The Coolest Thing About King Tut’s Space Dagger

It’s not the actual dagger.

A mask of King Tutankhamun (Reuters)

Look. It’s not like King Tut traveled to outer space and fashioned himself a dagger out of a meteorite he picked up on the moon.

What happened was this: More than 3,000 years ago, somebody found an unusual rock and made the pharaoh a sweet dagger out of it. It had a gold handle and an ornate sheath decorated with a floral lily motif on one side, and some feathers and a jackal on the other. In 1925, when Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened, archaeologists found the dagger along with a smaller crystal-handled dagger, intricate bracelets and amulets, and several rings and precious jewels.

Fast forward to 2016, when scientists used X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, a special kind of elemental analysis to figure out the composition of the blade, and found high percentages of nickel. The finding, published in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, was a clear indication that the blade was made from meteoric iron. In other words, the blade was made from metal that fell from the sky. (Of course, there is no evidence the Egyptians actually knew they were working with materials from space.)

The origin of the dagger’s metal is awe-inspiring, but not because “King Tut Had a Dagger That Fell From Space,” as one headline trumpeted. The dagger didn’t fall from space. A rock did. And ancient Egyptians thought it was special, for one reason or another. Working with meteoric iron is apparently challenging, but there were clearly people in ancient Egypt who knew how to do it, which is pretty cool, too—especially since there are so few surviving iron objects from that era. The oldest discovered ancient Egyptian iron artifacts were also made from meteoric iron: nine small beads, excavated from a tomb in Gerzeh, which were hammered into thin sheets, according to the authors of the paper about the dagger. “Our finding confirms that excavations of important burials, including that of King Tutankhamun, have uncovered pre-Iron Age artifacts of meteoritic origin,” they wrote.

The iron dagger of King Tutankhamun, which measures 34.2 centimeters (Politecnico di Milano)

The “space dagger” is most compelling not just in itself. Yes, it’s a lovely and ancient work of art made from otherworldly material. And yes, it’s an artifact that remarkably suggests the existence of more iron objects that predate the Iron Age. But whatever the dagger’s origins, it’s also a reminder of the connection ancient Egyptians felt to the stars. Scholars have been long preoccupied with this relationship. Egyptian mythology is “intensely astronomical,” the pioneering astro-archaeologist Norman Lockyer wrote in 1894, and “crystallized early ideas suggested by actual observations of the sun, moon, and stars.”

For decades, scholars have debated the possibility that the alignment of the Great Pyramid at Giza, and the positioning of its pivotal entrance, was proof of a sophisticated understanding of astronomy some 3,300 years ago. (Many believe the pyramid was designed so that its entrance squared with Thuban, the North Star at the time. But other astronomers say the orientation was likely picked for structural reasons instead.) …

There’s plenty more evidence of the ancient Egyptians’s skyward obsession, though. Obelisks were constructed in homage to the sun god, meant to represent petrified sunbeams. “In the ‘Pyramid Texts’, the precursors to the Egyptian Book of the Dead or, as it is sometimes translated, the ‘book of emerging into the light’, the circumpolar stars are eternal gods,” my colleague Ross Andersen wrote in a 2013 essay for Aeon magazine.

Early Egyptians worshipped the dawn, but, as Lockyer pointed out more than a century ago, the Egyptian pantheon wasn’t just solar in origin, and “had its origin in stellar relations,” too. In ancient hieroglyphics, an image of three stars was used to represent “gods.”

Tutankhamun didn’t end up making his ascent to the heavens—not in his Earthly form, carrying all his glittering belongings, anyway. The daggers buried with him were found secured to a girdle around his mummified remains, some 30 centuries after he died. Today, a 3,300-year-old weapon made from meteoric iron is profound because it is a cogent link to a distant past, and a reminder of an ancient people’s astronomical aspirations—aspirations that remain deeply familiar today. For millennia, perhaps for the entirety of our species’s existence, humans have looked up, grasping for meaning.