Meteorites: A brief history

The meteorites in our 20 April sale include specimens that are 'a third as old as time itself'. In the video above and the text below, specialist James Hyslop tells the incredible stories behind them

1. The sky is falling

The Wold Cottage meteorite played a crucial role in the scientific community accepting that rocks could indeed fall out of the sky. As Travel, Science and Natural History specialist James Hyslop explains, it was a notion previously met with disbelief or considered heretical.

On December 13, 1795, Wold Cottage crashed to Earth just yards away from farmworker John Shipley. Edward Topham, the owner of the Wold Cottage estate and a well-known bon vivant, was away in London at the time, but he hurried home after reading accounts in the press.

Wold Cottage Meteorite of 1795. Chondrite — L6. Wold Cottage, England  (54°8’ N, 0°24’ W) 33 x 31 x 5mm (1.33 x 1.25 x 0.1 inches) and 17.79 grams. Estimate: £3,000-5,000. This lot is offered in the Meteorites sale on 20 April at Christie’s South Kensington

Certain that the stone was of great importance, Topham placed Wold Cottage on display in London, helping to sway public opinion to embrace Shipley’s extraordinary claim. The scientific community took note, especially after Wold Cottage proved similar to a rock reported to have fallen out of the sky 18 months earlier in Siena, Italy. The fact that two stones from different localities had common characteristics convinced many scientists of their possible extraterrestrial origin.


2. The only documented fatal meteorite impact

On the evening of 15 October 1972, farmhands in Trujillo, Venezuela were startled by an inexplicable sonic boom. The next day an exotic rock was found alongside a dead cow whose neck had been pulverized. It was obvious to the farm’s owner, physician Dr. Argimiro Gonzalez, what had occurred, but he didn’t give it a second thought.

Valera Meteorite. L5. Trujillo, Venezuela  (9°19’ N, 70°37’ W). 75 x 44 x 32mm (3 x 1.75 x 1.25 inches) and 160.5 grams (0.33 pounds). Estimate: £4,000-6,000. This lot is offered in the Meteorites sale on 20 April at Christie’s South Kensington

An unplanned steak dinner was enjoyed that night and the celestial boulder was used as a doorstop. More than a decade later scientists confirmed what Dr. Gonzalez had long presumed. However, what Dr. Gonzalez didn’t know was that this was the first and still the only documented fatal meteorite impact.

When Dr. Ignacio Ferrin, an astronomer at the University of the Andes, learned of the act of bovicide at Valera, he visited the Gonzalez estate and left with an affidavit affirming the aforementioned events as well as the meteorite itself.

An echo in miniature of the devastating asteroid believed to have killed off the dinosaurs, one face of the Valera meteorite is cut and polished. The multi-hued variegated matrix is embedded with sparkling metallic grains, while blurred chondrule boundaries are evidence of heating on its parent asteroid long before its brush with Earth — and a cow.


3. ‘God intended it to hit me’

The only documented instance of a meteorite injuring a person occurred at 2.46pm on 30 November, 1954 in Sylacauga, Alabama. The fireball from which the Sylacauga meteorite originated was seen in broad daylight across three states and was accompanied by sonic booms. Some eyewitnesses thought a plane had crashed; at the height of the Cold War, others felt this extraordinary event was the nefarious doings of the Soviets.

Sylacauga Meteorite. H4. Talladega County, Alabama (33°14’ N, 86°17’ W). 39 x 32 x 2 mm (½ x ¼ x 1/8 in.) Estimate: £6,000-9,000. This lot is offered in the Meteorites sale on 20 April at Christie’s South Kensington

Two meteorites were recovered. One crashed through the roof of Ann and Eugene Hodge’s home, where it bounced off a radio and struck Ann Hodges while she napped. While Hodges and her landlord fought over the meteorite’s ownership, the U.S. Air Force took custody. While the law favoured the landlord, public sentiment was solidly behind Hodges, who exclaimed, ‘God intended it to hit me. After all, it hit me!’ 

The Hodges finally owned the meteorite that punctured their roof (and almost Ann herself) after a year of legal wrangling and a payout to their landlord. However, interest had waned during the course of the year and when the Hodges couldn’t find a buyer, they donated the rock to the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Never having recovered from the emotional distress associated with these events, Ann Hodges suffered a nervous breakdown and died at the age of 52.

The second meteorite was found by a local farmer, Julius McKinney, who quickly sold his specimen to the Smithsonian. The proceeds from this sale enabled McKinney to purchase a new car and home.


4. Among the most scientifically important meteorites known

At 10.58am on 28 September 1969, a meteorite shower occurred over the town of Murchison, Australia, causing a frenzy in the scientific community. In addition to containing organic compounds including alcohols and aromatic hydrocarbons, Murchison meteorites contain amino acids — the building blocks of proteins.

Murchison Oriented Individual. CM2. Victoria, Australia  (36°37’ S, 145°12’ E). 58 x 40 x 25 mm (2º x 1Ω x 1 in.) 81.7g. Estimate: £8,000-12,000. This lot is offered in the Meteorites sale on 20 April at Christie’s South Kensington

Coveted by both scientists and collectors, Murchison meteorites have become among the most researched meteorites, with citations in scores of scientific papers. The event provides support for the Panspermia Theory of Life, namely that life on Earth was ‘seeded’ by extraterrestrial impact.

In 2010, an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences announced that 14,000 unique molecular compounds had been identified in a small section of a Murchison research specimen. The study, by a team of nine German scientists, further determined that many of the organic compounds were present in the solar system prior to when life commenced on Earth — which not only begs the question of whether meteorites may have played a key role in life’s origins, but whether similar material seeded other solar systems as well. 


5. The largest existing piece of one of the most important meteorites in history

On 3 October 3 1962, a farmer in Zagami, Nigeria was nearly struck by an 18kg meteorite as it plummeted to Earth. As was reported in NASA’s 2012 Martian Meteorite Compendium, Robert Haag, world-famous meteorite collector, travelled to Nigeria in 1988 and met the farmer.

The main mass of the legendary Martian meteorite Zagami. SNC — Mars Rock. Zagami, Nigeria  (11°44’ N, 7°5’ E). 151 x 73 x 106mm (6 x 2.75 x 4 inches) and 1382.3 grams (3 lbs). Estimate: £250,000-450,000. This lot is offered in the Meteorites sale on 20 April at Christie’s South Kensington

Haag related what the farmer told him of his experience: ‘He was trying to chase cows out of his cornfield when he heard a tremendous explosion and was buffeted by a pressure wave. Seconds later, there was a puff of smoke and a thud, as something buried itself in the dirt only ten feet away. Terrified that it was an artillery shell, the man waited for a few minutes before going to investigate. What he saw was a black rock at the bottom of a two-foot hole. The local commissioner was summoned and the specimen was recovered and sent to the provincial capital, where it was placed in the museum.’

Seven years later it was discovered that minute amounts of gas within the Zagami meteorite and a similar Antarctic meteorite matched the chemical and isotopic composition of the Martian atmosphere, measured on the surface of Mars in 1976 by NASA’s Viking landers.

Zagami crystallized from basaltic magma 175 million years ago and was ejected off the surface of Mars 3 million years ago after the impact of a large asteroid. In 1997, when NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft entered into an orbit around Mars, it was carrying a sample of the Zagami meteorite. The Global Surveyor’s mission ended in 2007. One day its orbit will decay and it will slam into Mars, returning a portion of Zagami to its birthplace.


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