A study in 1928 found that the iron in the beads had a high nickel content — a signature of iron meteorites — and led to the suggestion that it was of celestial origin.
To settle the argument, Diane Johnson, a meteorite scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, and her colleagues used scanning electron microscopy and computed tomography to analyse one of the beads, which they borrowed from the Manchester Museum.
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“Something that falls from the sky is going to be considered as a gift from the gods.” The tube-shaped bead is one of nine found in 1911 in a cemetery at Gerzeh, around 70 kilometres south of Cairo.
The cache dates from about 3,300 , making the beads the oldest known iron artefacts from Egypt.
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The researchers were not able to cut the precious artefact open, but they found areas where the weathered surface had fallen away, providing what Johnson describes as "little windows" to the preserved metal beneath.