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The Mysteries of Iron in Ancient Egypt
By Paul Greenewich

Even though iron was a rare metal in Ancient Egypt, as Graham Hancock points out in Fingerprints of the Gods (Chapter 42, 'Anachronisms and Enigmas') there are frequent references to it in the Pyramid Texts, including mention of an iron sceptre. Apart from Meteoritic iron, I wonder if any of it could ever have been in the form of hematite.

A few years ago, I purchased from an ADA-registered dealer a mace head described thus: 'A Haematite [sic] Tribal Sceptre, circa 3,100 BC from the great Pre-Dynastic Fortress of Nekhen [Hierakonpolis, now Kom el-Ahmar] where Narmer - first Pharaoh of Egypt - received and stored the sceptres of all the Tribal Chieftains he subdued, as he united "The Two Lands". This heavy iron-stone sceptre is particularly magical and must have belonged to a powerful lord.'

The mace head is spherical, measures 5.3 cms in diameter and weighs 250 gms. Dark grey and with a smooth metallic lustre, it both looks and feels like pure iron, though as the Natural History Museum in London subsequently confirmed, it is 'solid hematite of the kind that is normally mined rather than found in surface nodules'. [my italics]

Although without provenance, it almost certainly came from the huge cache of mace heads and other objects uncovered by Green and Quibell in 1897-8, the 'Main Deposit' that also yielded the now famous Narmer palette and the Scorpion mace head. Other hematite mace heads are known out of Egypt, though apparently only rarely. One from Naqada is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

By a neat stroke of synchronicity while trying to research my new purchase, I chanced upon a book called 'The Art of Jordan' (ed. Dr. Piotr Bienkowski, Curator of Egyptian and Near Eastern Antiquities at Liverpool Museum) and there, on page 89, was a photograph of spherical and piriform mace heads, including hematite examples similar to mine, which had been discovered at Abu Hamid in the Jordan valley, close to the only large deposit of iron ore in the region. They were dated 4,000-3,800 BC and are now in the Department of Antiquities at Yarmuk University.

Hematite mace heads dated to the same period have also been found at various sites in Israel, notably near Jericho, and some were on display at the Cave of the Warrior Exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in 1998.

The extent of Pre-Dynastic Egypt's cultural and trading links with the Levant is becoming ever more apparent through recent discoveries in Israel and elsewhere. But setting aside the issue of mining (which supposedly didn't begin in the Middle East for at least another 2,500 years) I still struggle to comprehend how a Chalcolithic culture some 6,000 years ago was able to fashion such a perfect sphere of hematite from a rough nodule. Even hafting it with such precision, using perhaps a dowel and sand (whose quartz is only slightly harder on the Moh's scale) must have been an extraordinarily laborious process - if, indeed, that was the method used, which I question. And the tapering socket is slightly off-centre, so the mace head could not have been shaped on any kind of lathe.

That my hematite tribal sceptre should end up in Hierakonpolis seems highly appropriate. Iron being a divine metal to the Ancient Egyptians, what more powerful and authoritative representation of the Eye of Horus in a city whose cult divinity became the patron god of kingship and the living king? And where better in Egypt to continue the search for traces of a pre-existing civilization of high technological attainment?

26 August 2005

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