The Iron Plate in
the Great Pyramid

iron plate
Photo © copyright Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval, The Message of the Sphinx, 1996, plate 18.

In 1837, Colonel Howard Vyse, with the assistance of two civil engineers (John Perring and James Mash), investigated the air shafts in the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid described by George Sandys more than 200 years earlier. A man in Vyse's team, J.R. Hill, was put in charge of clearing the mouth of the southern shaft. Vyse's methods were not subtle, and the use of explosives was employed resulting in the vertical gash that can still be seen on the south side of the pyramid. On Friday, 26 May 1837, after a few days of blasting and clearing, Hill discovered a flat iron plate about 26 cm (10.2") long, 8.6 cm (3.4") wide, with a thickness ranging from .4 cm (.2") to nearly zero. The plate weighs about 750g. Vyse proclaimed it to be "the oldest piece of wrought iron known." Hill affirmed that his find was legitimate:

This is to certify, that the piece of iron found by me near the mouth of the air-passage, in the southern side of the Great Pyramid at Gizeh, on Friday, May 26th, was taken out by me from an inner joint, after having removed by blasting the two outer tiers of the stones of the present surface of the Pyramid; and that no joint or opening of any sort was connected with the above-mentioned joint, by which the iron could have been placed in it after the original building of the Pyramid. I also shewed the exact point to Mr. Perring, on Saturday, June 24th. (Vyse, Pyramids of Gizeh, I, p. 276)

Perring, along with James Mash, were both "of the opinion that the iron must have been left in the joint during the building of the Pyramid, and that it could not have been inserted afterward." Vyse sent the artifact, along with the certifications of Hill, Perring, and Mash, to the British Museum.

What is one to make of the story? Hill was the only witness to the discovery of the plate (on 26 May) and the second "witness" appeared nearly a month later (on 24 June). Perring was actually not a witness at all, but had only the word of Hill about the details of the find. Thus, despite the "certifications" of the others, Hill is the sole witness. Most modern authorities believe that Hill either falsified his testimony, or, more likely, a bit of modern iron somehow made its way into the rubble, convincing Hill that it had been there all along.

Flinders Petrie wrote of the plate in The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh (1883):

That sheet iron was employed, we know, from the fragment found by Howard Vyse in the masonry of the south air channel, and though some doubt has been thrown on the piece, merely from its rarity, yet the vouchers for it are very precise, and it has a cast of a nummulite on the rust of it, proving it to have been buried for ages beside a block of nummulitic limestone, and therefore to be certainly ancient. No reasonable doubt can therefore exist about its being really a genuine piece used by the pyramid masons, and probably such pieces were required to prevent crowbars biting into the stones, and to ease the actions of the rollers. (p. 212-13)

(A nummulite is a large coin-shaped fossil foraminifer widely distributed in limestone formations.) Petrie later recanted the view that the iron was contemporary with the pyramid (Six Temples at Thebes, 1896, p. 19). H.R. Hall wrote of the plate in "Note on the Early Use of Iron in Egypt" (Man 3, 1903):

Now that Professor Petrie has discovered iron in deposits of VIth Dynasty date at Abydos, the contentions of those Egyptologists who have always maintained that iron was known to the Egyptians from the earliest times must be acknowledged to be correct. The fact that iron was known to, and used by, the Egyptians over 2,000 years before it came into use in Europe is very remarkable, and it is hard to square with current theories, but it is a fact. Professor Petrie's find is a lump of worked (?) iron, perhaps a wedge, which is rusted on to a bent piece of copper...

