Smithsonian Displays Dagger From The Stars (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Smithsonian Displays Mysterious Dagger From The Stars

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
So here's a segue we never thought we'd say, but we turn now from superheroes to emperors, yes, emperors, or to be more precise, one specific emperor and the pretty impressive perks that came along with this guy's power. And we're not just talking jewels, we're not just talking gold, we're talking something really, really special. Sabri Ben-Achour takes us on a 330 year journey from India to Washington D.C. on the trail of an imperial treasure from the heavens.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:33
Once upon a time, there was an emperor named Jahangir. He ruled over the Mughal Empire in India 400 years ago, and it was huge, stretching from Kabul to Bangladesh.

MS. DEBRA DIAMOND

00:00:44
And at certain points their capitals, say at Delhi, were larger than London and it was so wealthy and the empire was renowned for its wealth so our word Mogul comes from the word Mughal because these reports of their wealth reached Europe at that time.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:03
That's Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Art at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler galleries. She says Jahangir was constantly getting cool stuff from across his empire and he always interpreted it as a sign that God thought he was awesome.

DIAMOND

00:01:19
And there are just so many instances, you know, of events or battles or fabulous gems and jewels that were brought to him and for many Islamic and certainly the Mughal emperors, the wonders that happened, you know, within their vast empire, were considered, you know, legitimation for their power.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:43
So one day he got wind of a really crazy story from the Punjab.

DIAMOND

00:01:48
This is amazing. This is his diary entry, his memoirs from April 1621 and he says that, you know, "One of the strangest things happened at dawn, a tremendous noise arose in the east. It was so terrifying that it nearly frightened the inhabitants out of their skins. Then in the midst of that tumultuous noise, something bright fell to the Earth from above. The people thought fire was falling to Earth from heaven. A moment later, the noise ceased, and the people regained their composure."

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:16
For 25 feet, the earth had been so scorched that no trace of greenery or plants was left, nothing. The local tax collector came to take a look and he ordered the villagers to dig.

DIAMOND

00:02:28
"And the deeper they dug, the hotter it was. Finally they reached a spot where a piece of hot iron appeared. And it was so hot it was as if it had been taken out of a furnace. After a while it cooled off and the tax collector took it home, placed it in a purse, sealed it and sent it to court."

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:46
So today we recognize that as sounding an awful lot like a meteorite falling to earth. But back in the day, it was a gift from God. So when it arrived in Delhi, Jahangir ordered his artisans to turn it into two swords and a dagger, which they did. They mixed it with iron and forged it. Word has it that people thought it had magical powers and Jahangir talks in his diary about how tough the blade was and how amazingly it cut. But that diary entry was the last anyone heard about it. The Mughal Empire rose and fell, its treasures were plundered or given away as diplomatic gifts and that was it until after World War II.

DIAMOND

00:03:25
It was offered to us by an Iranian man who was living in Washington, D.C. in the 1950s.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:32
This businessman showed up with this amazing looking dagger, he said it was the dagger, the gift from the heavens.

DIAMOND

00:03:38
So, you know, it does kind of glisten and shimmer in a special way.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:44
Diamond is looking at the blade, it’s about 10 inches long, shimmering in all its imperial glory.

DIAMOND

00:03:50
So if you look on the hilt you can actually see an inscription, the words "a spark of imperial lightning." And then if you look at the blade, which has this watery appearance.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:01
It looks like water or maybe wood grain.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:03
But is it the real deal? Well, to answer that, researchers needed to get inside the metal on the atomic level to figure out just what it was, and what was making that wood grain pattern on it. In early tests they dripped acid on the blade and decided it was a fake. But then they got better tests.

MS. BLYTHE MCCARTHY

00:04:22
Our head of Conservation and Scientific Research had used a modern tool, x-ray fluorescence analysis.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:29
Blythe McCarthy is senior scientist with the Freer Gallery.

MCCARTHY

00:04:33
X-ray fluorescence is when you zap something with an x-ray and the x-ray interacts with the electrons in the atoms, the different metal atoms. So you can tell if you’ve got nickel.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:45
And it did, a whole lot of nickel, which coincidentally is one of the key elements in metallic meteorites.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:51
So are you fairly sure that this is the dagger from space.

MCCARTHY

00:04:56
Well, I think we can say fairly certainly that it has a portion of meteorite in the blade.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:05:02
Jahangir’s magical space dagger is now everyone’s gift. It’s on display to the public in the Freer gallery. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

00:05:18
You can see photos of that space dagger and find out why meteorites contain so much nickel on our website, that's metroconnection.org.
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