An Article In Meteorite Times Magazine

This feature is devoted each month to one of the personalities within the meteorite community. This month we are delighted to share an interview we had with Dr. Svend Buhl of Meteorite Recon.

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Meteorite-Times (MT)
What or who got you interested in meteorites and how old were you when you got your first meteorite?

Dr. Svend Buhl (SB) From my early days and together with my father I was walking the fields of the rural countryside where I grew up, looking for Neolithic, Celtic, and Roman artifacts. The first money I earned from vacation jobs I put into a used vintage metal detector. At the age of 15 I regularly spent more time in the woods than in school or at home. I had a good relationship with the local curators and museum people and in several cases my surface finds led to further discoveries of the archaeologists. It was probably then when I found my first meteorite, alone at that time I had whatsoever no idea that meteorites could simply be dug from the ground. All of the hot rocks or odd irons I dug up went straight back into the hole. Sometimes I still wonder if and how many meteorites were among them.

(MT) What was your first meteorite?

(SB) That’s quite a bizarre story. I met a geologist who retired from the oil business in the Sahara states. He knew locals in the Republic of Niger, who recently claimed to have stumbled upon a meteorite field in the middle of the desert. I expressed my doubts, but agreed out of curiosity to get one of their finds analyzed in a lab. I had already forgotten the incident when a couple of weeks later a shipment with strange stamps on it from Niamey in Niger arrived. The box contained nothing but a fist sized rock and a set of coordinates. Expecting to generate some mild amusement among the men of science I took it to the Institute of Mineralogy at the University of Hamburg. Contrary to my expectations a delighted curator confirmed the rock to be a genuine meteorite. “It’s even oriented” he declared. This was the first of many meteorites to follow I had classified by an institution. It turned out to be a very fresh H5 chondrite and was officially named “Tassedet 001” after its find location.

This 79g individual from the Mocs L5-6 chondrite fell near Cluj, Transylvania on February 3, 1882.
It represents one of only 8 meteorites known to date from Romania.
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Do you still have it?

(SB) No. This and several others purchased subsequently from the same source in Niger were my ticket to the Sahara. I had a meteorite exhibition organized in an art gallery in Berlin, where all exhibits sold within a couple of days. I wanted to stumble upon my own meteorite field and needed funds to outfit an expedition in order to get there. Despite that I had never seen a desert even from far, I was somehow convinced that finding meteorites in the Ténéré would be a piece of cake. As you can imagine I was soon taught the opposite, the hard way. On this first trip I found a lot of experience though (laughs).

(MT) Do you have special areas of interest that you focus in regarding meteorites?

(SB) There are certain fields I try to improve my knowledge and skills in. How to locate these elusive rocks is probably the most challenging of them. The genesis of meteorite aggregation fields in hot deserts is a very complex process. I enjoy following the ongoing scientific discussion on the formation of surfaces, weathering, sedimentation and erosion processes in hot deserts which I compare with my own findings.

And then there is photography. Photographing a meteorite is a new art of observation to me. A good photo wakes a meteorite to life. It can turn a dead piece of rock or iron into a storytelling alien messenger with an incredible force of expression. A meteorite photo done right, visualizes the entire morphogenesis of the specimen. Photography is a major force in explaining meteorites to people.

A 5.7kg chondrite from Northwest Africa, currently undergoing classification. Despite considerable
 weathering the meteorite shows beautiful shallow regmaglypts.
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Do you have any special approaches to collecting?

(SB) Any meteorite exposing the effect of natural forces on its skin will attract my attention. Unfortunately this is any meteorite in its pristine state. This is where subjective aesthetics come into play. The more a specimen bears witness of the violent successive forces that shaped and reshaped it, the more likely it will capture my interest. If there is a chance I will always try to get an individual, or a fragment of a particular location. If that is not possible I will go for an end cut. I try to avoid meteorites excessively prepared, cleaned or coated with lacquer. I rarely acquire slices or micros, let alone a cube or a sphere. I would always prefer the raw bone to the carved idol or the raw mineral to the facet gemstone. You wouldn’t lay hands on a Nautilus shell either? Man is always tempted to redesign the curious natural objects he can get hold of. However from my perspective this is an absurd approach. It is a common misconception that human hands are needed to bring out beauty in nature’s own artworks. In fact it is skilful eyes we need to appreciate marvel in the ordinary. Of course there are certain lithologies or patterns locked in the stones and irons that need artificial treatments in order to unveil them. Cutting and etching are appropriate measures in this regard. But there is a thin line between bringing a pattern to light and altering the specimen to make it fit ones concept of beauty or ideal shape.

A 265g individual of the Kainsaz meteorite from Tartarstan, Russia.
The shower of CO3.2 chondrites fell in 1937.
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(MT) Do you mind saying how many locations your collection represents?

(SB) Probably much less than any other passionate collector. Early this year my inventory said I curate 289 single masses representing 115 different locations. I am still thinning out my modest collection. In average for every three specimens that leave I acquire only one new. However I am quite satisfied with the results so far. There are not many specimens left I would consider to part with now and the ones that are coming in are quite exquisite.