This is the third find of iron which can be attributed to the Old Kingdom. In 1837 a fragment of wrought-iron was discovered in an inner joint of the stone blocks in one of the air-passages which pass upwards from the interior of the Great Pyramid to the outer air [Vyse, Pyramids of Gizeh, I., 276; Beck, Geschichte des Eisens, I., 85]. This is now in the British Museum, Egyptian Department, No. 2433 (3rd Egyptian Room, Case K, 29). In 1882 Professor Maspero found iron in the pyramid of a Vth Dynasty king at Abūsīr. Professor Petrie has now found iron in a VIth Dynasty deposit at Abydos... The presumption now is that the iron fragments from Abūsīr and from the Great Pyramid are of a Vth and IVth Dynasty date respectively. The Gīza fragment will be about 150 years older than the piece from Abydos. (pp. 147-49)

In a later article, "The Early Occurrence of Iron in Egypt" (Man 5, 1905), Hall wrote:

Here are the facts. We find in Egypt a piece of worked iron, to which a date of about 3500 B.C. is assigned on good primā facie grounds, but because iron did not come into general use in Egypt till about 1300 B.C., and in southern Europe till about 1100 B.C., and because we do not possess another piece of iron of the same date, we admit that this early date must be regarded as still sub judice. We need corroboration. We afterwards find in Egypt a piece of iron, worked or unworked does not matter in the argument, which is assigned on incontestable grounds to a date of about 3200 B.C. Does not the second find corroborate the first, and are we not justified in assuming that we have erred from excess of caution in denying that iron was not only known to, but occasionally worked by, the Egyptians in the fourth millenium B.C.? And as a matter of fact, as I have said, the probabilities are that the VI Dynasty fragment was originally worked, and not a mere meaningless lump. Why should a mere lump be buried with tools? (p. 71)

In his article "Iron in Egypt" (JEA 18, 1932, pp. 3-15) G. A. Wainwright asserted that iron found in Egypt dating to before the New Kingdom was certain to have been of meteoric origin. In "The Coming of Iron" (Antiquity 10, 1936), the same author addressed the iron plate specifically:

In Egypt iron objects are extremely rare until the New Kingdom, and by no means common even then... The serious pieces are those of the Great Pyramid c. 2900 B.C., the Abydos lump c. 2500 B.C. and the Nubian spearhead c. 1800 B.C. Full analyses have not yet been made of the Pyramid and Abydos pieces, but those which have been showed 'traces' of nickel [Rickard in Man, 1927, no. 56]. This looks as if they were meteoric iron. But if the 'traces' should prove to be only a fraction of 1 per cent, as it sounds, the iron might have perhaps been smelted from ore [Though very rare such are known to exist though not near Egypt. Rickard, Man and Metals, II, 846]. If so, this would have proved a difficulty hitherto, but such would now be disposed by he finding in Mesopotamia of the unquestionable piece of smelted iron of approximately the same date. Unless we can know definitely that the Pyramid piece is of meteoric origin, and therefore not modern, the probability of Rickard's suggestion is too attractive. He thinks that it may have been a piece of the tool of one of Vyse's own workmen engaged in the excavation [Man and Metals, II, 833, 834], and one knows only too well how such things may slip down, get jammed, etc. The antiquity of Petrie's lump from Abydos has never been in doubt, but it is urgent that its origin also should be decided. (pp. 8, 9)

The presence of nickel is one of the characteristics of meteoric iron. The content of nickel can vary from 5% to 26%, though usually it is 7-8%. Nickel is rare in terrestrial iron ore, and even then it is found only in very minute traces. In his article "Early Iron in Egypt" (Antiquity 10, 1936), Christopher Hawkes offered a summary of the tests performed on the pyramid and Abydos pieces:

In his article on 'The Coming of Iron' in Antiquity for March 1936 (X, 5-24), Mr G.A. Wainwright draws attention to the pieces of iron from the Great Pyramid (IVth Dynasty) and Abydos (VIth Dynasty). These should date respectively from c.2900 and c.2500 B.C. (pp. 8-9), and form the two major items in the serious evidence for the use of iron in Egypt before the New Kingdom. His question is whether they are of terrestrial or meteoric origin, with the rider that if proved by analysis to be terrestrial their claim to be ancient ought to be most critically regarded. Meteoric origin (p. 7) will be proved by the presence of nickel, probably from 5 to 10 per cent., for this is absent from iron smelted from terrestrial ore.

