric worked meteorite items changes continuously, not only due to new discoveries but re-examination of existing collections with better identification techniques and more precise dating of prehistoric objects. Historically the easiest and most accurate way to Identify meteoric iron has been by an inspection of its isotopes looking for raised nickel content within the object, in comparison to terrestrial iron which has no or little trace of nickel. Early methods were invasive and involved some destruction of the object to provide a sample. Further complicating identification is that different nickel readings can occur depending on the location of the object tested, so one sample from the same object may result in a different reading than another.  

Modern testing techniques aim for greater accuracy in identification and now use a ratio of three elements cobalt, iron and nickel, while non-invasive techniques such as X-Ray Spectroscopy increasingly play a part as they do not involve damaging these often fragile objects. What the use of X-Ray Spectroscopy has revealed is that particularly corroded specimens may have little nickel content at all. These objects could have been mistaken as being terrestrial but iron objects with no nickel content may still have been delivered from space. Albert Jambon, from the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France has imaged many of these fragile items with his X-Ray Spectroscope and has identified a number of new specimens and explains that “Some archaeologists were sceptical, as they thought that the amount of nickel found in Bronze Age iron tools was too low to consider them of meteoritic origin, But I’m a trained cosmochemist, so I knew the problem was just corrosion. And I was able to show that nickel was leached away during corrosion.” Modern techniques are increasing the number of known objects which are meteoritic in origin.

Meteorite fragments from inside the remains of a hut dating back more than 9,000 years in Bolków by the lake Świdwie in Western Pomerania. Credit: Archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology (IAE) PAS

Only sixteen known iron objects predate 3000 BCE and these are outlined in the table below. The earliest worked meteorite objects, three beads, were discovered recently in 2014 at Lake Świdwie  Poland. This exciting discovery was mentioned in the 2020 Yearbook in Astronomy. Dating from 7000 BCE this is not only the earliest example of meteorite-worked iron but one of the earliest worked metal objects in the world. Due to the location of its discovery, the significance cannot be overstated. All the other objects from this period come from the cradle of civilisation and northern Poland sits well outside this region. Prior to this the nine blackened beads found in a pre-dynastic cemetery near el-Gerzeh, Egypt were the oldest known worked iron meteorite objects. The beads were scanned and revealed the distinctive Widmanstätten structure found in iron meteorites. During this investigation of the beads Professor Thilo Rehren of the Petrie Museum, (University College London) discovered a little about the technique used to create the objects saying “The shape of the beads was obtained by smiting and rolling, most likely involving multiple cycles of hammering, and not by the traditional stone-working techniques such as carving or drilling which were used for the other beads found in the same tomb.” Furthermore, he felt that the Egyptians had an advanced understanding of the material they were using, suggesting that they had worked with the material before. The final object in the table below is a bit of an anomaly itself. It was identified as terrestrial smelted iron, a four-sided tool which was discovered in a tomb in Samarra in Mesopotamia. One suggestion is that the iron used in this object was obtained as a by-product from the extraction of another metal, although that does not explain how the society overcame the difficulties of achieving the high temperatures needed for the smelting process. It is a real possibility that retesting using Jambon’s Spectroscopy technique would identify it as being meteoritic in origin.

ObjectDateLocation of findOther observations
Beads x37000BCELake Świdwie, PolandWorked – found in Shamans hut
Balls x34600-4100BCETepe Sialk, IranPolished but unworked – hard and heavy – found in Palace
Beads x93200BCEEl-Gerzeh, EgyptWidmanstätten structure – Grave goods. 9% Ni
Four-sided Tool5000BCESamarra MesopotamiaFirst non-meteorite smelted object?  Grave goods

The Gerzeh bead is the earliest discovered use of iron by the ancient Egyptians. Credit: Manchester Museum

During the following millennium, the number of iron objects increased, although they are still rare compared to other metallic objects made from copper or gold. Iron was still highly prized and treated as a precious metal. All the discoveries are objects of significance and include jewellery, decorative items and ceremonial weapons and have been discovered in sealed hoards, near temples or deliberately buried in rich graves. These objects were not intended for everyday use and were luxury goods, much sought after by the populous. There are nine confirmed meteorite objects from this period, including the hoard from Alaca Höyük.

One unanalysed example from this period includes an iron sword found in a Royal Tomb in Dorak, Egypt dated to 2400BCE it is a beautiful early example of a ceremonial weapon. It has an obsidian holt carved into two leopards, inlaid with gold and amber spots. Unfortunately, this example was excavated surreptitiously and is now lost, our knowledge of this object comes from a cartouche of the Fifth Dynasty of Egyptian pharaoh Sahure. This example shows the problem in making a comprehensive list and there are at least another ten examples which have not been confirmed as being meteoritic in origin and therefore do not make the list below.

