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Space Beads: Ancient Egyptian Artefacts Made From An Iron Meteorite

On Saturday 27th September 2014 the Royal Observatory in Greenwich held a lecture in conjunction with the Petrie Museum, combining astronomy, Egyptology, experimental archaeology and art. Be inspired!

Written by Amelia Gregory

Space Beads by Kit Wags.

It’s been awhile since I last had the opportunity to attend a lecture, but last weekend I went to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich for a talk about Space Beads – the title alone being enough to tickle my fancy.

Tapestry by Sarah Gillett.

egyptian-meteroite-jewelry-space beads
The space beads in question are ancient Egyptian beads dug up from the graves in Gerzeh in 1911, the same year that a large and notable meteorite fell to the earth in the same area of Egypt. The Gerzeh beads have long fascinated archaeologists and scientists as the are made of iron, yet date from the Pre-Dynastic period some 5,000 years ago, long before the earliest example of iron work in Egypt. It has recently been confirmed that these curious beads were made from thin sheets or iron taken from just such a meteorite.

Leonid Meteor Shower over Niagara Falls, 1833
Leonid Meteor Shower over Niagara Falls, 1833.

Meteorite shower engraving, 1848
Meteorite shower engraving, 1848.

The afternoon opened with a wonderful talk about meteorites given by Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory. I was chuffed to discover that I was the only one in the room who has visited the giagantic Meteor Crater in Arizona, on a road trip with my parents in the 80s when I lived in the USA. Our visit was notable for our idiocy – we decided to walk the enormous rim in the midday sun, not a good idea in a desert. The most exciting thing I learnt from Marek was that on very rare occasions the tail of a comet will shed a glorious meteorite shower across the entire sky as it grazes the earth’s atmosphere, as happened in 1860, and have since discovered the wood cuts to prove it (great inspiration for my open brief, That Which We Do Not Understand) Apparently we can never know when this will happen again until the occasion is upon us. I am now hoping and praying to see such a wondrous sight in my lifetime! I can only imagine how other worldly it must have appeared to more ancient peoples.

Meteoriten 1838-Keller
Which brings me back to our Space Beads. Our next speaker was Alice Stevenson, who has a PhD in the study of the graveyard where the beads were found. She talked about what life was like during the Pre-dynastic era, and the possible meaning and use of the beads, which were obviously worn by someone of some repute. They were found alongside a depiction of the horned cow god Bat with stars above her head: pure speculation could lead us to believe that the beads themselves a very special representation of the heavens.

pallasite meteor
Glorieta-Pallasite Meteor
During a break we were invited to hold sections of different meteorites, some of them older than the planets themselves (gulp, how does one even process such information?) Some of these lumps of rock were exceptionally heavy – I particularly marvelled at the sample of Pallasite Meteor, which contains fragments of Olivine gems (otherwise known as Peridot).

Engraving of the Ochansk meteorite over Perm
Engraving of the Ochansk meteorite over Perm.

Diane Johnson experimental archaeology predynastic space beads
Diane Johnson’s experimental archaeology, making predynastic space beads.

Thirdly we were introduced to planetary scientist Diane Johnson of the Open University, who has combined her love of meteorites and Egypt in an intensive study of the beads. Experimental archaeology has led her to conclude that the beads were made using thin slices of iron that were banged out of the meteorite and then rolled into tubes, rather than forged in a furnace (which shatters the delicate meteorite structure). Her modern day space bead, worn on a simple cord, was beautiful and unusual.

Matthew Luck Galpin meteorite-space beads
Lastly artist Matthew Luck Galpin talked about the use of meteorites in his series of Anvilled Stars. He agreed with Diane that the process of banging them into flattened shapes was a highly therapeutic process that was as important as the final outcome, a highly tactile object reminiscent of an astrolabe, some of which are scattered without explanation around the observatory galleries.

Meteor over Shetland Isles
Meteor over Shetland Isles.

At the end of the chat we had a chance to visit the galleries to view some amazing examples of meteorite. It was great to hear an expert talk about treasures such as the Nakhla Meteorite, which is actually a piece of Mars. The space beads themselves are housed in the Petrie Museum, which I have never even heard of. This is an Egyptian museum attached to UCL, with a super interesting roster of events. I wonder when I can get away to my next lecture…


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