Controlling the Cosmos: Collecting Meteorites
The internet is littered with distinctive if not outright odd collectibles: a brief survey of web collections uncovers assemblages of bars of soap, moist towelettes, toasters, air sickness bags, and belly button lint. Even such unusual collections have two fundamental dimensions: first, they are driven by pedagogical goals—their universe of things teaches or illustrates something–, and, second, they reconfigure, critique, imagine, and impose some idealized order on the world. Some collectors can reflectively articulate how their things reflect their experiences and visions of the social world, and others are perhaps somewhat more caught up in the magnetism of their things or their hunt; nevertheless, most collections are fundamentally distorted mirrors of how the world should be, the anxieties life provokes, and the consequential dimensions of our lives.
Marching into the universe of collectors is now an army of Russians snapping up the fragments of the meteorite that fell near Chebarkul and Chelyabinsk on February 15th. Some of these “collectors” (and their international counterparts) are simply driven by the perception of potential profit to be made hawking meteorite fragments, and that is often intensified by their own financial desperation. Collectors of space debris prize such intergalactic detritus, and there is apparently some genuine market value to these things: a 23cm fragment of the Seymchan meteorite recovered in Siberia in 1967 sold in New York for $43,750 in October, and a piece of a meteorite that “pulverized” a New York cow in 1972–the world’s only known meteorite fatality–sold for $1375.
It is now infeasible to distinguish between meteorites as things with exchange value and objects whose meaning resides outside market values. Nevertheless, the attraction of a collected meteorite, Doctor Who toy, or movie poster (and every other material collectible) have distinctive symbolisms that are not reducible to exchange values. Meteorites invoke the power of nature’s unpredictability, which is mirrored in the wave of media coverage last week contemplating how humans can control such random interstellar debris collisions. Waves of people are now preparing for various impending apocalypses, so one asteroid mining company has found a receptive audience for its warning that “many asteroids pass by Earth with little or no warning. We were not exaggerating. … While not every approaching asteroid may be detected, and with little warning not all can be prevented, in this case a little warning would have prevented many injuries, and quelled the panic that followed” (underline in original). Absurd conspiracy theories about the Russian meteorite as American weapons testing, Biblical apocalypse, and alien invasion are ultimately efforts to explain seemingly inexplicable events.
In 1794, Italian abbot and geologist Ambrogio Soldani wrote one of the first scientific studies of meteorites when he published On a Shower of Stones that fell on the 16th of June at Siena. Soldani’s analysis documented a June, 1794 meteorite shower on Siena, Italy and assessed some of the fragments that had formed in the “high clouds.” This moved the explanations of such phenomena toward their cosmic origins, a point argued most influentially by Ernst Chladni, whose 1794 study On the Origin of the Pallas Iron and Others Similar to it, and on Some Associated Natural Phenomena argued for the spatial origins of meteorites. The “Pallas Iron” (usually known as the Krasnojarsk meteorite) was a 1500 pound Russian meteorite collected in 1772 by Peter Simon Pallas.
The first collectors were mostly museums driven at least explicitly by scientific discovery. However, when Chladni analyzed the Siena meteorite fragments in a 1797 study, he noted that fragments of the meteorite were being actively sold to English tourists. Chladni accumulated his own collection and prepared a catalog of it in 1825, with most eventually passing to museum collections. In 1913, Field Museum geology curator Oliver C. Farrington linked meteorite collecting to museums and high culture, intoning that meteorite collecting “may easily be shown to be a measure of civilization.” Farrington reasoned that a map of meteorite collection points “is almost exactly a map of the Caucasian race; or, in other words, of the civilized peoples. … A map showing the location of meteorite falls would also serve in a general way for a map of the museums of the world; and the presence of museums is well known to be a mark of the highest culture.”
Perhaps the most famous American meteorite is the Willamette meteorite, a 32,000 pound meteorite that was first documented by Europeans in the early 20th century. The legal ownership of the meteorite was turned over to the Oregon Iron and Steel Company in 1905 and purchased by a collector who subsequently turned it over to the American Museum of Natural History in 1906. Known to native peoples as Tomowanos, the meteorite became the target of a Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) claim to return the meteorite to Oregon native peoples. In 2000, the Museum signed an agreement with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon ensuring permanent access to the meteorite by tribal members, which includes annual ceremonies conducted in the museum documented in the community’s facebook page.