ObjectDateLocation of findother observations
Fragment3100BCEUrak, MesopotamiaFound in temple
Disc2500BCEUr, Mesopotamia10.9% Ni found in tomb
Pendant2400BCEUmm el-Marra, SyriaFound in Tomb
Pins x 22400BCEAnatolia, TurkeyFound in tomb
Plaque2400BCEAlaca Höyük TurkeyFound in tomb
Dagger2400BCEAlaca Höyük TurkeyFirst discounted as terrestrial iron but retested and identified at meteoric in origin
Mace Head2400BCEAlaca Höyük TurkeyFound in tomb
Amulet2100BCEDeir el Bihari EgyptTomb of Princess Aa Shait Dynasty XI

Dagger from Alaca Höyük Turkey Credit: Noumenon Wiki Commons

During the late Bronze Age (2000-1200BCE) there are a greater number of confirmed meteorite examples with twenty-three being identified to date, although over fifty objects remain to be analysed. What is interesting is that no smelted objects from this period have been identified, with the Iron Age about to burgeon you would almost expect some isolated examples of terrestrial smelted iron objects so the lack of them is curious in itself. Once more the meteorite examples are geographically scattered. Overwhelmingly nineteen of the objects come from Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt, surprisingly these objects did not come from a singular iron meteorite drop but from three different meteorites. This suggests that the meteorites were being actively looked for by the populous to be made into grave goods. Within the list are objects which are more utilitarian such as chisels found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, these were still highly prized grave goods and do not demonstrate a regular usage of the material.

ObjectDateLocation of findother observations
Fragment1600BCECrete20lb piece unworked found in Minoan Palace
Axe1400BCEUgarit SyriaDecorated with gold – ceremonial
Axes x 21400BCEChinaShang Dynasty
Dagger1350BCEEgyptTutankhamen Tomb
Headrest1350BECEgyptTutankhamen Tomb
Bracelet1350BCEEgyptTutankhamen Tomb – Eye of Horus.
Chisels x 161350BCEEgyptTutankhamen Tomb – found in box together

Two early Chinese bronze weapons with meteoritic iron blades
R. J. Gettens, R. Clarke, W. Chase (1971)

Stony meteorite falls are far more prevalent than iron ones, their similarities to terrestrial rocks and the fact that many break up into smaller pieces would make the utilisation of large iron meteorites a more regular occurrence. That does not mean that stony meteorites have not been collected by humans in the past. One example was found during an archaeological dig in 1989 in the UK. Discovered in a pit at Danebury Hill Fort and identified as a piece of H5 ordinary chondrite the meteorite was dated to 2350 ± 120 year BP.  Unusually it was found in an unworn, fresh condition and has a weathering index of W1/2. The conclusion is that it had either fallen directly into the manmade pit just before it was filled, otherwise the object was found and placed in the pit deliberately. During this period Danebury fort was heavily occupied and a deliberate placing suggests that the meteorite drop may have been witnessed and the object had been revered by the owner before offering it as a gift by placing it in the pit.

Danebury Meteorite Credit: The Open University

It is worth considering if communities understood the relationship between the object and its otherworldly origin. Evidence from the names given to the material gives a suggestion they did. The Hittite, (from Anatolian, modern-day Turkey) is called iron AN-BAR GE, nepisai or black iron of the heavens, while the Egyptian term bia’ n pet means iron of heavens and both suggest an understanding of the relationship. The Egyptian term came from around the time of the 18th Dynasty or 1300BC. It was a new description at that time and linguists believe it relates to an observed fall. An impact crater at Gebel Kamil in Egypt due to an iron meteorite which fell in the last 5000 years could be the site of this observation, but without written witness accounts it is hard to pinpoint the actual event.

Many stories of impacts have been lost to prehistory; therefore it is worth exploring a modern example of an observed fall and the resulting human perceptions of the meteorite. In Duruma, East  Africa a community collected a one-pound meteorite which fell on March 6th, 1853. Local German missionaries tried to buy this from the Wanikas tribe but they refused to sell it and started to worship it as a god. They built a temple to enclose it, annotated it with oil and pearls and even clothed it. For three years they worshipped this newfound deity, until the Masai attacked the Wanikas village, burning it to the ground and killing many, where they decided it was a poor protector and gladly gave it away. The object is now in the Academy of Sciences of Munich, Germany and shows how fickle humans can be especially when superstition rules. A second example is that of the Hopewell meteorite from Hopewell Mound, Ross County, Ohio. It was found, upon an altar, made into a headdress and beads, and was displayed with a skeleton, which was worshipped by the tribe. Due to this worshipping, there is a real possibility that the people understood its cosmic origin as they had also collected iron meteorites from Brenham Kansas and these specimens were made into more mundane objects such as axes, chisels and drills.

This is not the only instance of stories of meteorites being used as mundane objects in Kansas. Meteorite objects were utilised by the first settlers of the Kiowa area for their base properties and were put to use in the most ordinary ways; such as weights to hold down rain barrel covers and stable roofs, anvils and nutcrackers. This everyday use showed a complete lack of understanding of the origin and rarity of the material. Furthermore, the objects were often considered a nuisance which would break the settler’s valuable ploughing machines.

Overwhelmingly meteorite finds have been prized and that is demonstrated by the type of objects they were fashioned into, or by the location in which they were discovered. Although rare there is no doubt that a number of early meteorites worked objects are still lying in collections around the world waiting to be identified. Less invasive techniques are revolutionising how these objects can be identified, although in some ways is a race against time as unfortunately many of them are in a fragile state and rusting away. To understand humanity’s relationship to meteoric iron objects and early metallurgy it is critical that these objects are identified and classified in the correct manner. It would be ideal to have a special meteorite category at museums for manmade meteorite artefacts, after all, we could have been living through an Age of the Meteorite.

King Tut’s Dagger Credit: online library Wiley.com

(This article first appeared in the Astronomy Yearbook)

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