Everybody knows (or should do, at least) that ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamun had a dagger containing iron from a meteorite. The dagger, found in the pharaoh's tomb, was examined through portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry and found to have a composition that closely matches iron meteorites.
Further analysis of how the blade was forged, as well as possible references to the knife in letters, suggests that it may have been gifted from the king of Mitanni to Amenhotep III, the grandfather of Tutankhamun, before being passed down. But were Ancient Egyptians aware that meteorites came from out of this world?
Analysis of hieroglyphic texts, recently explained by Egyptologist Victoria Almansa-Villatoro for Sapiens, suggests that they might have. The clue is in the Ancient Egyptian word for iron.
"From the beginning of the 19th Dynasty (approximately 1295 [BCE]) a new hieroglyphic word for iron appeared: 'bi-A-n-pt', which literally translates as 'iron from the sky'," Post Doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Physical Sciences at The Open University, Diane Johnson explained in a piece for The Conversation. "Why this new word appears in this exact form at this time is unknown but it was later applied to all metallic iron. An obvious explanation for the sudden emergence of the word would be a major impact event or large shower of meteorites."
The earliest references that connect iron with the sky come from the Pyramid Texts, according to Almansa-Villatoro, texts on the walls of pyramids of kings and queens living 4,100-4,400 years ago.
"The inscriptions present the sky as an iron bowl containing water, pieces of which can fall to Earth as meteorites or rain," she explained in her piece, adding that "iron and sky are interchangeable in the texts, which is why passages describe the dead sailing the iron and the king needing to break an iron barrier to reach the sky."
More subtle signs that Ancient Egyptians were aware that meteorites came from the sky is that the same sign used for iron was used as a classifier for the words "uterus" and "water". Ancient Egyptians believed that after death, kings would be reborn in the waters of goddess Nut's womb, where this qualifier was found.
"What could at first be dismissed as random, irrelevant associations of 'unscientific' minds describing metals, women and water turns out to be a byproduct of a scientifically correct interpretation of the provenance of meteoritic iron," Almansa-Villatoro added. "In Egypt, 4,400 years ago, the word for iron could simply mean sky because the Egyptians knew iron was part of the sky."
This explanation has met some pushback, given that witnessing meteorite impacts is still relatively rare today. However, it's still possible that Ancient Egyptians did witness such an event, perhaps the Gebel Kamil meteorite impact in Southern Egypt which took place within the past 5,000 years.