The Mitanni origin of a meteoric iron (blade) of a dagger of Tutankhamen

Here we go again, Tutankhamen is back in the news for all the usual reasons and hype, and since I pretty much wrote my doctoral dissertation on hybrid technology and material from his tomb I’ve ended up being some kind of an expert, so this news story doing the rounds on Facebook Egyptology groups immediately claimed my attention for all the wrong reasons. 

The original paper that this post is based on is Matsui et al 2022, The manufacture and origin of the Tutankhamen meteoric iron dagger, Meteorics & Planetary Science.

You can find it here - 

The basic premise of this article appears to be that chemical analyses of some materials used to make the dagger with an iron blade from Tutankhamen’s tomb establishes 'without doubt' that it is a royal gift from the king of Mitanni.   

This idea is an elaboration on a trope associated with the daggers from this tomb since the 1930s and repeated ad-infinitum in literature about hybridity and royal gifting since then. It is based on the material and decoration of both daggers from this tomb and comparison to a diplomatic letter from the international correspondences discovered in Tell el Amarna in the late 1800s. 

So what are their claims?

…it has been known for years that the iron of this dagger is not of terrestrial origin. . . 

Yes, it has, the iron blade was published by Bjorkman in 1973, in ‘Meteors and Meteorites in the Ancient Near East’, but to be clear, the dagger blade was not unique to this tomb as there were at least 18 other meteoric iron objects in the assemblage, consisting of a model headrest, a wedjat eye and 16 model chisels, these are pretty standard objects for an Egyptian burial, they are just made of meteoric iron instead of copper or bronze. See also Broschat et al 2017, Himmlisch: Die Eisenobjekte aus dem Grabe des Tutanchamun (for scientific examination of the iron objects from this tomb).

…Its extraterrestrial origin has again been confirmed by a Japanese research team from the Chiba Institute of Technology. Its members used the analysis equipment they brought to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, in February 2020, to obtain new results which they have just published in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science. It is therefore confirmed that the metal of the dagger is made essentially of iron with between 10 and 12% nickel, which is not found in terrestrial iron ore in these proportions but in octahedrites, famous iron meteorites. We also find iron sulphide characteristic of these meteorites but above all the famous structure known as Widmanstätten, with patterns indicating an alternation of different iron-nickel alloys and which it is impossible to obtain on Earth, in any case in ordinary metallurgical processes. In fact, the discovery of a so-called Widmanstätten structure is considered proof that we are in the presence of a meteorite. 

Again, we knew the blade was meteoric iron, not 'extraterrestrial' per se, a problematic (and hyperbolic) use which infers to the reader that the exploiters of the mineral saw it fall as a meteor and collected the debris 'because that was significant'. This is highly unlikely, it was much more likely to be a mineral found in certain areas and used because of its appearance. The source of the iron of this dagger was established on the basis of nickel content as the Kharga Oasis region in the Egyptian Western Desert in Comelli et al 2016, The Meteoric Origin of Tutankhamen’s Iron Dagger Blade

'Mysterious' ... btw this is the wrong dagger.

…the researchers highlighted that the gold hilt of the dagger also contained traces of calcium, which is unexpected with gold. They deduced that plaster made from quicklime and not gypsum, as the Egyptians knew how to do at the time, was used to attach the ornaments to the hilt... the use of lime rendering in Egypt began during the Ptolemaic period (305-30 BC). 

In the 18th Dynasty the courts of the entire Near East were exchanging raw materials, tradesmen and adopting each other’s technologies, most of this technology transfer occurred at least a hundred years before the reign of Tutankhamen, often earlier. The Egyptians had been sophisticated goldsmiths for centuries already and this only became more elaborate with the New Kingdom and trade with Hatti and Mitanni. It is therefore almost impossible to trace workshop source based on a metallurgy technique or a raw material in the 14th c. BCE, also because the kings were gleefully melting down each other’s gifts and reworking them in their own workshops. In addition, the workers town of Deir el Medina that built the 18th Dynasty royal tombs has records of foreign artisans living, marrying and working there, these people brought their knowledge with them. The composition of the gold or iron does not indicate where this dagger was made, or by whom. 

