Swords from the stars: Weapons forged from meteoric iron

Margie Jones

Many people do not know this, but most iron objects in museums that are dated before 1200 B.C. are of “extraterrestrial” origin. No, this is not “conspiracy” reasoning, but it is what researchers have discovered for several years by analyzing these objects in laboratories. How can this be explained?

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Ataxite sword

Myth is littered with legendary swords. Durandal. Kusanagi. Legbiter. Excalibur. Joyeuse. Different factors make these weapons extraordinary, but if we had to choose, we’d definitely go for a sword made of meteoric iron.

It’s not as unusual an idea as it sounds. Throughout history, blades have been forged from chunks of metal fallen from the skies — often smelted together with terrestrial metals, then acid-etched, creating a patterned surface reminiscent of Damascus steel. This pattern is due to the nickel content in meteoric iron, which gives it a more silvery colour and sheen than terrestrial iron; folded together, they create an effect known as pattern welding.

In fact, the oldest surviving human-made iron artefacts — 5,000-year-old beads from Gerzeh, Egypt — were made from hammered meteoric iron.

Today, modern blacksmiths are still following the tradition: a blacksmith from historical re-enactment group ASBL Lucilinburhuc created a sword incorporating a chunk of ataxite — a type of meteorite with an unusually high proportion of nickel, at least 18 percent.

The sword was a commission from a client, who gave the meteorite to the blacksmith to make the sword. The process is a long and involved one — the sword took around three months to make. You can watch 20-minute short film about the sword’s creation on the ASBL Lucilinburhuc YouTube page.

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Emperor Jahangir’s meteorite blade

Emperor Jahangir, fourth of the Mughal Empire, across what is now the Indian subcontinent, ruled from 1605 until his death in 1627. He considered his leadership a gift and trust from God, and tribute in the form of precious things as signs that he was doing his job well.

When a meteorite fell to Earth in April 1621 in Punjab, the local tax collector ordered the scorched Earth excavated. “The deeper they dug, the hotter it was,” a diary from the day reads. “Finally they reached a spot where a piece of hot iron appeared. It was so hot; it was as if it had been taken out of a furnace. After a while it cooled off, the tax collector took it home, sealed it in a purse, and sent it to court.”

This, too, Emperor Jahangir took as a gift from God; and he ordered his smiths to forge it into two swords and a dagger. They mixed the molten meteorite with iron and produced the swords and the pictured dagger, which Jahangir said “cut beautifully, as well as the very best swords”.

msword02.jpg3 of 6Notes & Records of the Royal Society/The State Hermitage Museum/Konstantin Sinyavsky

James Sowerby’s meteorite sword for the Tsar of Russia

Artist and natural historian James Sowerby had a very important impact on the early study of meteorites, and he housed a collection of them in his own personal museum, open to the public, at the back of his house in Lambeth.

Following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, a state visit of the Allied Sovereigns to England celebrated the subsequent peace. It was on this occasion in June 1914 that Sowerby planned to present the Emperor of Russia, Alexander I, with a sword forged from the Cape of Good Hope meteorite.

An inscription on the curved blade reads:

“This iron, having fallen from the Heavens, was, upon his visit to England, presented to His Majesty Alexander, Emperor of all the Russias, who had successfully joined in battle to spread the Blessing of Peace throughout Europe, By James Sowerby F.L.S. G.S. Honorary Member of the Physical Society of Göttingen &c, June 1814.”

However, in between the time it took for the sword to be forged, and obtaining permission to deliver the gift, Sowerby ran out of time — and the sword was dispatched to Russia in the hands of Alexander’s state secretary. Yet the emperor was not to receive the sword until 1819. It’s a fascinating story — you can read it in full here.

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Indonesian meteorite kris

Kris daggers are known for their distinctively snakelike, sinuous curves — but some blades made in Indonesia are special for a different reason. In around 1750, a meteorite fell near the temples of Prambanan, breaking into pieces on impact. One of these pieces was brought to the palace in Surakarta, Java, where it remains to this day, regarded as sacred.

Others, however, were used by master swordsmiths in the forging of weapons. They believed that the blades that integrated meteoric iron would have magical or talismanic properties because of the celestial origin of the metal. Mixed with terrestrial iron and acid-etched, the blades presented a damascene pattern known as pamor. The pamor kris was a high-status object, fit for princes and kings.

Interestingly, there is very little evidence that the kris was used as a weapon; instead, its role seemed to be predominantly ceremonial.

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Sokka’s meteorite sword

“Man at Arms'” master swordsmith Tony Swatton creates many beautiful swords from various TV shows, video games and other pop culture media. In this video, he forges a sword from “Avatar: The Last Airbender”– Water Tribe warrior Sokka’s blade. In the story, Sokka has no bending powers — but evolved into a great warrior using a sword forged from a meteorite. Using an iron-nickel meteorite from Campo del Cielo, Argentina — a chunk worth about $1,652 — mixed with steel, he created a stunning blade — not black, like Sokka’s, but gorgeously etched with iron chloride.

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Terry Pratchett’s meteorite sword

When the late Terry Pratchett was knighted in 2010, he decided that — as a knight — he needed a proper sword. But he also believed it would not be truly his own unless he himself provided the metal; so, finding a field with iron deposits near his home in Wiltshire, the UK, he set about excavating ore — around 81 kilograms — then smelted it on the grounds at his house, using a makeshift kiln made from clay and hay.

For good measure, he added “several pieces of meteorites — thunderbolt iron, you see — highly magical, you’ve got to chuck that stuff in whether you believe in it or not.”

He took the iron bars to a local blacksmith, who forged the sword for him, finishing it with silverwork.

“Most of my life I’ve been producing stuff which is intangible and so it’s amazing the achievement you feel when you have made something which is really real,” he said.

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