Both these pieces are in the British Museum. Mr. Wainwright states (p. 9) that 'full analyses have not yet been made' of them, 'but those which have showed "traces" of nickel;' the authority he quotes being a letter written in 1927 to the Editor of Man by Dr. T.A. Rickard. This letter (Man, 1927, 56) stresses the unlikelihood of any but a meteoric origin for early pieces of iron, and urges examination for nickel to prove this: it states that in fact both these pieces 'were tested recently, at my suggestion, for nickel, and traces of nickel were found,' but expresses dissatisfaction with the experiment.

The tests were actually made in the British Museum Laboratory, and since it seems desirable that the matter should be cleared up, Dr. J.H. Plenderleith, who did the work, has kindly allowed me to see his notes and copies of his reports. The Pyramid piece was found to consist 'of a thin film of metallic iron with a more or less thick coating of its oxides.' Samples were examined and 'no nickel could be detected.' This was in November 1926; in April 1932 it was examined again, and the results 'completely bear out the findings of the previous analytical report as regards to the absence of nickel;' separate tests were applied to the exterior scale and to the surface of the metallic iron itself, and nowhere could nickel be detected. As Dr. Plenderleith was advised that 'all known meteoric iron contains some nickel, about 4-30 per cent,' he considered it 'unnecessary to go any further in the matter of chemical investigation.' The account of the result quoted from Man (cf. also Dr. Rickard's Man and Metals 1932, II, 834) seems therefore to have mislead Mr Wainwright. The pyramid piece contains no detectable 'traces' of nickel. (pp. 355-57)

Likewise, no nickel was found in the core of the Abydos piece, "and it is only present in minute traces in the outer rust, among various other impurities, whose presence is evidently due to the porous nature of the material." Hawkes submitted copies of Plenderleith's notes and reports to Cecil H. Desch of the National Physical Laboratory (Desch had some years earlier written a report on the iron plate in Reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1928).

He [Desch] has expressed his opinion, in a letter communicated to the writer, that the position is 'very clear, and it does not seem necessary to make further analyses... I have now obtained further specimens of early iron, which is certainly not meteoric, from sites in Mesopotamia and Syria, and it will be very interesting if it should prove that equally early specimens occur in Egypt. As regards to the Pyramid specimen, the statement that it consists of only a thin film of iron with a layer of oxide outside seems to rule out the possibility of its being a modern tool which had fallen into a cavity, and it is very desirable that your note should be published.'

It seems, then, that these pieces may reasonably be taken as evidence for the occasional smelting of terrestrial iron-ores in the Near East as early as the third millennium B.C. (p. 357)

Once the fact had been established that the iron plate was made of wrought terrestrial iron rather than iron of meteoric origin, it was denied to be of an ancient age based solely on its composition. Lucas and Harris, in their landmark reference Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries (1962), expressed such an opinion:

Those who believe that iron tools must have been employed for early Egyptian work in hard stone attach considerable importance to a piece of iron found at the Great Pyramid of Giza, and see this as proof that iron tools were used in its construction, in support of which the reference in Herodotus to iron tools in connexion to the pyramid is quoted [History II:125]. By far the greater part of the stone of the pyramid, however, is not hard and there would be no great difficulty in working it without iron tools, and the specimen of iron found is not a tool and does not appear to be part of a tool of any sort, and it is significant that the earliest iron objects are chiefly weapons and amulets and not tools. (p. 236)

The earliest iron objects known in Egypt, write Lucas and Harris, are nine predynastic tubular beads found by Wainwright at Gerzeh. When found, they were completely oxidized. Analysis showed that the metal was 7.5% nickel and thus of meteoric origin. The authors continue:

The next specimen in date order is that already referred to from the pyramid of Giza which was found in the stonework on the outside. Although the statements of the finder (Mr. J.R. Hill) and others, who examined the spot at the time, are very definite and precise and not lightly to be disregarded, it seems more probable, since the iron has been proved not to be meteoric, that it is of recent date and that it had been lost down a crack in the stone facing of the pyramid when this was being removed for use as building material in modern times, long before Vyse's work. (p. 237)

