Cultural aspects of meteorites

Since prehistoric times people across the globe have interacted with meteorites, these interactions have been recorded in a number of ways sometimes just a simple observance of a shooting star has inspired literature or artwork and ultimately has become a component of cultural heritage.  Many cultures have considered the arrival of meteorites as celestial omens, this is clearly documented in literature. But there is no uniform acceptance on the nature of meteor omens being good or bad, in different parts of the world at different times we see variation.

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In 1492 in the village of Ensisheim (now in modern France) local people witnessed a 147kg meteorite fall from the sky into a wheat field. When the emperor Maximilian 1st received a report of this he declared it an omen of divine protection against invasion and ordered it to be chained to the wall in a local church. This meteorite still resides in Ensisheim today.

Ensisheim_meteorit_donnerstein_1_vss2007

In many parts of the world events and objects associated with the sky such as meteorites were and occasionally still are considered to be intricately linked to gods, they are objects of religious devotion. An interesting and early scientifically tested example of this is now found at the Suga Jinja Shinto shrine in Nogata, Japan. A black stone which local people reported to have fallen from the sky on 19 May 861AD. It was moved to the garden of the shrine where it was stored as a religious treasure in a wooden box. In 1979 it was scientifically analysed and found to be a type of stony meteorite known as an ordinary chondrite, scientists named the meteorite Nogata after the location it fell to.

Meteorites are also found at archaeological sites across the globe both in their natural form and worked into shapes. A meteorite was excavated in England in 1974 originally buried approximately 75cm deep in a disused grain storage pit at the Danebury iron-age Hill fort.

At excavation it was initially considered to be possible remains of iron smelting materials because of its metallic iron content, only with scientific analysis did it prove to be a small stony meteorite. It is not yet fully understood what its presence in this location means, but in iron age Britain objects were sometimes buried for special purposes such as offerings to gods, ancestors or spirits and this has led to speculation that this could be the purpose of this meteorite. However based on the excavation notes and recent scientific analysis there is a very strong probability that the meteorite was in this grain pit by natural serendipity. Read more about the Danebury meteorite here.

The Danebury British iron age meteorite (left) -Hampshire county museums service, with one of the Gerzeh iron beads (right) - The Manchester Museum
The Danebury British iron age meteorite (left) -Hampshire county museums service, with one of the Gerzeh iron beads (right) – The Manchester Museum

Iron meteorites in particular hold historical importance, in some cultures they were used as material of symbolic or ceremonial objects. The earliest known examples of iron in Egypt were excavated in 1911 at the Gerzeh cemetery about 70km south of Cairo, two grave pits were found to contain beads of iron and date to pre-historic times, around 3000 years prior to the earliest possible evidence of large scale iron smelting.

Gerzeh iron bead, The Manchester Museum, 5303.
Gerzeh iron bead, The Manchester Museum, 5303.

Recent scientific analysis has revealed one of these beads to be composed of meteorite iron based upon its chemistry and distribution of nickel rich metallic iron in the form of a crystallographic pattern known as Widmanstätten.  Read the article about the Gerzeh beads here.

Interestingly few other examples of iron have been found in early ancient Egypt, most of these are nickel rich which is a strong indicator of meteorite iron, while further analysis is required for many of these objects we can clearly see that iron was a very special material in ancient Egypt. It had a strong association with the sky, as evidenced by the ancient Egyptian term meaning iron which literally translates as ‘iron from the sky’ this term was used from the early 19th Dynasty onwards (approximately 1300BCE). Nineteen nickel rich iron objects were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamen including a set of blades which appear very similar to those used in the opening of the mouth ceremony. This ceremony was performed to re-animate the deceased allowing them to take food offerings in the afterlife. These blades are also intricately linked to iron and stars, being described in temple inventories as composed of iron and were themselves frequently referred to as the stars. Also included was an iron dagger blade.

American Indians are also known to have placed particular importance upon meteorites especially iron meteorites. Found within burial mounds such as those at Hopewell mounds, Ohio, these meteorites were fashioned into objects such as beads and ear spools. Scientific analysis has confirmed their meteorite origin. At other burial sites whole meteorites were given their own miniature burial chambers such as the Winona meteorite which was found wrapped in its own shroud.

These meteorites were obviously important to American Indians especially in the context of death and rebirth. Other tribes also considered iron meteorites as important holy relics such as that named ‘Tomanowas’ by the confederated Grande Ronde tribes people of Willamette and known by the tribes to originate from the sky. This 15.5 tonne iron meteorite which fell to Earth over 10,000 years ago was later regarded as a sacred and spiritual artefact. It was subsequently discovered on land then owned by an iron company and was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in 1906. The remaining modern tribe has described that its ancestors used the meteorite in ritual practise dipping arrows into the holes within the meteorite before a hunt, they also believed it had special powers with the ability to spiritually heal and purify people. This meteorite also  highlights the complicated ethical issues associated with these types of meteorite in the modern world as they are regarded as both religious and scientific objects.

Tomanowas a.k.a. the Willamette Meteorite (image: New York Times, 1911)
Tomanowas a.k.a. the Willamette Meteorite (image: New York Times, 1911)