Friday, August 23, 2013

Beads from an Asteroid's Heart, and Badgers

It's been 91 years since Howard Carter saw "wonderful things."

Movie studios produced "The Mummy," (1923, 1959, and 1999) - and "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy." (1955)

More recently, archeologists learned that someone made beads from meteoric iron: more than five thousand years ago.
  1. Knowledge from Jewelry
  2. Barrow-Burrowing Badgers

Archeologists, Treasure Hunters, Tomb Robbers

It's sometimes hard to tell archeologists from treasure hunters, and tomb robbers: in the movies, anyway. Dramas like "Raiders of the Lost Arc," "Charlie Chan in Egypt," or "The Mummy's Curse" can be entertaining: and that's another topic.

Up to the 19th century, excavating a tomb was an occupation for folks with wealth and social position who enjoyed finding buried treasure: or folks who simply wanted wealth. I'm oversimplifying the situation, of course.

Homeric Epics and a German Grocer

Folks like Heinrich Schliemann, a grocer, changed that. Schliemann was convinced that Troy was real, not just the fictional setting of Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." The last I heard, archeologists have found nine major layers of Troy.

Trade routes, technology, and global economics change. These days, the major city in that region is west of Kadıköy. Byzantium took off as a major trade center, has been called Constatinople and Istanbul: and that's yet another topic.
  • Troy
    UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Where was I? Archeology, tomb robbers, and Troy. Right.

Scholars and Garbage Dumps

Before Schliemann uncovered physical evidence of a long-lost city on the Dardanelles, folks in Europe assumed that Homer's Troy was no more real than places in George Lucas' Star Wars movies.

Although his methods were crude by 21st century standards, Schliemann helped convince folks that systematic study of an earlier era's debris made sense. We call it archeology today. Ironically, he may or may not have obliterated evidence of Homer's Troy while digging into the mound.

Today's archaeologists have tools like ground penetrating radar that allow study of a site without digging, but getting a good look at artifacts still involves - actually looking at them.

Eye-catching objects from ancient tombs tend to get more news coverage than what archeologists find in garbage dumps. That's understandable, since most folks like seeing shiny things.

For an archeologist, though, broken crockery and kitchen leavings can be treasures. Stuff we throw away tells what we ate, who we traded with, and other details of everyday life.

Beads? Big Deal

Diamonds may be "a girl's best friend," but archeologists are more likely to get excited over finding a simple bead.

That's because folks around the world and throughout history have made and worn beads. Materials and tools folks use when making beads change with place and time.

Finding a particular sort of bead alongside some broken pots could be evidence that whoever used the pots either made that bead - or traded something in exchange for it.

More than you may want to know about some old beads:

1. Knowledge from Jewelry

(From UCL Petrie Museum/Rob Eagle, via LiveScience, used w/o permission.)
"Meteoric iron beads (center) are pictured between ancient Egyptian necklaces that are strung with tube-shaped lapis lazuli (blue), carnelian (brownish/red), agate, and gold beads."
"Far Out: Ancient Egyptian Jewelry Came from Outer Space"
Denise Chow, LiveScience (August 19, 2013)

"Ancient Egyptian beads found in a 5,000-year-old tomb were made from iron meteorites that fell to Earth from space, according to a new study. The beads, which are the oldest known iron artifacts in the world, were crafted roughly 2,000 years before Egypt's Iron Age.

"In 1911, nine tube-shaped beads were excavated from an ancient cemetery near the village of el-Gerzeh, which is located south of Cairo, said study lead author Thilo Rehren, a professor at UCL Qatar, a Western Asian outpost of the University College London's Institute of Archaeology. The tomb dates back to approximately 3200 B.C., the researchers said.

"Inside the tomb, which belonged to a teenage boy, the iron beads were strung together into a necklace alongside other exotic materials, including gold and gemstones. Early tests of the beads' composition revealed curiously high concentrations of nickel, a telltale signature of iron meteorites...."
I'll get back to meteoric iron, jewelry, and badgers, in a bit.

The LiveScience article focuses on what researchers are learning from ancient jewelry. That's important, but I think remembering that someone was buried with those objects is important, too.


We're supposed to show respect for folks who are living, and treat bodies of the dead with respect.

