King Tutankhamun's Dagger


Everybody likes a good story - one that has mystery, and a surprise ending.

Systems engineers and systems engineering (SE) practices can play a significant role in some of these stories by gathering information in one area and applying it to another.  More generally stated, SE can establish communication between sciences or disciplines and create new knowledge from the collaborative effort.  The science of forensics and its success stories may best illustrate the power of this SE approach when solutions are found to problems that are ill structured, lacking in information, or obscured by prior erroneous conclusions.

Everyone has read, or seen descriptions of the artifacts found in King Tutankhamun's tomb discovered in 1922 in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.  The SE interest, here, focuses on one artifact, a dagger that was described by various observers as having a blade made from iron.  It was one of two daggers found on the king's mummy with the other being described as having a blade made from gold.  Scholars have pointed out that the iron dagger is not the only iron-like material found in Egyptian burials.  At least one of the pyramids contains alleged iron plates and cleats installed as architectural features. The location and configuration of these artifacts suggests a striking similarity to modern construction methods. What conclusions could the Archaeologist draw from the presence of "iron" in a 1300 BC tomb?   What conclusions could a metallurgist draw?  


While there may have been other speculation in the 1920's, it appears that the Archeologists were content to explain the presence of iron in the tomb as a product of the Hittite civilization.  Based on excavations and writings, the Hittites were forging primitive iron objects during this time frame.   Perhaps this explanation delayed the moment when metallurgists made a scientific analysis of the metal content of the blade.  We don't know precisely when the analysis was made, but a possible impetus for seeking this analysis was the growing availability of the literature of astronomy that deals with meteors and their remnants.  

History is replete with eyewitness accounts of meteors falling from the sky and impacting the earth.  Further, there is a continuous record of metal being recovered from the meteoric remnants and frequently being described or labeled as meteoric iron.  

Modern and advanced metallurgical analysis of the metal found in some meteor sites, has established that the metal recovered is not iron but a complex alloy containing varying amounts of iron, nickel, chromium, and cobalt.  Furthermore, the nickel content is very high (5-25%) making this alloy totally distinguishable from those currently made by modern man.

A little technical discovery like this can unleash a great deal of reinvestigation and pose questions about the little descriptive signs attached to "iron" artifacts in the world’s museums.  The results can be found among many sites on the Internet.  Specimens of meteoritic iron artifacts are now more widely identified and have origins that include ancient burial mounds of both the old and new worlds.

And so it is that King Tutankhamun's iron dagger is now labeled as made of meteoric iron.

One last thought before concluding.  Was this meteoric metal alloy, which is not of terrestrial origin, a superior material for a knife blade as compared to Hittite iron?  How might it compare with modern nickel-iron or nickel-steel alloys?

References and further reading:

Musings, BlogGeorge Anderson