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Ancient Egyptian space jewelry? Iron in bead came from meteorite

A. Tindle / Open University

The 2-cm-long Gerzeh bead is held by The Manchester Museum.

The ancient Egyptians wore jewelry made from space rock, and meteors raining from the sky may have shaped their ideas of the gods, according to new analysis of a 5,000-year-old iron bead.

The iron in the 2-centimeter-long tube-like bauble — found at a burial site near Cairo — couldn't have come from accidental smelting. The iron has a distinct crystallization pattern, typical of the metal that cooled slowly inside asteroids, as the space rocks curdled and hardened when our solar system was young. Also, there's a tell-tale trace of nickel mixed into the metal, which was not part of any ancient Egyptian process. 

Diane Johnson from the UK's Open University and and Joyce Tyldesley from the University of Manchester studied the bead, and report that the metal was hammered into sheets and then bent into a tube. The source of the metal mattered to the ancient culture, say the experts.

"The sky was very important to the ancient Egyptians," Tyldesley, an Egyptologist, told Nature News. "Something that falls from the sky is going to be considered as a gift from the gods."

The pair reported their findings in the May 20 edition of Meteoritics and Planetary Science.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+