In 1989, an analysis of the iron plate was made by El Sayed El Gayar and M.P. Jones, published in their article "Metallurgical investigation of an iron plate found in 1837 in the Great Pyramid at Gizeh, Egypt" (Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society, Vol. 23 No. 2, 1989, pp. 75-83). El Gayar and Jones, using a hacksaw, carefully cut off a small corner of the plate for analysis. This fragment was triangular in shape with an area of 1 cm and a weight of 1.7g. After again determining that the iron contained "only a trace of nickel," confirming a terrestrial origin (p. 81), the authors found that

the plate consists of numerous laminates of wrought iron and that these laminates have been inexpertly welded together by hammering. The various layers differ from each other in their grain sizes, carbon contents, the nature of their non-metallic inclusions, and in their thicknesses... None of the iron layers contains siliceous, slaggy inclusions. Furthermore, none of the other phases within the iron laminates shows any metallic copper globules, nor do they show more than small traces of the element copper. These features suggest that the Gizeh iron plate had not been produced as a by-product of copper smelting operations.

The outer layers of the iron have been badly corroded and now exist as complex banded iron oxides. Small, but significant, proportions of gold were found in one of the oxidised layers and it is thought possible that the plate may, originally, have been goldplated. [p. 75]

It is interesting to note that the gold would have been of small value in comparison to that of the iron. Numerous non-siliceous inclusions were found in the iron laminates, rich in sodium and potassium: probably ash formed by burning charcoal during smelting. The authors continue,

Furthermore, the presence of abundant inclusions of un-reduced (or incompletely reduced) fragments of iron oxides in the metal laminations shows that the "smelting" operations had been inexpertly carried out at low temperatures (probably between 1000ŗ and 1100ŗC and that the iron had been produced by the "direct reduction" method - in which no molten iron is normally produced...

The quality of the forging operations used to weld the iron fragments together is often exceedingly poor and it is possible that the plate was produced by a very primitive and, in consequence, a very inefficient or inexperienced, ironsmith...

It is concluded, on the basis of the present investigation, that the iron plate is very ancient. Furthermore, the metallurgical evidence supports the archaeological evidence which suggests that the plate was incorporated within the Pyramid at the time that structure was being built. [p. 82]

iron plate
Photo © copyright El Gayar and Jones, JHMS, 23/2 1989, Fig. 1a, p. 76.

While the iron plate's physical properties apparently argue in favor of its authenticity, its provenance argues against. A more recent date is attractive mainly because the antiquity of the artifact would be out of place in the known metallurgical progress of ancient Egyptian technology. Certain "fringe" authors make much of this opportunity, claiming the anachronism proves alien or Atlantean intervention in Egyptian industry, or, at the very least, that Egyptologists have underestimated exactly how advanced Egypt's ancient civilization had become. If the iron is of recent vintage (see below), the point is moot. But if it is as old as the Great Pyramid, what are the implications?

Precisely where and when the smelting of iron originated is uncertain. Making useful implements from iron ore is a fairly complicated procedure, requiring specialized fuel to maintain high temperatures, aided by a steady and controlled system of forced air (such as produced by bellows), and heavy tools are necessary for working the red-hot metal. Evidence of iron production dating to 2800 BC has been found in Mesopotamia (Wainwright, "The Coming of Iron," Antiquity 10, 1936, p. 7). Though iron manufacture may have spread from western Asia south through Africa, iron working in sub-Saharan Africa may have developed independently.

It would be likely that, if the iron plate is indeed proved to be ancient, it represents a trade good from the north, or possibly from the south. The unlikelihood of Egyptian manufacture is supported by both its uniqueness and the absence of archaeological evidence for iron-making technology. What function might the iron plate have served in association with the Great Pyramid? It is doubtful that might have been a part of a tool, nor is it similar to any known type of ceremonial implement. Various authors have offered an explanation that makes some degree of sense. The royal funerary Pyramid Text §907 reads:

The doors of bA-kA [an unknown region of the sky] which is in the firmament are opened for me, the doors of iron which are in the starry sky are thrown open for me, and I go through them ...

