Egyptologist Victoria Almansa-Villatoro, a junior research fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, delivered a lecture on meteoritic iron in ancient Egypt hosted by the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture Thursday evening.
In her lecture, titled “Iron in the Sky: Meteorites in Ancient Egypt,” Almansa-Villatoro used texts, iconography, and ritual objects excavated from pre-Iron Age pyramids to discuss whether ancient Egyptians understood that meteorites came “out of the sky.”
The subject of the lecture came from Almansa-Villatoro’s 2020 research article “The Cultural Indexicality of the N41 Sign for bjȝ: The Metal of the Sky and the Sky of Metal,” which was published in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology.
Almansa-Villatoro began the lecture by explaining that the earliest evidence of an iron object in the world comes from Egypt, which “came last to the Iron Age” — a period lasting from the 1200 to approximately 550 BCE when use of iron became “much more widespread.”
The crux of her talk focused on the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph bjȝ, which scholars associate with both iron and the sky.
“Besides these metallic associations, bjȝ also means sky — simply sky — and in particular, the sky as an ocean that must be ferried across,” she said.
“If the sky contains water that falls on Earth like rain, it can contain also iron that fall on earth as meteorites,” she added.
According to Almansa-Villatoro, the hieroglyph bjȝ has appeared on the walls of pre-Iron Age pyramids. Archaeologists have discovered bjȝ in texts of Egyptian creation myths, including a story about a broken primeval egg, which she defined as “an element of creation also associated with the womb of the sky goddess Nut.”
Through the association of bjȝ with Egyptian mythology, Almansa-Villatoro argued that ancient Egyptians linked the hieroglyph to the concept of rebirth.
“Breaking the egg means reversing the natural order of birth and death and those going from death to reverse — which is a metaphor for resurrection inside the womb sky,” Almansa-Villatoro said.
At the close of the talk, Almansa-Villatoro said she hopes her findings illustrate a concise application of objective research procedures in Egyptology.
“If we want to argue that Egypt has a place in the history of science, we may need to detach ourselves of our ideas of how science should be produced and recorded and approached,” she said.