 ... Here is an additional reason to think that the dagger is absolutely not Egyptian and that it comes from a civilization which mastered technologies which were unknown to them. We know that in Anatolia..., they knew how to forge iron daggers from octahedral meteorites already at least around 2300 BC.

This is hyperbole, Hatti was essentially not technologically more sophisticated than Egypt, or Mesopotamia in the Late Bronze Age, they were all tip top. The Hittites may have been a source for terrestrial iron (not meteoric), and developing technologies of working this iron in the Late Bronze Age (Bebermeir et al 2016, The Coming of Iron). However, most sophisticated metalworking techniques developed in these regions and then spread to the others in the late 3rd millennium and early 2nd, and if anyone can take the credit for a lot of this it might be Mesopotamia. Egypt developed sophisticated filigree and granulation in the Middle Bronze Age, and generally produced the most metals worked in cloisonné inlay than its neighbours, it was an Egyptian hallmark. This dagger’s hilt is covered in filigree, granulation and cloisonné, the sheath is decorated on one side with Egyptian feather ornament and the tip has a jackal head, an Egyptian convention for magical knife points.

Sheath tip of the iron bladed dagger.

All this takes on another dimension when we know of the existence of the Amarna letters, clay tablets written for the most part in cuneiform Akkadian and which are of a diplomatic nature. They were found as their name suggests at the site of Amarna... By translating these tablets it was found that some of them (currently there are 382) belonged to the reign of Akhenaten’s father, namely Amenhotep III. Better still, one of these tablets specifically mentions an iron dagger offered to this pharaoh by King Tushratta of the kingdom of Mitanni, precisely in Anatolia. 

Mitanni was not in Anatolia: The kingdom of Mitanni was situated in what is now modern Syria and northern Iraq, the Hittites ruled eastern central Anatolia. When Tutankhamen was buried, ca 1323, Hatti (the Hittites) had already removed Mitanni and its allies from the map of the Near East in rather aggressive battles across Syria, and was bang up against Egypt's borders (ca 1350 BCE). 
The citation of the Amarna Letters and Mitanni is at the core of these myths and is based on early 20th century assumptions about the introduction of certain technologies and innovations by the Hurrian kings. These myths were promoted by academics like Pierre Montet and Leonard Woolley, whose motives were questionable and somewhat colonial at the time, and I might add these were rejected by other scholars contemporary with them (like Helene Kantor) because of the absence of archaeological evidence from Mitanni for the artefacts described in the Amarna Letters, but the idea stuck nonetheless.

The dagger with iron blade named in Tushratta of Mitanni’s letter to Tutankhamen’s likely grandfather Amenhotep III (EA 22.III.7-8) is not proof of workshop origin, nor that the iron of that dagger was the same type of iron, particularly when the letter from Tushratta names ḫabalkinnu (an iron alloy) and not parzillu (AN.BAR / 'metal from heaven’ – the normal Akkadian term for iron).

1 dagger, the blade, of iron;

its hilt, of gold, with designs;

its haft, of ...;

an inlay of genuine lapis lazuli;

its pommel, of ḫiliba stone.

5 shekels of gold have been used on it. 

This letter is evidence for royal gift exchange involving precious materials, it is not evidence for the source of materials in the Near East, for example the lapis lazuli mentioned here was imported from northern Afghanistan, yet in the Egyptian daggers from Tut's tomb the blue 'stone' inlays are glass (lapis of the kiln), that in the Amarna period had been mastered by Egypt and is used as an inlay on most of the metallurgy from this tomb.

We therefore come to the following conclusion from Takafumi Matsui, president of the Chiba Institute of Technology and who led the Japanese team that carried out the new analyzes of the dagger: " At that time in Egypt, iron was considered an element that fell from the sky on rare occasions and was about 80 times more valuable than gold. Tutankhamun probably inherited his grandfather's iron dagger and it was placed in his tomb when he died at a young age." 