Oriented 77g individual of the Millbillillie meteorite from Western Australia. The specimen shows a
characteristic laterite soil patina which is typical for many Australian meteorites.
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Is your collection displayed or kept in a dry box or both?

(SB) Some of my specimens are loaned to planetariums or temporary exhibitions. I keep a selection of display pieces for my own delight in two climate controlled antique display cabinets. A few selected larger pieces serve as decoration in my office and studio. The reference collection is kept in a wooden locker, the specimens are stored in acid free bleached cardboard boxes. I keep any metal or plastic far from the specimens, I do not clean or coat them and preserve their natural patina. The only alteration a meteorite will experience under my curation is that it receives an inventory number painted on it.

A heavily regmaglypted individual of the Sikhote Alin meteorite. The 7.9kg mass from the Fersman Museum gives
a good impression of the tremendous forces occurring during atmospheric ablation.
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In what ways do you use your computer for meteorites?

(SB) Locating sources, both of meteorites and knowledge. We wouldn’t have the current worldwide community with hundreds of scientists, collectors, suppliers and local residents of remote strewn fields linked together without modern communication technology. I absolutely appreciate these possibilities. And there is more to come in the future. Tools like Google Earth in combination with meteorite and geological data bases for example will enable us to precisely plan expeditions into remote areas before setting one’s foot into a foreign country. Business directories in the internet will enable us to identify and contact locals in a meteorite fall area only hours after news of a fresh fall arrive. In a not so distant future we will be able to witness predicted meteorite falls in real time via satellite images and webcams on our desktops. And of course I do run my website with my computer.

(MT) Do you ever hunt for meteorites?

(SB) I do have a challenging full time job, which leaves little time for major fieldwork. One larger expedition every one or two years at best is possible. If I go I travel the North African and Arabian deserts. I came to like the solitude, remoteness and the harshness of life at the edges of human existence. But I also came to like the people I met there. I correspond with friends in Morocco, Mauritania, Egypt, Libya and Niger and try to improve my skills in the Arab language and to better understand their culture. I share greatest respect for the people of the Tuareg with whom I travelled the Air Mountains and the central Ténéré desert. After more than a decade of brittle peace, these decent people again are forced to retreat into the central mountains and deserts, to hide from gunships their government hired, while their villages are burnt, their wells are poisoned and their pastures are being mined. One of many small but bloody conflicts that don’t make it into the global headlines. So I am well aware that meteorite prospecting in the Sahara states is actually a very luxury way of approaching these countries. Following this approach certainly brings a grave responsibility with it. I try to commit to this responsibility as a messenger between different worlds and cultures. If my expedition accounts allow readers to comprehend some of the perspectives people share in those remote places cut off from the global media stream then they have certainly served their purpose.

The object of desire. An untouched meteorite find in situ. Though exposed to the forces of
terrestrial weathering for millennia it can not conceal its alien nature.
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What is your favorite meteorite in your collection?

(SB) That is definitively the first meteorite I ever found intentionally and picked up with my own hands. A 111g stone with almost fall fresh crust that was classified as a L3 chondrite. I felt like Sinbad the Sailor in the diamond cave when I lifted the stone from its pebble bed. What a beauty to behold.

(MT) What meteorites are currently on your wish list?

(SB) That must be the one I am chasing but haven’t found yet. At the very moment probably 2008 TC3, provided any solid material has made it to a touch down. It would be my great pleasure to make this material available for scientific research. I am in contact with a correspondent in Khartoum who surveys local news from the potential impact area and who has made several visits himself to the potential drop zone. Unfortunately to my knowledge no strewn field has been found until present. I still hope the Geological Survey of Sudan or other hunters will score.

A 27g fragment of the crater producing Carancas fall from Peru. The meteorite
was classified as an H4-5 chondrite with a shock stage of S3.
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What methods have been most successful in building your collection? (Buying at shows, from dealers by mail, auctions on the web, trading... etc)

(SB) The first consideration is always, can I visit a find area or a new fall site myself? If that is not possible or adequate I try to locate the original source of a particular location. Whenever I can I buy directly from the finder or the eye witnesses. Of course I visit mineral shows, my favorite being the annual Meteorite Fair in the small Alsacian town of Ensisheim in France. Tucson is on the schedule as well, although the date in February always collides with the climatic most advantageous prospecting seasons.

(MT) Do you prepare any of your own specimens? (cut, polish, etch, etc.)

(SB) I do my own etching, mostly re-etching, but for pretty much everything else I rely on the professionals. If I have to remove cut sections for classification purposes my material is cut and prepared by German meteorite dealer Andi Gren who does a fantastic job. For irons and more sophisticated cutting I rely on Swiss collector Marc Jost, his diamond wire saw and his expert precision skills.

Cast of the famous Middlesbrough meteorite which fell in Yorkshire, UK on March 14, 1881.
The 1600g L6 chondrite is a textbook example of a flight oriented meteorite.
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Have you had to take any special measures to protect them from the environment?

