Tutankhamun's Mysterious Gemstone | A Famous Mystery

Tutankhamun's Mysterious Gemstone | A Famous Mystery

Not long ago, in the news, stories featured some of the prized artifacts found in Tutankhamun's tomb. One of these was a relatively mysterious gemstone.

Image of Egyptian Tutankhamun Pectoral with winged scarab, eye of horus, and crescent moon
(Credit: By Roland Unger, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22738905)

It's the scarab. It's a pretty unusual looking stone, isn't it? Various individuals erroneously have reported that it is chalcedony. We won't name names here, but a few websites we saw claimed that it was a greenish-yellow kind of chalcedony.

In their defense, nobody knew what kind of stone it was decades ago when it was first discovered. People spent years trying to uncover just what kind of stone it was exactly but couldn't nail it down. This is in spite of the fact that the material it was made from was discovered shortly after...but what is it? Silicon-glass. Surprised? Well, it gets even more interesting...

The Burial

When Tutankhamun's tomb was first discovered in the early 1920s, people were stunned. Egyptology had been a field for a while, and Tutankhamun himself didn't live long enough to see a prosperous reign. If you ask anyone about what he did as a Pharaoh, you're likely not going to get a response. So, why is he so famous?

Take a look at the pectoral again. It's pretty gorgeous. The ancient Egyptians buried him with a lot of stuff. The quality of the work is stunning, even today. This mysterious stone only helped to cement fascination, as nobody knew what it was.

The Stone

The discovery was huge in Egyptology, and it even stirred a media frenzy. Gold beyond measure? Amazing jewelry? And this fascinating stone? People needed answers.

Carter and his team analyzed the stone and came to the conclusion that it must have been a chalcedony, a variety of quartz. We will see why this wasn't a strange theory for the time later. But given how many varieties of chalcedony there are, they might have thought they came upon one.

People accepted this answer at the time but still wanted to learn more. Unfortunately, they had nothing. They were dealing with a completely new gemstone that few had seen before.

Image of hand holding three Libyan Desert glass pieces.

Another big reason why it probably wasn't figured out sooner is because it's scarce among all artifacts in the region, let alone just ancient Egyptian! They had no other culture or even source of the material to label it as anything other than chalcedony.

In 1932, geologists found strange pieces of glass in the Libyan Desert that bore a resemblance to the gemstone found in Tutankhamun's pectoral treasure...but they didn't make the connection.

How did they look over something like that? To start, it wasn't Howard Carter (the discoverer of Tut's Tomb) who found the stones in 1932. Instead, it was Patrick Clayton and many others in the scientific community who worked to identify it as something else entirely. But they surely heard of the Tutankhamun tomb discovery.

It's possible that the theory of it being chalcedony just stuck and people accepted that as fact. Worse, then, nobody bothered to cross-check it again. It's also possible that they were busy analyzing every other piece of tomb treasure, and there was little dialog between the geologists and Egyptologists.

In any case, a new "stone" had been discovered. Luckily, this time, they had other resources to aid them into figuring out the origin of this desert glass. How so? Let's get into that.

The Desert Glass

In a way, Libyan Desert glass isn't a real stone. It's a silicate mineraloid, meaning that it isn't a crystal and doesn't meet the definition to be considered a real mineral. But, they are mineral-likeLibyan glass is not a mineral. 

This probably contributed to the misidentification of the desert glass as chalcedony. As the name indicates, Libyan Desert glass is just glass. But, now, hold on, how did something like that fly past the radar? People saw the pectoral scarab stone, and they certainly tried to identify it. What happened?

Image of three Libyan Desert glass pendants

There's more to the story. But, to provide a defense to the teams involved, this falls under the same category as obsidian, moldavite, and tektite (for the most part). These mineraloids and chalcedony have relatively similar chemical compositions and even similar levels of hardness. Maybe there are better defenses than this one, but remember that this stone likely hadn't been seen for thousands of years.

But Libyan Desert glass, like moldavite, is extraordinary. It's a common fact by now that moldavite formed from a meteor impact, which is pretty awesome. Libyan glass likely formed from a similar impact event.

The exact nature of the impact, however, isn't entirely clear. The likely here reflects that uncertainty. It could have been a direct impact, but it also could have come from a meteor air burst. In short, the "how" isn't clear.

Armed with this new knowledge, it would take the scientific community a few decades before tracing it back to Tutankhamun's treasure.

Connecting the Dots

In the later 1990s, Egyptologist and gemologist Aly Barakat and gemologist Vincenzo de Michele saw the pectoral, probably while it was in the museum in Cairo, and quickly concluded that the centerpiece stone was most likely not chalcedony. Both initially had the same theory and thought it was probably a piece of glass.

They requested to see the piece and to examine it, thinking that Carter and his team had come to the wrong conclusion so many years ago. Indeed, when the two examined it more closely and tested it, they found that it was not a piece of chalcedony but rather Libyan Desert glass.

Image of four Libyan Desert glass pendants on display

This came as a shock to some as it had sat under the radar for decades despite discovery after discovery. It did raise a few more questions, especially since it is not featured in almost any other ancient Egyptian work (there might be some that we don't know about). In fact, the last suspected time when it saw more common use was in the Late Pleistocene. The short version of that is: a very, very, very, very long time ago (roughly 129,000 years to over 11,000 years ago). 

The good news is that both Barakat and de Michele have worked on studying the nature of Libyan Desert glass since their work with King Tutankhamun.

The Wrap Up

The discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb was major. The finding of Libyan glass was also downright amazing and has a fascinating story. There is something surreal and lovely about holding something so pretty and millions of years old.

It should be said, however, that if you want to get a piece of Libyan glass straight from the source, you will not be allowed to. We do not encourage anyone reading to try and pilfer a piece from the Libyan Desert.

However, we do have Libyan Desert glass for sale!








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