Autopsies are okay if required for judicial reasons, or for scientific research: and donating organs after death is considered an act of charity. I'd even be allowed to have my remains cremated, as long as it wasn't intended as a denial of the Resurrection. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2299-2301)

I don't know how the family and friends of Egyptian teenager would feel, or what they would think, about archeologists disturbing his tomb five millennia later.

Maybe someone will dig up my grave in the year 7226, pull out whatever implants survived, and study my remains. I probably wouldn't mind the idea of my grave being disturbed nearly as much as not being able to ask about the technology they were using. But that's me.

I'll admit that I'm a little more uneasy about the idea of my daughter Elizabeth's grave getting that treatment, or my parents' cremated remains. But it's the sort of uneasiness I sometimes experience when thinking about an upcoming medical exam.

I hope that folks will treat my remains, and those of my family, with some measure of respect. But I also realize that researchers get valuable knowledge from the objects - and bodies - we leave behind. Sometimes the knowledge is important for 'practical' reasons:

Neutrons, Gamma Rays, Exclamation Mark

"...'Even 100 years ago, [the beads] attracted attention as being something strange,' Rehren told LiveScience.

"But without definitive proof of the beads' cosmic origins, questions persisted over whether similar amounts of nickel could be present in human-made iron. By scanning the iron beads with beams of neutrons and gamma rays, the researchers found high concentrations of cobalt, phosphorous and germanium; these elements were present at levels that only occur in iron meteorites.

" 'It's really exciting, because we were able to detect sufficient cobalt and germanium in these beads to confirm they're meteoritic,' Rehren said. 'We had assumed this was the case for 100 years, but it's nice to be able to put an exclamation mark on the label, rather than a question mark.'..."
(Denise Chow, LiveScience)
I share professor Rehren's excitement. There's a huge difference between thinking something might be; and knowing something is.

Meteoric Iron, Blacksmithing, and What's 'Hot'

"...The X-ray technology also revealed that the beads had been hammered into thin sheets before being meticulously rolled into tubes.

" 'This meteoritic iron, it's very hard material that you find in lumps, and yet here we see it in thin beads,' Rehren said. 'The real question is, how were they made?'

"Unlike softer and more pliable metals like gold and copper, working with solid iron required the invention of blacksmithing, which involves repeatedly heating metals to red-hot temperatures and hammering them into shape.

" 'It's a much more elaborate operation and one that we assumed was only invented and developed in the Iron Age, which started maybe 3,000 years ago - not 5,000 years ago,' Rehren said.

"The researchers suggest the iron meteorites were heated and hammered into thin sheets, and then woven around wooden sticks to create 0.8-inch-long (2 centimeters), tube-shaped beads. Other stones found in the same tomb displayed more traditional stone-working techniques, such as carving and drilling...."
(Denise Chow, LiveScience)
I'm not sure why professor Rehren said what he did about blacksmithing, Egypt, and those beads. Other researchers found that the beads had been cold-worked into their current shape.

Apparently, cold working means: "the shaping of metal at temperatures much lower than the metal's molten state. Steel is often cold worked at room temperature." (Tooling U)

The Historical Metallurgical Society defines "cold working" iron as smithing iron at temperatures below 600 degrees Centigrade:
600 degrees Centigrade is 'hot,' but well under iron's melting point, 1538 degrees Centigrade: and distinctly cooler than your usual wood fire or candle flame. We've had access to that sort of heat for at least a million years, so it'd be astonishing if folks in Egypt didn't use fire five millennia back.

Same Beads, Different Researchers

(From Open University, via LiveScience, used w/o permission.)
"An analysis of this Gerzeh bead showed it was crafted from a space rock."
"Ancient Egyptians Crafted Jewelry From Meteorites"
Megan Gannon, LiveScience (May 30, 2013)

" An ancient Egyptian iron bead found inside a 5,000-year-old tomb was crafted from a meteorite, new research shows.

"The tube-shaped piece of jewelry was first discovered in 1911 at the Gerzeh cemetery, roughly 40 miles (70 kilometers) south of Cairo. Dating between 3350 B.C. and 3600 B.C., beads found at the burial site represent the first known examples of iron use in ancient Egypt, thousands of years before Egypt's Iron Age. And their cosmic origins were suspected from the start.

