Archaeology

King Tut's Blade Made of Meteorite

X-ray analysis confirms that the iron of the dagger placed on the thigh of the boy king has meteoric origins.

<p>The Egyptian Museum of Cairo<span></span></p><p><br></p>

King Tut was buried with a dagger made of an iron that literally came from space, says a new study into the composition of the iron blade from the sarcophagus of the boy king.

Using non-invasive, portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, a team of Italian and Egyptian researchers confirmed that the iron of the dagger placed on the right thigh of King Tut's mummified body a has meteoric origin.

The team, which include researchers from Milan Polytechnic, Pisa University and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, detailed their results in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

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The weapon, now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, was described in 1925 by Howard Carter, who three years before had discovered the treasure-packed tomb, as "a highly ornamented gold dagger with crystal knob."

Made of non-rusted, homogeneous metal, the finely manufactured blade features a decorated gold handle. It is completed by a gold sheath garnished with a floral lily motif on one side and with a feathers pattern on the other side, terminating with a jackal's head.

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Although it is generally assumed that early iron objects were produced from meteoritic iron, such origin of the blade has long been the subject of debate, and previous analyses yielded controversial results.

Now dramatic technological improvements have allowed the researchers to determine the composition of the blade.

"Meteoric iron is clearly indicated by the presence of a high percentages of nickel," main author Daniela Comelli, at the department of Physics of Milan Polytechnic, told Discovery News.

Indeed, iron meteorites are mostly made of iron and nickel, with minor quantities of cobalt, phosphorus , sulfur and carbon.

While artifacts produced with iron ore quarrying display 4 percent of nickel at most, the iron blade of King Tut's dagger was found to contain nearly 11 percent of nickel.

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Further confirmation of the blade's meteoric origin came from cobalt traces.

"The nickel and cobalt ratio in the dagger blade is consistent with that of iron meteorites that have preserved the primitive chondritic ratio during planetary differentiation in the early solar system," Comelli said.

Comelli and colleagues also investigated the possible source of the iron blade.

"We took into consideration all meteorites found within an area of 2,000 km in radius centered in the Red Sea, and we ended up with 20 iron meteorites," Comelli said.

"Only one, named Kharga, turned out to have nickel and cobalt contents which are possibly consistent with the composition of the blade," she added.

The meteorite fragment was found in 2000 on a limestone plateau at Mersa Matruh, a seaport some 150 miles west of Alexandria.

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The study shows the ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious objects, possibly perceiving those chunks of iron falling from the sky as a divine message.

The most ancient Egyptian iron artifacts, nine small beads excavated from a cemetery along the west bank of the Nile tomb in Gerzeh and dated about 3200 BC, are also made from meteoritic iron hammered into thin sheets.

"It would be very interesting to analyze more pre-Iron Age artifacts, such as other iron objects found in King Tut's tomb. We could gain precious insights into metal working technologies in ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean," Comelli said.

She noted that the high quality of King Tut's dagger blade shows that iron smithing was successful already in the 14th century B.C.

The dagger blade is not the only celestial object found in the boy king's tomb. His pectoral, or necklace, features an amulet scarab which is not "greenish-yellow chalcedony," as Carter had noted, but Libyan desert silica glass.

The glass was produced by the impact on the sand of a meteorite or comet. Such natural glass exists only in the remote and inhospitable Great Sand Sea of Egypt -- the Western Desert. In order to produce the scarab, the ancient Egyptians would have had to trek across 500 desert miles.

SEE PHOTOS: Inside King Tut's Tomb

King Tut's Mask

"Tutankhamun: His Tomb and the Treasures" is a new exhibition now in Zurich that has meticulously reconstructed the tomb complex and its treasures. Specially trained craftspeople in Cairo built more than 1,000 exact replicas under scientific supervision. The work took over five years. Here is a replica of the famous mask of King Tut, weighing 24 lbs, which was pressed over the head of the king's bandaged mummy. The idealized portrait of the young king echoes the style of the late Amarna period. The life-like eyes are formed by bright quartz, with obsidian inlays for the pupils.

King Tut, With Wife

This scene, depicted on the backrest of King Tut's throne, shows how Tutankhamen used to lean back in a relaxed manner while his wife, Anchesenamun, stood beside him and rubbed ointment into his shoulder.

Tomb Discovery

This is how the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun appeared to archaeologist Howard Carter when he discovered it in 1922.

King Tut's Tomb in 3-D

Tutankhamun's tomb and its contents, as viewed in a 3-D model. A corridor led to an antechamber and an annex filled with objects. The antechamber opened into the coffin chamber with King Tut's sarcophagus. The coffin chamber led to another small room filled with King Tut's treasures.

Treasures Galore

Two tiny mummified female fetuses were found in the tomb with the king. But they were not the only companions placed in the tomb for King Tut's journey to the afterlife. The boy king was buried with more than 5,000 priceless objects, including this treasure chest.

Boy Throne

The famous gold throne found in the tomb was ordered when Tutankhamen became king at the age of nine.

Lion Head

The dead king in the underworld was akin to the sun at night and, in the New Kingdom, this was identified with the god of death, Osiris. The heads of lions corresponded to the time the sun god spent in the body of the god of heaven in feline form. The facial details of the lion head –- the rims of the eyes, tip of the nose and tear ducts -- are given almost life-like properties through the use of glass.

Hired Help for the Afterlife

These figures were supposed to take the place of the king in performing the daily tasks that came up in the afterlife. A total of 413 of these figures, known as ushabtis, were found in Tutankhamun's tomb. Among the collection, 365 were responsible for carrying out day-to-day duties, 36 ushabtis served as overseers for groups of 10 workers each, and 12 acted as monthly supervisors