The arrow shows King Tutankhamun's dagger as it was discovered placed on his right thigh. Credit: Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

Unwritten Mystery: Why Doesn’t Tutankhamun’s Dagger Rust?

Perhaps the most mysterious out of the 5398 items discovered in King Tut's tomb.

In 1922, Howard Carter unearthed a burial in the Valley of the Kings, containing many unique objects of ancient Egyptian culture. As it soon became clear, it contained the mummy of the now legendary pharaoh Tutankhamun, who ruled Egypt in the XIV century BC. 

Well-preserved household items, jewelry, artifacts appeared before the eyes of archaeologists. Inside four nested arks and three sarcophagi made of precious metals lay the mummified body of the pharaoh. An elaborate golden mask covered his face and chest. Burial research continued for many months. 

As Howard Carter recalled, it was necessary to be extremely careful to gradually disassemble the rubble and install the props. For temporary storage, photographing, and also as a restoration workshop, they used a neighboring empty tomb. Fragile and disintegrating objects from the touch were strengthened with paraffin and celluloid, necklaces with decayed threads were strung on a new base. It took about 7 weeks to dismantle the front room alone.

Among other items belonging to Tutankhamun, archaeologists discovered a curious dagger made from iron. 

Two unusual circumstances about the iron blade attracted the attention of archaeologists. Firstly, in that era, the Egyptians did not yet know how to extract iron from ore. Secondly, over the past three and a half millennia, not even a trace of rust has appeared on the iron blade. How was this possible?

The answer to both riddles was only given in 2016 when this iron dagger was studied by a group of scientists from Egypt and Italy led by Daniela Comelli, a physicist from the Technical University of Milan.

Why Doesn’t Tutankhamun’s Dagger Rust?

Tutankhamun's dagger without any traces of rust 3500 years later. Credit: Chemistry World
Tutankhamun’s dagger without any traces of rust 3500 years later. Credit: Chemistry World

An X-ray fluorescence spectrometer was delivered to the Cairo Museum, where the dagger of Tutankhamun is kept. The result of this research was not published in an archaeological publication as you would expect but in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science. The fact is that the material from which the unknown ancient master made the dagger turned out to be of meteoric origin.

This iron, as it turned out, contains 11% nickel and 0.6% cobalt, with small amounts of phosphorus, sulfur, and carbon. This chemical composition is typical for iron meteorites. At the same time, the high nickel content made the alloy stainless, which allowed the dagger to survive to this day. Traces of forging are visible on its blade, that is, the blacksmiths of that distant era did not yet know how to smelt iron, but they could already forge it.

Meteorite iron itself was familiar to many ancient peoples. The very term “iron” in the ancient Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Egyptian texts is always connected with the sky.

The ancient Egyptians had a special hieroglyph, the meaning of which literally translates as “heavenly iron.” Around the XIII century BC, they began to denote all types of iron, including the usual, which has a completely terrestrial origin.

The metal that fell from the sky was revered as a gift from the gods and, due to its rarity, was very expensive – much more expensive than gold. The oldest of the iron objects found in Egyptian burials dates back to the era before the unification of the state under the rule of the pharaohs, in the period of the so-called Gerzeh culture (3500 – 3200 BC).

By the ratio of impurities in the iron from which Tutankhamun’s dagger was made, it was even possible to establish its exact origin. It turned out that this is precisely the composition of the Kharga meteorite, named after the oasis near which it fell. 

One of its fragments was found near the port of Mersa Matruh, 240 km west of Alexandria. An Egyptian must have discovered the remains of this meteorite as it split into many pieces when it was flying through the atmosphere and brought the heavenly iron to a blacksmith-jeweler. Then, the craftsman probably forged a ritual dagger that was supposed to accompany the pharaoh to the afterlife. What an honor must that have been?


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Sources:

Cascone, S. (2019, September 18). Was King Tut’s Legendary Dagger Actually Made From a Meteorite?
Comelli, D. (2016, May). The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun’s iron dagger blade [PDF].
Metcalfe, T. (2017, December 18). King Tut’s Dagger Is ‘Out of This World’.
Pruitt, S. (2016, June 03). Researchers Say King Tut’s Dagger Was Made From a Meteorite.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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