Meteorites in ancient times



by david bryant

The first part of this article considered man's earliest encounters with meteorites and how rocks 'from the heavens' were generally treated reverentially by their finders. However, meteorites and impact glasses were in the past, also used for making tools, weapon and jewellery...

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The Ancient Middle East It has long been established that meteoric iron was used extensively by the Egyptians and their neighbours the Beja (or Kushites) in the making of ceremonial and religious objects such as flails, maces and crooks.

The Old, Middle and New Kingdom Egyptians, who constructed the pyramids and most well-known monolithic structures, were effectively a Bronze Age culture: iron smelting did not take place in Egypt until around 800 BC. The successes in war of the Hittites from the north was largely as a result of their secret knowledge of the processes of iron smelting. Any reference to iron before that time therefore refers to metal obtained from iron meteorites.

In fact, the Egyptian word for iron 'bja' is best translated as 'the seed of the gods from heaven': this explains the origin of the pictogram for iron and also reveals that the extraterrestrial origins of meteoric iron were wellunderstood.

It is interesting to reflect that the Bedouins (who, with the Berbers, are among the most productive collectors of North African meteorites and impactites) probably derive their name from 'bja'!

Of interest is the fact that eighteen objects found in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen were made from meteoric iron: a model head rest, a knife blade and sixteen small ritual chisels.

Meteoric iron has been used to make both ritual and utilitarian objects by many ancient cultures: in North America both the tribal native Americans of the US & Canada and the Eskimo peoples of Arctic America and Greenland tipped spears and harpoons with slivers of meteoric iron.

During his polar expeditions in the 1890s, Admiral Robert Peary was shown three large meteorites used for this purpose: he also discovered that iron from the Cape York meteorite in Greenland was traded widely by the Eskimo.

Given that around 300 tonnes of meteorites fall across the surface of the Earth every day, it is not surprising that the 8% or so of these that are composed of nickel iron have been used by peoples of every inhabited continent. The tradition of making ritual halal knives from meteoric iron apparently began early in the history of Islam, and continues today. This may possibly be linked to the meteoric origin of the sacred Black Stone within the Ka'aba, or (more prosaically) to the requirement for a fine, razor-sharp blade without nicks or serrations.

A last intriguing example of the used of meteoric iron: it is widely known that Deputy Fuhrer of the Third Reich, Heinrich Himmler, had a fascination bordering on obsession for ancient sacred or ritual objects.

He mandated expeditions throughout occupied Europe, Asia and Africa that searched with varying degrees of success for relics such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Spear of Destiny and the Grail Chalice.

In 1938, an expedition to Tibet led by zoologist Ernst Schäfer discovered a 10kg statue of the Buddhist god Vaisravana.

Since the iron statue features a swastika as a central feature of its design, it was taken back to Germany and deposited in a private collection in Munich. In 2009 the statue was sold at auction and subsequently examined, when it was discovered to have been chiselled from a chunk of the Chinga ataxite that fell near the border between Mongolia and Siberia about 15,000 years ago.

In conclusion it would seem that from the very earliest times the 'heavenly' origins of meteorites gave them a special significance to people who saw them descend: the fact that nickel-irons can be cold-hammered and chiselled made them a valuable source of metal among cultures who lacked the ability to produce high enough temperatures to smelt iron ore.

Interestingly, as recently as the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, large amounts of the Nantan meteorite were sent to Beijing for smelting!

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