This, taken with the idea that the so-called "air passages" found in the pyramid are in fact meant to serve as egress for the king's soul, might suggest that the iron plate served as a door of sorts at the terminal end of the shaft. The plate was, after all, reported to have been found near the outer opening of the King's Chamber southern "air passage." The discrepancy between the size of the plate (30.5 x 10 cm) and the size of the opening of the shaft (30.5 x 23.3 cm) may be explained by the plate's obvious fragmentary nature. The plate in its original form could easily have been a good fit.

A more recent analysis of the plate, however, has cast doubt on the findings and conclusions of the study by El Gayar and Jones. In their article "Gizeh Iron Revisited" (Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society, Vol. 27 No. 2, 1993, pp. 57-59), Paul Craddock and Janet Lang of the British Museum reported that they were at first unable to obtain the section cut by El Gayar and Jones, consequently the initial study was confined to the larger portion of the plate. A new section was cut adjacent to the original section, and it was examined under a scanning electron microscope both at the British Museum and independently at the Ancient Monuments Laboratory, English Heritage (the work was carried out there by Dr. G. McDonnell). It was also analyzed by x-ray fluorescence. Surprisingly, no gold was detected in the metal or in the corrosion. Craddock and Lang further wrote:

Since the last report the original section has been returned to the Museum and we have been able to carry out a thorough investigation. Once again we must report that despite extensive searches no trace of gold could be detected, and it is our firm opinion that the original report of gold is incorrect. [p. 57]

The authors agreed with El Gayar and Jones regarding the structure of the iron plate, but they did not agree on the interpretation.

The unusual features are the absence of slag stringers and the very large number of other inclusions. These are unusual in that they contain large quantities of calcium (up to 60%), phosphorus (up to 15%), and some sodium, silicon and potassium. A number of chlorine-rich areas were also found. However, we do not agree with the view of El Gayar and Jones, that these inclusions indicate ancient primitive manufacture -- careless maybe, but not primitive. [p. 57-58]

They believe that the structure is unfamiliar because the iron plate is representative of the largely unstudied period of iron manufacture that falls between "traditional" solid state bloomery iron and "modern" iron and steel of the late 19th century. The structure of the plate is consistent with iron-making in the post-medieval Islamic era. Craddock and Lang conclude:

Gold was neither observed nor detected anywhere on the plate. The composition and structure of the iron rules out any form of natural iron. Similarly iron smelted in the solid state is precluded as some form of molten slag would be essential, which could only be eradicated by melting the iron. A more mundane but tenable explanation of the observed features is that the iron ore was smelted to cast iron in a blast furnace, using charcoal as the fuel, resulting in a chemically much purer iron than smelted with coal or coke. This iron was then decarburized by the finery process to form solid wrought iron. The inclusions are likely to have originated either as deliberate additions during the fining, as specified in some European accounts, or inadvertently during the subsequent forging. The blast furnace process does not seem to have reached the Middle East until the post-medieval period, and this strongly suggests that the plate of iron from the Great Pyramid is of no great antiquity. [p. 58]

It would seem, then, that the iron plate found by J.R. Hill in 1837 is not contemporary with the construction of the pyramid, but rather dates to the post-medieval (Islamic) period sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries. It would be a matter for speculation just how such a plate might have found its way down a joint between the pyramid stones, but after the Arab conquest there was much activity at the Giza pyramids. Hill's report that the iron "was taken out by me from an inner joint, after having removed by blasting the two outer tiers of the stones" and "that no joint or opening of any sort was connected with the above-mentioned joint" was made ex post facto, and one may well wonder how closely he examined the joints before blasting considering he had no idea that he might find something there.

Catchpenny Mysteries © copyright 2000 by Larry Orcutt.