To my knowledge iron is not recorded as more valuable than gold in Egypt in the New Kingdom or earlier. Silver, lapis lazuli and gold vied for top place depending on availability, to say 80 times more valuable than gold is hyperbole. Before the Iron Age iron artefacts were meteoric in the entire region, so the metal was rare and valuable, but not unique, and objects made from iron are attested in Egypt as early as the late Old Kingdom (Rehren et al 2013, ‘5,000 Year Old Iron Beads made of Hammered Meteoric Iron’).  

Heirloom of Amenhotep III: There is no evidence to support a claim this dagger was an heirloom, in fact there is contrary evidence, as the similar gold dagger that was placed on the body of Tutankhamen with this dagger clearly names him twice, once on the pommel, and on the sheath. 

Daggers from the mummy of Tutankhamen, image Desroches-Noblecourt 1972, Tutankhamen.

Foreign origin: The daggers are both variations on an Egyptian type (Type VII dagger in Petschel 2011, Den Dolche betreffend: Typologie Der Stichwaffen in Agypten). They are decorated using metal- and glass-working techniques that are repeated on other prestigious ceremonial objects and chariots from the tomb. These also often conveniently name either Tutankhamen or his predecessor king Neferneferaten, and are highly charged symbols of kingship and instruments of a king’s rebirth in the Otherworld. 

Egyptian kings were buried with objects for their afterlife, their mummies were kitted out with amulets, staves and weapons designed to guarantee this, using materials and technologies sourced from all over the Near East, Africa and Europe. The two gold daggers were carefully placed on his mummy inside the coffins in the burial chamber. Furthermore, pharaohs were considered rulers of the universe, in life and in death, that was their job description, in fact. 

Because of this, they were not buried with foreign gifts or even casual tokens of alliance with a foreign king, In fact, we have evidence (from the Amarna Letters) that the Egyptian kings considered themselves above the rest of their peers from Near Eastern royal diplomacy, as they gleefully reprocessed gifts in their workshops and were sometimes caught out calling these tribute in their public shows of wealth. None of this supports an argument for Tutankhamen being buried with a royal gift from Tushratta that was sent to his predecessor 40 years earlier.

Image of the mummy of Tutankhamen from Wiese and Brodbeck, 2004, 296. 

 The gold dagger is visible on a belt around his waist


A lot of what I have written here as critique was part of my doctoral dissertation. In this book I go into much more detail about the history of academic arguments for foreign manufacture and theories of technological and artistic hybridity in the late 18th Dynasty. For further references I therefore recommend you go there (particularly Chapters 3 and 6),  

Andrea Sinclair 2022, Outlooks on the International Koiné Style  

online at Propylaeum, Heidelberg University here. 

To conclude, most of the archaeologically related claims from this paper are either hyperbole, incorrect or based on out of date theories, which reduces my confidence in the quality of the research that presumably lies behind it. I assume the chemical analyses employed by the authors were professional and thorough, however the conclusions drawn from this data are flawed and ignore the broader historical and archaeological context. In fact there are some astonishing historical errors in the original paper, e.g. Mitanni was not in Anatolia, and Tutankhamen did not reign from 1361 to 1352 (more correctly ca. 1332-1323 BCE).

Scientific studies of technical methodologies and raw materials from the Bronze Age Near East are very important for archaeology, but they cannot be used in isolation to dictate place of origin or workshop for an artefact, particularly in the Late Bronze Age when objects could have been made using a dizzying array of tradesmen, technologies and raw materials that we know were being exchanged between kings of Egypt, Cyprus, Mycenae, Mesopotamia and Anatolia.

Nonetheless, I expect this story to go viral in the next week, because the words 'Tutankhamen' and 'extraterrestrial' are guaranteed to bring all the clickbaiters to the yard.

Andrea Sinclair 





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