King Tut's dagger was out of this world

The origin of the metal has been a topic of discussion since the dagger was discovered in 1925(Credit: University of Pisa)

Scientists have long debated the origins of the iron in a dagger blade belonging to King Tutankhamun that was discovered 91 years ago. New evidence, obtained through the use of highly-accurate X-ray technology, should end the discussion, revealing that the metal in the famous dagger made its way to Earth as part of an ancient meteorite.

The research project was an international effort, with scientists from multiple institutes, including the Polytechnic University of Turin, the University of Pisa and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, all working together to determine the origins of the famous blade.

Given the delicate nature of objects like this, it's usually very difficult to get permission to perform investigations of this type, even with assurances that the techniques used will be non-destructive. One previous study, conducted in 1970, did look at the composition of the blade, and suggested that it might be meteoritic in nature, but the work was never officially published, and the method used never disclosed.

For the new work, the researchers carefully studied the blade in December 2014, performing a detailed geochemical analysis via means of a non-invasive X-ray fluorescence spectrometry. The analysis was possible thanks to improvements to the technology made over the last 20 years, allowing it to supply accurate results without damaging the subject.

The study revealed that the dagger, which is currently on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, contains both nickel and cobalt, at concentrations equal to amounts observed in 11 known iron meteorites.

While the findings are certain to prompt more than a few excited shouts from ancient alien theorists, they actually support existing notions that ancient Egyptians considered meteoritic iron to be of great value. We know that other civilizations around the world – such as the Inuit people – considered the fall of meteorites to be messages from the heavens, and it's possible that King Tut's people had similar ideas.

The precious nature of the material is can also be attributed to the fact that, as far as we can tell, the inhabitants of the region at the time had not yet mastered techniques for producing large quantities of iron. On the other hand, the analysis of the dagger did provide evidence of some impressive metal-working mastery for the period.

The team believes that close study of other iron objects from the time, several of which were discovered alongside the dagger in Tutankhamun's tomb, will provide further insights into the use of iron from meteorites, as well as new information about ancient Egyptian metal-working.

Full findings of the study are published online in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

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