The fascination with such debris likely has always revolved around its material evocation of the primal elements of the universe and mysterious if not inexplicable dimensions of nature and the cosmos. Possessing such an object—and explaining it—secures some meaning of power over an otherwise fickle and uncontrollable nature. The explanations may be purely scientific dissections of the chemical origins of meteorites and spatial debris, which provides some measure of explicability over otherwise unpredictable meteorites. Yet even then meteorites sound oblique but unsettling warnings about the power of nature: after all, the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatan peninsula was formed by an asteroid collision that inflicted mass extinctions roughly 66 million years ago.
The fascination with such objects certainly is fanned by their exchange, by it was not created by the market: in the case of space debris collections, the curiosity over the thing and its invocation of nature’s power preceded a marketplace dealing in such things simply as interchangeable commodities. When fragments of the Willamette meteorite have been offered for sale at auction, indigenous people have been at odds with sellers, including one quoted in 2007 as indicating that “The beliefs of the Grand Ronde [Oregon indigenous peoples] should not preclude science or the commerce of meteorites” (the fragment eventually fell short of its pre-sale estimate and was not purchased).
The collection of such objects that materialize efforts to secure symbolic control over life is somewhat akin to Gabriel Moshenska’s study of World War II collections of shrapnel. During World War II, children collected, traded, and in somes cases curated shrapnel to “cope with the upheaval and brutality of total war.” Moshenska argues that shrapnel collecting was distinct from other material collecting in its effort to negate and domesticate wartime violence if not assume an active if symbolic role in the war. Like meteorites, every piece of shrapnel was uniquely twisted into its contemporary form reflecting its own peculiar origins. Shrapnel was free for collecting with no long-term ambitions to trade the fragments for anything other than different shrapnel, so it escaped the impression of marketplace values (although shrapnel is now traded on ebay and in collector communities).
All collecting involves some aspiration for control in the way assemblages are used to categorize the world and social life, and objects associated with violence in the case of shrapnel or nature’s unpredictable fury in the case of meteorites certainly aspire to establish some control over the things we cannot control. Any rock bears the symbolism of deep geological time, and many people collect geological specimens that weave this story of time and geological complexity. Yet meteorites invoke that primal depth of time and nature while underscoring its unpredictability and reflecting that some people are wary of scientific explanations. For many such observers, meteorite fragments are less about exchange value than their symbolic illumination of the depths of nature and humans’ absence of control over nature.
Oliver C. Farrington
1901 A Century of the Study of Meteorites. Popular Science Monthly 58:429-433.
1913 Meteorite Collecting and Collections. Proceedings of the American Association of Museums VII:11-15.
1995 Siena, 1794: History’s Most Consequential Meteorite Fall. Meteoritics 30(5)540-541.
1996 Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni (1756-1827) and the origins of modern meteorite research. Meteoritics and Planetary Science 31(5):545-588.
U.B. Marvin, and M.L. Cosmo
2002 Domenico Troili (1766): “The true cause of the fall of a stone in Albereto is a subterranean explosion that hurled the stone skyward.” Meteoritics and Planetary Science 37(12):1857-1864.
G.J.H. McCall, A.J. Bowden, and R.J. Howarth
2006 The History of Meteoritics—Overview. In The History of Meteoritics and Key Meteoritic Collections: Fireballs, Falls, and Finds, edited by G.J.H. McCall, A.J. Bowden, and R.J. Howarth, pp.1-13. London Geological Society, London.
2008 A Hard Rain: Children’s Shrapnel Collections in the Second World War. Journal of Material Culture 13(1):107-125.
Benld car seat image courtesy Shsilver
Krasnojarsk image courtesy Jon Taylor
Natural History Museum image courtesy H. Raab
Willamette 1906 image courtesy wikipedia
Willamette AMNH image courtesy Meteor