Origin of Tutankhamun's mysterious dagger

Latest on manufacture and origin of Tutankhamun’s unusual meteoritic iron dagger.

Tutankhamun has generated many controversies, which continue a century after his discovery. His sepulchre is, after all, the only undisturbed Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb ever excavated scientifically. And ten decades of research on, we are still realising just how carefully excavator Howard Carter worked on the grave furniture and the astounding objects that emerged from his multi-year clearance of the burial. Among the more noteworthy finds was a gold-hilted dagger with a blade fabricated from meteoric iron. In Tutankhamun’s day, iron smelting had not been invented, so this was an exotic, highly prized material.

But where did the dagger originate? Two new studies are in play. One describes how an adhesive used on the gold hilt was most likely made from lime plaster, used widely in Anatolia (Turkey) at the time, but not in Egypt. Historical records from archives at the city of Amarna in Upper Egypt record how King Tushratta of Mitanni in Anatolia gifted an iron dagger to pharaoh Amenhotep III (reigned from c.1930 to 1352 BC), who was Tutankhamun’s grandfather. The researchers established that the iron blade was made by low-temperature heat forging at less than 950 degrees Celsius.

A second study disagreed with the Anatolian origin, arguing that is ‘currently impossible’ to source the origin of the iron in the dagger. The rock crystal in the pommel is similar to that widely used on artifacts of the day from the Aegean region. Furthermore, the pommel’s shape is typically Egyptian, either manufactured in Egypt or produced overseas for the Egyptian market. Diplomatic gift or a more prosaic present? So far the evidence is inconclusive, but it is certain that the dagger was highly valued by its owner(s), whatever its ultimate origin.

Want more archaeology? To enjoy in-depth features on archaeology, read Archaeology Worldwide magazine.

Image: Tutankhamun's famous death mask, Cairo Museum

Credit: Roland Unger

Below: the meteoritic iron dagger