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.
“At certain times their capitals, say at Delhi, were larger than London”, explains Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian art at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries. “It was so wealthy, so our word Mogul comes from the word Mughal because reports of their wealth reached Europe at that time.”
Diamond 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.
“There are so many instances of events or battles or fabulous gems or jewels that were brought to him, and for certainly the Mughal emperors, the wonders that happened within their vast empire, were considered credit or legitimation for their power.”
One day the emperor got wind of a really crazy story from the Punjab.
Diamond reads from a diary entry from April 1621:
“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.”
For 25 feet, the earth had been so scorched that no trace of greenery or plants was left. The local tax collector came to take a look and he ordered the villagers to dig.
“The deeper they dug, the hotter it was”, the diary goes on. “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.”
The mysterious blade
So today, we recognize that as sounding a 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. Some people said 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, and that was it… until after World War II.
“It was offered to us by an Iranian man who was living in Washington, D.C. in the 1950s,” says Diamond. “This businessman showed up with this amazing looking dagger, and he said it was the dagger, the gift from the heavens.”
“It does kind of glisten and shimmer in a special way.” Diamond is looking at the blade; it’s about 10 inches long.
“So if you look at the hilt, you can actually see an inscription to celebrate this wondrous event, ‘a spark of imperial lightning,’” says Diamond. “If you look at the blade, which has this watery appearance.”
Indeed, this blade is riddled with a complex pattern that resembles a silver polished piece of wood, or perhaps a topographical map with all kinds of contours. The silver blade and gold imprimatur shimmer with imperial glory. 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.
The wavy pattern on the grain is from what’s called “pattern welding,” according to Blythe McCarthy, senior scientist at the Freer. She says it’s characteristic of when two metals are forged together and then etched. So that was one clue that perhaps, as written about in Jahangir’s diary, the meteorite was mixed with other iron to forge a blade.
Smithsonian scientists in the 70s tested the blade for nickel, a metal characteristic of metallic meteorites, by dripping acid on the blade, which, McCarthy says, they would never do today. The results: A fake. Or at least, not a meteorite blade.
But then, in the 80s, they got better tests.
“Our head of conservation and scientific research used a modern tool called x-ray fluorescence,” explains McCarthy.
X-ray fluorescence is when you zap something with an x-ray, and the x-ray interacts with the electrons so you can tell if you’ve got nickel. And you can zero in on a tiny point on the metal. The early acid tests had been averaging areas of regular iron with meteoric iron, fudging the results. With the new x-ray test, they determined that one of the metals in the blade did indeed have high nickel content.
“Well I think we can say fairly certainly that it has a portion of meteorite in the blade,” says McCarthy.
Jahangir’s magical space dagger is now everyone’s gift; it’s on display in the Freer gallery.
Post Script: Why Nickel?
Nickel was the key to determining whether the Smithsonian's dagger was really a "space dagger". But why do meteorites have so much iron and nickel?
Well, not all do — about 10 percent of all meteorites are full of metal. The rest are either stone or incredibly beautiful stone-metal mixtures. But you can usually tell an iron meteorite apart from an earth rock more easily -- it's magnetic, fairly dense, and often dimpled on the surface with divets called "regolypts". Also if you slice and polish a meteorite, you'll often get what's called a Widmanstatten Pattern — it looks like a digital design from the cover of a trapper keeper.
But back to the question -- why so much metal? Well, the earth has a lot of nickel and iron too, but early in earth's history when it was a hot fiery molten blob, all that nickel and iron sank to the center of the earth — along with gold, platinum, and most of the earth's other precious metals. What didn't, basically combined with oxygen in our corrosive atmosphere and doesn't look anything like metal now — more like rust. Metallic meteorites themselves are formed from the shattered remnants of the centers of smaller planets or proto planets that were formed early in the solar system's history and have been floating around in space since. In fact, because so much of our precious metals sank to the center of the earth long ago, meteorites may be where we get a lot of them now.
A few other random meteor facts and links:
No meteorite has ever killed a person, but one report says a dog was killed by a shooting star in 1911.
Meteorites have figured prominently in history, and may have even kicked off the iron age as prehistoric peoples found them to be a source of iron before they were able to actually smelt iron.
Colorful gallery of meteorite images taken through a microscope
[Music: "Power" by The Temptations from The Complete Collection"]
Photos: Space Dagger