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Gemstone Found in King Tut’s Tomb Was Created by a Massive Meteorite Impact

Sometimes it feels like the ancient Egyptians are teasing us. As if everything we’ve uncovered about ancient Egypt is an elaborate prank meant to confound and frustrate all proceeding civilizations. So much of what we’ve discovered under the Egyptian sands has a cruel habit of hinting at something mysterious and perhaps even cosmic. Of course, if you were a pharaoh whose whole shtick was that you were a living god, that’s the exact impression you would want to give. One of the pharaohs most successful—if not the most, by name recognition alone— at cultivating the image of a cosmic deity was King Tutankhamen, AKA King Tut. The more we learn about King Tut, the more that “cosmic” part of his image seems to be literal. A recent study in the journal Geology of a ceremonial breastplate worn by the boy king found that the gemstone scarab in the center is made of an extremely rare desert glass that was created during a massive meteorite impact. If you’re trying to be a god-king, that’s some top-notch imagery to channel.

The breastplate holding the gemstone was found in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter when he discovered King Tut’s tomb. Like many of the artifacts of the ancient pharaohs it is stunning in its opulence and artistry. In the middle of the breastplate sits a greenish-gold gemstone scarab beetle symbolizing the god Ra, the sun god and creator of the universe. When first discovered, it was believed to be made out of a type of quartz. In 1998, it was discovered that the scarab gemstone was actually made of Libyan Desert Glass, one of the rarest minerals on Earth, found only in the Great Sand Sea of Libya.

King Tut's breastplate.

King Tut’s pectoral breastplate with the desert glass scarab in the center.

How the desert glass was formed was a mystery. Other types of naturally occurring glass, like Obsidian, are formed by volcanoes, but there are no extinct volcanoes anywhere near where the Libyan Desert Glass exists. Up until now, the prevailing explanation was that a comet with a high percentage of water exploded in the atmosphere—an event called an airburst—and the resulting heat created the glass. A new paper refutes that claim, finding that Libyan Desert glass contains a very rare mineral called Reidite, which is formed through the extremely high pressures.  An airburst alone does not generate enough pressure to create Reidite, only an actual, very large, meteorite impact can generate the necessary pressure.

Libyan Desert Glass. Credit: H. Raab (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Like many things, this finding creates more mysteries than it solves. If Libyan Desert Glass had to have been made by a meteorite impact, there must be an impact crater. However, there have been no impact craters found in the same area as Libyan Desert Glass. Also, it is unknown how King Tut got his hands on his desert glass gemstone. So far, King Tut is the only Egyptian pharaoh we know of who had any jewelry made of this particular glass. Dating of the glass suggests that the impact occurred 28 to 26 million years ago, well before King Tut’s time. Is it just a coincidence that a symbol of the sun god was carved out of the glass left behind by a massive, violent explosion that came out of space? Of course, it’s also a perfect color to symbolize the sun. Still it’s intriguing, and it’s yet another example of how much we still don’t know about ancient Egypt.