A metallurgic report proving that King Tut’s iron dagger came from a meteorite has generated excitement in many quarters. The “blade from space” was hailed by science fiction fans the world over: One tweet compared it to a light saber, while other observers (including my 12-year-old son) noted the uncanny parallel with Nickelodeon’s series “Avatar,” in which Sokka of the Water Tribe also receives a meteoric sword. Amid the buzz, however, a few ancient historians, of which I am one, must admit to a certain disappointment.
Tut’s iron-bladed dagger was found in 1925 beneath the wrappings of his mummy’s thigh, together with another weapon made of gold. It’s not clear which weapon the 14th-century BC boy-king would have considered more precious. Worked iron was very rare in his day, and the fact that stones from the sky were a major source of the metal lent it even greater mystery and prestige. “Thunderbolt iron,” “sky-iron” and similar terms are found in many ancient inscriptions. An Egyptian hieroglyphic sequence that apparently dates back to the 18th Dynasty, the one to which Tutankhamun belonged, denotes iron as “metal from the sky:”
Romantic though these phrases may be, it is smelted iron, produced from ore dug up from the ground, that inspires greater wonder in historians. The process by which such ore, known as telluric iron, gets refined into workable metal is vastly complex—far more so than that required by copper or bronze, which is why the Iron Age arrived in Greece and the Near East several millennia after the Bronze Age. Furnace temperatures well over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit are required, and even then a smelter needs to heat and hammer out the iron “bloom” numerous times to remove impurities. Meteoric iron, by contrast, arrives in a ready-to-be-worked form. It provided the ancient smith with an enormous technological shortcut.
The Hittites of central Anatolia are generally thought to have first industrialized the smelting of telluric iron, around 1500 B.C., and it was formerly often supposed that Tut’s dagger came to Egypt as the gift of a Hittite king. Indeed a letter survives from Hattusili III, who ruled the Hittites in the mid-13th century, that speaks of sending just such a blade, made from “the good iron”—of which supplies were said to be scarce—to an unnamed fellow monarch, perhaps an Egyptian pharaoh. Had Tut’s dagger proven to be telluric rather than meteoric, it would have been among the earliest examples of what was, literally in this case, a cutting-edge technology.
Indeed another iron dagger, far older and more significant than Tut’s space blade though far more obscure, has emerged from a dig in Central Turkey at a site called Alaca Höyük. Here, amid a set of other grave goods that date from the mid-3rd millennium BC, a knife-hilt has been found containing the rusted remains of an iron blade—almost certainly made from telluric rather than meteoric iron. The Hittite and Hattian peoples who occupied the site appear to have understood iron smelting about a thousand years before anyone else is known to have done so. “It is as though an aluminum saucepan had been discovered in the Dark Ages,” commented a pop-science journal at around the time of the find.
The origins of metallurgic revolutions are lost in the mists of legend. The Greeks mythologized a race they called the Chalybes, dwellers in the Caucasus region, who, they thought, had devised the art of iron smithing and thus transformed nearly all aspects of civilized life: agriculture, engineering, and above all, warfare. Some nameless artisan, trained by the god Hephaestus perhaps, created the exquisite blade of Tutankhamun from a stone that fell from the stars. But his skill was not half so great as that of his ingenious predecessors, who forged their own raw materials out of dirt dug up from the earth.