(SB) The best way to protect meteorites from threatening environment is to keep them from the people with the saws (laughs). No, serious, I try to keep locations that are prone to quick oxidation and corrosion out of my collection. With the years I have also found that some formidable rusters can be quite easily controlled. I do fine with this approach and have very little problems with “in door weathering”. The meteorites I collect are predominantly display pieces. It wouldn’t make sense if I locked them away or drown them in silica gel or lacquer somewhere in a plastic box.

(MT) Do you support any organizations or institutions devoted to meteorite research?

(SB) I actively support meteorite science. I donate a considerable percentage of the unclassified material I acquire to universities and other public institutions. This is usually exceeding the 20g archive sample required for classification by far. I understand that the public collections are doing a terrific job in generating public interest in the subject of meteorites. I also understand that institutional trades are a vital source for many researchers to obtain a broader variety of samples for their work. So they need additional material in order to have something to trade with. If I can afford to donate a sample worth of display additionally to the required analysis sample I will do that and I encourage other collectors to consider this as well. I may add that my personal collection is open for institutional requests concerning research samples. Besides I send my annual dues as a member to the Meteoritical Society. I can hardly imagine a better investment than to support the activities and publications of this Alma mater of meteorite and planetary sciences.

This 72g fragment of the Tatahouine meteorite fell 1931 in Tunesia. The light olive green meteorite
is a unique unbrecciated diogenite with exceptionally large crystals.
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Is the re any perspective towards the future development of meteoritics you might want to share?

(SB) Yes there certainly is, and unfortunately it is not a positive development we are facing. With the process of international globalization, which I consequently appreciate and support, we also see a trend to further restrict and ban a liberal and open access to meteorites, both as objects of science and as items of trade. The number of governments, institutions and lobbies claiming national, federal or institutional monopolies on meteorites is constantly growing.

(MT) What are the consequences?

(SB) The noble aim, to secure as much material as possible for science in the public interest, leads to the contrary. In certain countries banning private ownership has already dramatically decreased the number of recovered falls and finds. If there is neither the possibility for personal ownership nor a compensation for finds handed over to the institutions this has a number of serious consequences. Without any incentive there is no motivation for the general public to follow public appeals to take part in searches of new falls or hand over finds. More serious the major contributors of the past, the professional meteorite dealers and hunters, will refrain from costly adventures and stop efforts to devote their skills to recovery operations in areas where such laws are applied. That means much less material will be recovered or worse, finds are kept secretive or find coordinates as well as assigned data are being falsely transferred across national and federal borders. This in turn leads to false results of data generated from these samples. Science and taxpayers suffer most under this development as less material is available for study and institutional exchange and recovery and particularly acquisition costs are artificially boosted.

The Chergach Meteorite shower fell in July 2007 in the Erg Chech, in Timbouctou Province in northern
Mali. Several hundred stones with a combined weight of more than 100kg were recovered.
This 1.381kg individual displays a delicate texture of flow lines.
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Why should institutions with their own funded recovery programs bother?

(SB) The initiatives to restrict the ownership, handling and free trade of meteorites are also threatening existent collections. If you take a look at the public art collections you find the process of protectionism and regulation in a more advanced and more obvious state. There is hardly a public collection in the US or in Europe these days which is not entangled in costly battles of reclaims and repatriation resulting from claims of foreign governments to retroactively return specimens. And usually these were traded in the past under a more liberal legislation but that doesn’t seem to count. A very own market of law firms has developed that completely lives by processing and repelling these claims. Meteorite collections will have to deal with this scenario in a not so distant future, with the only distinction that most institutional meteorite collections do not receive enough funds to afford the same quality of legal defense as the MoMA or the National Gallery for example.

58g individual of the Bilanga meteorite from Burkina Faso. Bilanga is a unique calcium-poor
diogenitic breccia and one of only 11 witnessed falls of a diogenite meteorite.
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What are the alternatives?

(SB) There is no doubt that a liberal approach to this subject is certainly most beneficial in the public interest. If you consider that the vast majority of research material that was made available to international institutions, planetary samples included, was and is provided through privately funded recovery operations, then it is obvious that incentives for these individuals or organizations should be kept up and not be restricted. A commitment of private curators to follow strict standards in documenting and preserving their inventory, to issue public catalogs and to open their collections for institutions requesting research samples could support this. A large number of the major international meteorite dealers and collectors already exercise such standards. A more general acceptance of these standards could be achieved by certifying these collections through MetSoc for example. Besides achieving a better transparency this way researchers would have a much better access to representative samples in larger quantities and in broader variety. In turn private collectors following a strict code of standards should be allowed to acquire and own samples falling under a present or future monopoly. Sound legal protection of finders would set an end to manipulation of data and misappropriation of finds. More crucially it would definitively lead to a sizeable increase of recovery rates. By installing sufficient incentive models, private individuals would have a motivation to search for and to hand over meteorites to public institutions. This in turn would lead to lower acquisition costs for the latter and to a broader distribution of representative samples across international collections. Always provided, that certain public institutions are prepared to release their local monopolies in order to benefit a more international gain of knowledge.

(MT) Thank you for this interview.

(SB) The pleasure is completely on my side.