As part of my research this week I found myself looking at the process of mining and refining iron. It’s part of the fun of this writing gig that I’m always learning. I’m no geologist, so looking at the composition of the Earth’s mantle and core and its anticipated ratios of oxides of iron to possibly pure molten iron – and what might happen in the interface between those layers – is fascinating stuff. As is the apparent occurrence of stable iron alloys in celestial bodies and meteorites.
Meteoric iron tickles another fancy for me: It’s fascinating not just because of what it might say about the formation of the solar system, but how it might have been used in antiquity. The Bronze Age is in many ways the dawn of civilisation as we know it, and quite apart from the use of bronze, it also gives us our earliest writing and evidence of urban civilisation. Archaeology certainly offers even earlier glimpses of Neolithic humanity and snapshots of ice age survival, but these finds always feel like incomplete photographs to me, a snapshot of some place or person which lacks the deeper opportunity at relationship which writing presents.
We’re at least passingly familiar with Bronze Age literature, whether from stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the story of Abraham and Israel, to the Code of Hammurabi. Those stories provide a more ready lens with which to try and place ourselves – despite our modern cultural differences – in the shoes of our ancient forebears. Standing in the milieu of these cultures, I suggest it’s no big step to see how meteoric iron would have been regarded to have a literally celestial significance.
While much later historical figures wielded weapons forged from meteoric iron – we read of Attila and Timur using them – the celestial providence of these weapons must have been largely symbolic, given the availability of modern steel. In the Bronze Age by contrast, the material properties of an iron weapon must have seemed literally sent from heaven. Perhaps I’m reading more into it than it deserves, particularly with the limited treatment I can give this here today, but it seems no stretch to imagine that burying such a dagger with Tutankhamen must have been exactly as significant a treasure as it sounds: a weapon from the gods.