On the 4th November 1922 the archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the almost intact tomb of Tutankhamun, the Child Pharaoh dead before having turned 20. His importance as an Egyptian sovereign is relative: he was remembered for having abolished the “Amarna Heresy”, supposedly set up by the alleged father Akhenaton, as well as the treasure found inside his tomb, which was prepared in a rush, maybe for his sudden death.
Howard Carter opens the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun
Above: public domain
Howard Carter and the financer of the excavation Lord Carnarvon, become popular in the story of the archaeological discoveries even due to the malediction of the Pharaoh, when they showed to the world the wealth contained inside the tomb: the solid gold sarcophagus, the funerary mask, the jewels, the precious chests,alabaster vases, and a breast piece which did not gram Carter’s attention very much for the “modest quality” of the gold and for the very common subject of the decoration: a winged scarab which was holding a ship with the Horus eye and the sun and moon symbols. The breastplate was exhibited at the Cairo Museum, but the visitors were drawn by more eye-catching treasures.
The solid gold made sarcophagus
Above: picture by Hotepibre shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.5
But that specific jewel or better, the material with which the scarab body was shaped, tells a story which has no comparison with the other stones found inside the tomb.
Even though it is just silica glass, its process of formation makes the story of the piece rather interesting
The breastplate with the scarab at the centre
Above: public domain
Carter believed that the scarab was made out of chalcedony, a mineral quartz but, approximately 10 years after the discovery in the Valley of the Kings, a British geographer found in the sand of the desert at the border between Egypt and Libya, some small glass pieces of a vivid yellow tone, extremely similar to the material used for the scarab. The scholar supposed that it was quartz, remained under the sand after the draining of an ancient lake. In 1998 the Italian geologist Vincenzo De Michele made some tests on the scarab and discovered that the material was actually glass, silica glass to from the Libyan desert be exact: an extremely rare material which can be found only in a precise area of the vast and remote desert, called Great Sand Sea.
Libyan desert glass
Above: picture by H. Raab shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY – SA 3.0
After this discovery, for a long time it remained the mystery on how such a glass had formed in the middle of the desert, with no volcano or any sign of meteorite to justify its presence. The obsidian and the tektite for example, are glass-like materials that are formed by the volcanic lava and debris of meteorites.
Someone hypothesised that a comet, by entering the earth’s atmosphere, could have exploded in the air above the desert, bringing the temperature around 2,000 C°, sufficient heat to melt the sand in the surface which would have given life to that type of glass.
This hypothesis was denied when they discovered that, inside the glass of the desert there were tiny granules of zirconia, originated by an extremely rare mineral, the “reidite”, material which can be formed only after a massively heavy pressure, impossible to generate with an explosion in the air. Just the impact with a meteorite or the core of a comet can created a shock wave able to form the reidite.
What is left to find is the exact point in which that meteorite went to collide, around 28 millions of years ago as well as how the Egyptian artisan ended up getting his hands on that rare glass to make the breastplate for his Pharaoh. It is likely to imagine that some caravan from today’s Libya has brought the precious material all the way to Egypt but certainly not as a bargaining chip: as far as it’s known, only that piece of jewelry has that rare type of glass in it, as mysterious as the man to whom it was destined.