Although the entire field of Egyptology is only about 200 years old, dating back to the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone and the unlocking of the ancient hieroglyphic script in which the civilization’s history was recorded, the study of ancient Egyptian history and artifacts is still accelerating at an astonishing pace. With the application of new methods and technologies, Egyptologists and scientists are constantly unlocking new secrets of Egypt’s ancient past.
Using a chemical analysis technique that does not require destroying or even touching any part of an object, scientists from Japan and Egypt have shed new light not only on the composition of one of King Tut’s famous burial daggers, but their analysis has also led to further evidence of the artifact’s mysterious origin and new insights into historical diplomatic relations.
Insignifcant Rule, Significant Legacy
King Tut, as he is more commonly known around the world, was not an extraordinary ruler. After all, how could he be? He reigned for only about 10 years and was a mere teenager nearly the entire time. However, his sudden early death led to a hasty and somewhat unconventional mummification and burial, which actually turned out to be the key to his historical immortality.
While the larger and more well-planned tombs of longer reigning pharaohs were easily discovered by grave robbers in antiquity, that of the prematurely deceased boy-king, Tutankhamun, was never discovered by those pillaging for treasures. As a result, when his tomb was found intact in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter, it yielded a historic, cultural, and scientific treasure trove of perfectly preserved artifacts from ancient times, left just as they had been placed in the tomb when it was sealed over 2,300 years ago.
Other Worldly Finds
Of the thousands of fascinating and dazzling artifacts and treasures that were excavated from the tomb, a mysterious dagger that was buried with the young king became an object of particular fascination. Some might even say it is “out of this world” – a description that is eerily spot-on.
While many of the pharaoh’s treasures consisted of wood inlaid with precious stones and plated in gold or silver, or objects that were solid silver and gold, the king’s dagger featured a golden handle supporting a blade made of iron. But this wasn’t just any type of iron. Chemical analysis of the blade has confirmed that it contains a rare octahedrite structural composition only found in iron that comes from meteorites.
How fitting that those who buried the young king armed him with a weapon made of material literally from another world to protect himself as he transitioned to the another “other world” that they believed he would pass into in the afterlife after his untimely death in this one.
This was not the only surprising new information that the recent analysis of the dagger revealed. The presence of a particular microscopic pattern within the metal called the Widmanstätten pattern reveals the specific range of temperatures used to heat and forge the iron during its manufacturing. Higher-temperature forging would have destroyed this distinctive pattern, leading researchers to conclude that more moderate forging techniques using a temperature range of 700-950 degrees Celsius were used.
However, these metallurgical techniques were not in practice in Egypt at the time. Instead, they were more common in the Mittani region of southeastern Anatolia and upper Mesopotamia, roughly around modern-day Turkey and Syria. This could indicate that King Tut’s dagger was purchased from abroad in the course of international trading or perhaps seized somewhere along the way as part of the spoils of war.
New Diplomatic Relations
But there is one more clue that helped researchers put this last piece of the puzzle together regarding the dagger’s mysterious origin – a cache of ancient diplomatic letters etched into clay tablets that was discovered in the southern Egyptian city of Tel El Amarna, the ancient capital of the “heretic” pharaoh Akhenaten who was also the father of King Tut.
Known as the Amarna Letters, this official diplomatic correspondence includes a list of wedding gifts sent from the ruler of the Mitanni Empire, King Tushratta, to Egypt’s ruler at the time, Amenhotep III, who was marrying one of King Tushratta’s daughters, Princess Tadukhipa. Among the presents listed in the Amarna Letters as having been sent to the royal court in Egypt by the Mitanni ruler were a gold-plated chariot, two horses, a saddle decorated with golden eagles, fine clothing, various pieces of jewelry, and an iron dagger.
Taken all together, the collective evidence now leads scholars and researchers to believe that King Tutankhamun’s famous other-worldly iron dagger was actually a wedding present for his grandfather, Amenhotep III, from King Tushratta of Mitanni, which Tut would have inherited as part of the vast royal collection upon his accession to the throne of Egypt.
Expect More to Come
With more than 5000 objects like this recovered from King Tut’s virtually intact tomb, and with more ancient tombs and caches being unearthed every year across Egypt, we should expect the pace of scholarship and the revelation of new knowledge from this scholarship to continue with astounding momentum.
As I always say, all of Egypt remains an active archaeological site, and to visit Egypt is not only to see and experience ancient history, but to become a part of uncovering that history as well.