Skip to main content

Ancient Egyptian Glass

Tut's gem hints at space impact
Tutankhamun's Pectoral with desert glass scarab, Egyptian Museum (TV6/BBC)
Thing of beauty: Tutankhamun's Pectoral with desert glass scarab

In 1996 in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Italian mineralogist Vincenzo de Michele spotted an unusual yellow-green gem in the middle of one of Tutankhamun's necklaces.

The jewel was tested and found to be glass, but intriguingly it is older than the earliest Egyptian civilisation.

Working with Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat, they traced its origins to unexplained chunks of glass found scattered in the sand in a remote region of the Sahara Desert.

But the glass is itself a scientific enigma. How did it get to be there and who or what made it?

Thursday's BBC Horizon programme reports an extraordinary new theory linking Tutankhamun's gem with a meteor.

Sky of fire

An Austrian astrochemist Christian Koeberl had established that the glass had been formed at a temperature so hot that there could be only one known cause: a meteorite impacting with Earth. And yet there were no signs of an impact crater, even in satellite images.

American geophysicist John Wasson is another scientist interested in the origins of the glass. He suggested a solution that came directly from the forests of Siberia.

"When the thought came to me that it required a hot sky, I thought immediately of the Tunguska event," he tells Horizon.

In 1908, a massive explosion flattened 80 million trees in Tunguska, Siberia.

Although there was no sign of a meteorite impact, scientists now think an extraterrestrial object of some kind must have exploded above Tunguska. Wasson wondered if a similar aerial burst could have produced enough heat to turn the ground to glass in the Egyptian desert.

Jupiter clue

The first atomic bomb detonation, at the Trinity site in New Mexico in 1945, created a thin layer of glass on the sand. But the area of glass in the Egyptian desert is vastly bigger.

Whatever happened in Egypt must have been much more powerful than an atomic bomb.

Dr Mark Boslough, Great Sand Sea (BBC)
Boslough's specialism is modelling large impacts

A natural airburst of that magnitude was unheard of until, in 1994, scientists watched as comet Shoemaker-Levy collided with Jupiter. It exploded in the Jovian atmosphere, and the Hubble telescope recorded the largest incandescent fireball ever witnessed rising over Jupiter's horizon.

Mark Boslough, who specialises in modelling large impacts on supercomputers, created a simulation of a similar impact on Earth.

The simulation revealed that an impactor could indeed generate a blistering atmospheric fireball, creating surface temperatures of 1,800C, and leaving behind a field of glass.

"What I want to emphasise is that it is hugely bigger in energy than the atomic tests," says Boslough. "Ten thousand times more powerful."

Defence lessons

The more fragile the incoming object, the more likely these airborne explosions are to happen.

In Southeast Asia, John Wasson has unearthed the remains of an event 800,000 years ago that was even more powerful and damaging than the one in the Egyptian desert; one which produced multiple fireballs and left glass over three hundred thousand square miles, with no sign of a crater.

"Within this region, certainly all of the humans would have been killed. There would be no hope for anything to survive," he says.

Dr Aly Barakat with desert glass in hand (TV6/BBC)
Barakat holds up one of the many, huge chunks of glass in the desert
According to Boslough and Wasson, events similar to Tunguska could happen as frequently as every 100 years, and the effect of even a small airburst would be comparable to many Hiroshima bombs.

Attempting to blow up an incoming asteroid, Hollywood style, could well make things worse by increasing the number of devastating airbursts.

"There are hundreds of times more of these smaller asteroids than there are the big ones the astronomers track," says Mark Boslough. "There will be another impact on the earth. It's just a matter of when."

Horizon: Tutunkhamen's Fireball, made by production company TV6 is on BBC Two at 2100 BST on Thursday, 20 July

Popular posts from this blog

Bi History Moments: Anything That Moves, Spring 1994 (bisexual manifesto and cover)

Anything That Moves was a literary, journalistic, and topical magazine published in the United States from 1990 to 2002.[1] It was created as an expansion of the San FranciscoBay Area Bisexual Network (BABN) newsletter by BABN member, Karla Rossi, in collaboration with bisexual and bi-friendly editors, writers, and artists to become a full 64-page magazine with an international subscriber base. The complete title of the magazine, Anything That Moves: Beyond the Myths of Bisexuality, was purposely chosen for its controversial nature, while its tag line indicated a clear intent to challenge stereotypes of bisexual identities and behaviors. The magazine took its name from the stereotype depicting bisexuals as willing to have sex with "anything that moves".[2] The magazine's mission was to confront and redefine concepts of sexuality and gender, to defy stereotypes and broad definitions of bisexuals and to combat biphobia. - Wikipedia

Anything That Moves and other bisexual med…

No Apologies for Queer White Tears - 2016 BlaQOUT Keynote

No Apologies for Queer White Tears By Faith Cheltenham Delivered as a keynote address to the 2016 BlaQOUT Conference at UC Riverside on April 9th, 2016.
Black girl drinking White People Tears Gif White tears is a term that has a startling effect on white folks. Developed over time to describe the phenomenon of white people being upset at the very act of discussing race, it’s evolved into a funny yet, extremely effective way to describe white people’s discomfort in discussing the very racism they perpetuate.
One of the earliest articles available online about white tears written by a person of color is the 2007 College Student Affairs Journal article “When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress Women of Color” by Mamta Motwani Accapadi. In the article, Accapadi describes a case study of a white woman bursting into tears when being pressed by a woman of color about diversity resources at the college that employs them both. Instead of working on the issues affecting students, the c…

Kim Wall: Woman Journalist and Hero, A Reading List