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Bronze Age artifacts used meteoric iron

08 December 2017

Mining and smelting terrestrial iron was more hard than creating bronze from copper and alloys like tin, and involved a reduction process that drew pure metal from unusable iron ore.

Historians have therefore always been puzzled by the presence of some iron weapons and tools dating back to the Bronze Age, which were highly valued as rarities at the time.

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The Iron Age began around 1200 BCE while The Bronze Age played out 2,000 years prior, so anyone who boasted iron weapons or jewelry had a significant military or economic advantage over their contemporaries. With smelting, Iron Age cultures could forget rare extraterrestrial metal and tap into terrestrial iron ores, which were far more abundant and easier to procure. The Bronze Age followed after the Neolithic and was succeeded by the Iron Age. In a Fe:Co:Ni array the trend exhibited by meteoritic irons departs unambiguously from modern irons and iron ores. Using this, Jambon could tell from the iron's impurities whether the metal in the relics came from meteorites or was naturally occurring on Earth.

When ancient peoples stumbled across metallic meteorites, however, the iron was already in its metallic form and could be worked with existing technology. Space artifacts, as it turns out, aren't as rare as we might think.

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Jambon gathered a series of notable findings and analyzed them with a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. The scanner picks apart the composition of an object, and Jambon can then determine what kinds of elements are present. His collection of iron artifacts includes beads from Gerzeh (Egypt, ?3200 BCE); a dagger from Alaca Höyük (Turkey, ?2500 BCE); a pendant from Umm el-Marra (Syria, ?2300 BCE); an axe from Ugarit (Syria, ?1400 BCE) and several others from the Shang dynasty civilization (China, ?1400 BCE); and the dagger, bracelet, and headrest of Tutankhamen (Egypt, ?1350 BCE). With this, Jambon was able to identify the specific elemental signature of meteoric iron and determine whether or not the objects had been built from such meteorites. Initial research had shown that some were made with iron from meteorites, which led scientists to wonder how many others were.

Key to answering that question is the fact that iron from meteorites falling to Earth contains a lot of nickel, whereas iron ore on the surface doesn't, because of the way nickel drifted towards the molten iron core of our planet during its formation. Meteoric iron is also already in a metal state, ready for use, which explains why it went into all Bronze Age iron artifacts. The major interest is that non-invasive p-XRF analyses provide reliable Fe:Co:Ni abundances, without the need to remove a sample; they can be performed in situ, in the museums where the artifacts are preserved.

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Until the Iron Age, obviously. If that's not wonderful, I don't know what is.

Bronze Age artifacts used meteoric iron