UCL Petrie Museum/Rob Eagle

The emergence of iron as a material signals a crucial point in the advancement of civilization, because iron was a step above other materials such as the weaker bronze, copper, and other early metals. The British Museum, which owns thousands of Iron Age objects, notes that the age "is the period of European history that dates from around 800 BC to the Roman Conquest when iron was first used instead of bronze to make tools and weapons."

It appears, however, that some early societies were familiar with iron long before this, and used the material to make jewelry and decorative objects. This particular iron, though, did not originate on this planet. Researchers recently concluded that beads in an Egyptian necklace from 3200 BC held at London's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology were crafted from meteoric iron.

"The shape of the beads was obtained by smithing and rolling, most likely involving multiple cycles of hammering, and not by the traditional stone-working techniques such as carving or drilling which were used for the other beads found in the same tomb," said Thilo Rehren, an archaeological materials and technology professor at University College London's Qatar campus, in Materials Insight.

According to Rehren, Egyptian metalworkers applied sophisticated skill to working with the extraterrestrial material, an iron-nickel alloy of considerable brittleness, roughly 2,000 years before the origin of iron smelting. This expertise would have been crucial for the development of earth-bound ironworking methods that shaped the Iron Age—a defining era that began with material from outer space.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.