"Soon after the beads were discovered, researchers showed that the metal jewelry was rich in nickel, a signature of iron meteorites. But in the 1980s, academics cast doubt on the beads' celestial source, arguing that the high nickel content could have been the result of smelting...."
If the beads had been fabricated with smelting tech, then either they were a lot newer than the tomb was supposed to be: or folks in that part of the world had smelters earlier than we thought. Maybe both.

As it turns out, a really close look at the beads shows that they're from space.

Long before Earth's continents began moving into familiar patterns, metal slowly cooled in an asteroid's heart. As our world continued its state of journeying, some of this metal fell to Earth.

Only moments ago, on a cosmic scale, someone formed it into beads: which lay in a tomb while empires rose and fell. Pharaohs, prophets, emperors, philosophers, and 'ordinary' folks added to the sum of humanity's accumulating experience: and that's yet again another topic.

'Magic' is in the Eye of the Beholder

"...Scientists from the Open University and the University of Manchester recently analyzed one of the beads with an electron microscope and an X-ray CT scanner. They say the nickel-rich chemical composition of the bead's original metal confirms its meteorite origins.

"What's more, the researchers say the bead had a Widmanstätten pattern, a distinctive crystal structure found only in meteorites that cooled at an extremely slow rate inside asteroids when the solar system was forming, according to Nature. Further investigation also showed that the bead was not molded under heat, but rather hammered into shape by cold-working.

"The first record of iron smelting in ancient Egypt comes from the sixth century B.C., and iron artifacts from before that time are quite rare, Nature reported.

" 'Today, we see iron first and foremost as a practical, rather dull metal,' study researcher Joyce Tyldesley, an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, said in a statement. 'To the ancient Egyptians, however, it was a rare and beautiful material which, as it fell from the sky, surely had some magical/religious properties.'..."
I don't doubt that folks in ancient Egypt thought meteoric iron was special stuff. We still do. Stories about David Bowie's famous knife, claiming a celestial origin, have power in today's world: whether or not it was made from meteoric iron. ("Thunderbolt Iron,"

That does not mean that I think the original Bowie knife was "magic" in the supernatural sense. My point is that folks have an emotional reaction to objects whose origins are unusual or unique. In that limited sense, they're "magic."

I've posted about magic, technology, and getting a grip, before. Basically, stage magic is harmless entertainment: a skill involving applied psychology, manual dexterity, and the occasional obliging rabbit.

Unfamiliar technology may seem like "magic," but it's no more supernatural than a cooking fire. On the other hand, the simplest campfire is supernatural, since the only critters with cooking fires are those made "in the image of God," and that's even more topics.

Then there's 'real' magic: making deals with non-physical entities who are not following God's law. That sort of magic is real: and an exquisitely bad idea. It's also one of the few things the Church really does forbid. (Catechism, 2115-2117)

2. Barrow-Burrowing Badgers

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"All the burials at the mound, which was under attack from burrowing badgers, were excavated by soldiers from The Rifles"
"Soldiers uncover 27 ancient bodies on Salisbury Plain"
BBC News (August 6, 2013)

"Soldiers have unearthed 27 bodies during an archaeological dig on Salisbury Plain.

"Troops from The Rifles, injured in Afghanistan, were excavating the 6th Century burial site at Barrow Clump, as part of a programme of rehabilitation.

"The bodies, including Anglo-Saxon warriors, had been buried with a range of personal possessions.

"Rifleman Mike Kelly said: 'As a modern day warrior, unearthing the remains... fills me with overwhelming respect.'..."
The 'rehabilitation' involved injuries suffered in Afghanistan. I've discussed respect and the dead before.

Attack on Barrow Clump

"...Barrow Clump, a 40m (131ft) barrow, is sited on the Defence Training Estate on Salisbury Plain near the village of Figheldean.

"According to county archaeologist, Melanie Pomeroy-Kellinger, it is the only remaining 'upstanding Bronze Age mound' of a group of 20 mounds.

" 'All the others were ploughed flat but this one managed to survive,' she said.

" 'But there are at least 70 badger sets - and badgers have been attacking the barrow and chucking things out.

" 'So a decision was taken to completely excavate what's left of it.'..."
(BBC News)
Not everyone was buried in a barrow, those old mounds dotting Europe. It was an honor, sort of like the mausoleums and memorials we make for outstanding individuals today.

I think that digging out what was left of Barrow Clump made sense: since the alternative was to let badgers do the same thing.

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