Britain’s largest meteorite and tumulus artefact? Image credit The Open University
Objects in space is the title of an exhibition now running at the The Royal Society in London until 30 March 2012. The exhibition, “…showcases what is believed to be Britain’s largest meteorite, never previously seen in public, alongside letters and books charting the history of scientific interest in meteorites.”
The meteorite in question fell to earth some 30,000 years ago, measures some 0.5 metres across and weighs an incredible 93 kilograms. The meteorite has been kept at Lake House in Wiltshire (formerly the house owned by the Duke family until the widow of the Rev. Edward Duke (1814–95) an archaeologist and colleague of Richard Colt Hoare, also an archaeologist, sold it). Dr Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University and Michael Faraday Prize lecturer this year, has suggested that, “The men whose house this [the meteorite] was found at spent a lot of time opening… burial sites 200 years ago for purposes of excavating them. Our hypothesis is that the stone probably came out of one of those burial chambers.”
If that is the case it may be the only known example of a meteorite being found in a tumulus in Britain. Meteorites however, “…have been found in Egyptian tombs and the hieroglyphic symbol for meteorites has been translated as siderite, or “iron from heaven”. A dagger of meteoritic iron was found in King Tutankhamen’s burial chamber. When a meteorite fell near Phrygia in about 2000 B.C., it was revered as a divine object for years. According to Titus Livius, the stone was later transported to Rome and worshipped for another 500 years.

“The occurrence of meteorites on archaeological sites in North America has been known since the early 19th century. While searching for the northwest passage in 1818, John Ross discovered a previously unknown band of Eskimo on the northwest coast of Greenland using a variety of cutting tools with blades of meteoritic iron. That same year a `plate’ of iron from Ohio was the first of a series of meteoritical iron artefacts found on Hopewellian (200 B.C. – A.D. 500) sites in the eastern United States.

“The Camp Verde and Bloody Basin meteorites are thought to be transported specimens from Meteor Crater in north central Arizona. Both meteorites were discovered on sites located approximately 100 km southwest of the crater. Camp Verde was found on top of a mesa in the corner of an ancient dwelling. The meteorite had been wrapped in feather-cloth and placed upon a stone cyst. Stone cysts were sometimes used for child burial. Both Bloody Basin and a meteorite from Mesa Verde in Colorado were found in dwellings with apparently little or no special significance attached to them by the inhabitants. Two meteorites from Chihuahua, Mexico were located inside ruins that may have been constructed around the stones. The Huizopa iron weighed 108 kg when it was discovered in 1907, and the 1545 kg Casas Grandes was found wrapped in mummy cloth similar to the burials located nearby.”

Quoted from The Prehistoric Use of Meteorites in North America by Glen Akridge. Glen Akridge is a member of the Cosmochemistry Group at the University of Arkansas. See also the feature in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.