It is hard to imagine a more sinister symptom of the Great Hunger than a perfectly preserved meteorite. But in the early stages of the English Civil War, a fireball which lit up the sky in England and Ireland resulted in not violence, but seizures and strict house searches by the state.
A public exhibition, “The Terror of Meteorites,” opening at London’s Natural History Museum on Wednesday offers a peek into the occult world at the start of the Nineteenth Century. The exhibits open with a dissection of the popular British sensation — roasted meteorites — before exploring the testing of real meteorites. They then touch on the political and religious use of meteorites, ending with a display of two free samples of uninhabited meteorites found on the American West Coast.
Theories about the origins of meteorites vary wildly. Some believe they were thrown into Earth’s atmosphere as meteor showers, others suggest the plants were starved by ancient Zeus worshippers. Some researchers speculate meteorites may have been intentionally sent to Earth by kings and queens to show them off to the people. Whatever the origin, they are odd objects which have been enjoyed in mythology as though they were part of some magical ceremony, but which have a surprisingly pragmatic purpose.
A ball of meteorites sitting on a shelf in an ancient Egyptian bard’s palace.
And so to modern meteorites — the rare kind of gold-encrusted, but intact, celestial companion, which falls from the heavens and sustains their owners for thousands of years. The first recorded history of meteorites being consumed by a meteorite in the English Isles comes from 1759, when King James II of England and his wife, Anne, both dropped meteors into the ground. The kings, who worshipped the goddess Artemis, were brought down to earth. As the exhibition description puts it, “with a huge American meteorite scattered around the castle grounds, the queen’s awe-struck visitors are jostled to the ground in the midst of King James II’s ancestral estate.”
These days, it is often thought of as a special kind of metal, merely considered as a metal by its owner. “Meteorites” is a term that refers to objects that, according to an article in Smithsonian magazine, are “found in the so-called cometary litter, which includes meteorites and meteorites that have fallen as far away as Earth’s early moon.”
But the BBC reports that when a meteorite falls back to Earth, it becomes the property of its parent meteorite, which can provide insights into the origin and shape of the parent object. In the case of Chinese smuggling, the information that extraterrestrial debris was brought to China in recent years contributed to the smuggling crackdown that led to over 700 micrograms of modern meteorites being seized in the Port of Qingdao. A microgram is approximately one and a half atoms.
This particular hundred-odd gram of space debris was found in a smashed-up doll’s foot in the workshop of a Bedouin butchery. The story goes that it had fallen from the Earth many years ago, and left its mark in a freshly broken child’s footprint. Judging by the paint that remains on the treads, it is possible that the child had already died when the boot was reused.
This strange fish was found drifting in the Shallow Pottery Pottery Tank.
And that is how it stayed intact — for centuries. Through enough time, the foot could have eroded into mere pale lavatory remnants. It might have fallen to the earth, then been covered by debris, and spent even more time in a landfill before being deposited in the pottery tank.
“Or it might have recovered all its nutrients and grown in a bizarre cage, only to be engulfed by a crush, or flushed down a pipe,” the BBC explains. “… In either case, those ingredients needed to be contained by certain personnel who needed to conduct their movements with utmost care and sensitivity.”
The container itself was an art installation, bearing markings of existing female designers. It was later disposed of, as the work had a mere five inches of fish in it. The congealed remains are so degraded and distorted as to require scientific analysis. The specimens will be displayed with the other specimens from the Chinese government, which do not escape his treatment.
“Earlier in the year I was sent a basket of 1,200-year-old rocks to taste,” co-curator Rohan de Wet says. “It was very unpleasant.”
Read the full story on National Geographic.
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