Borodino: A Rock for the Ages

The Borodino meteorite takes its name from the town of Borodino, Russia. Two days after the meteorite’s fall, the hamlet also extended its name to to the immensely bloody “Battle of Borodino.” For this installment of The Accretion Desk, I would like you do download and listen to the linked music file of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture while reading this story.

Link: Pyotr_Ilyich_Tchaikovsky_-_1812_overture.ogg

crusted Borodino fragment

The crusted portion of my fragment of Borodino was witness to a terrible battle where over 70,000 men lost their lives a mere 48 hours after the meteorite’s fall.

 

The fall of the Borodino meteorite is historically significant on many fronts including the front lines of war. On September 5th, 1812, as Napoleon was marching towards Moscow, a small stone fell from the sky landing near a Russian artillery battery just outside the village of Gorki. The battery Commander, named A. L. Dietrichs, was an officer in the 11th Pskov infantry regiment of Lieutenant General Kaptsevich’s 7th Infantry Division. Dietrichs was given the stone by a sentry who picked it up shortly after its fall.

matrix of the Borodino meteorite

The matrix of Borodino is much less eventful than the war that raged all around Borodino, both the town and the meteorite.

After the battle, and for the next 80 years the Borodino meteorite remained in the Dietrichs’ family. In 1892 the descendants of A. L. Dietrichs presented the stone to the Museum of Mines in Leningrad who later provided it to the Russian Academy of Sciences. For clarification, Saint Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703, and was renamed Petrograd in 1914, then renamed Leningrad ten years later in 1924. That name held until 1991 when the name of Russia’s “Cultural Capitol” once again would be known as Saint Petersburg, Russia.

 

 

The Borodino meteorite’s weight is much greater as a historical event than a rock from space. At only 500 grams or a little over one pound, the Borodino H5 chondrite in its roughly egg-shaped initial form would have been of little nuisance when carried in the pocket of a wool battle coat. Especially considering the other distractions.

A tremendous battle took place on September 7th, 1812 between Napoleon’s French Grande Armée and the Imperial Russian Army of General Mikhail Kutuzov. Over a quarter-million troops fought that day. More than 70,000 men lost their lives in battle with many more dying shortly after due to injury or starvation making it the bloodiest single fight of the French invasion of Russia

The Battle of Borodino was the turning point in the war. Napoleon lost a third of his men, and the French lost their momentum and began their retreat. Much commemoration of the Battle of Borodino, also known as the Battle of 1812, was written, painted, and put to musical score. One of the most famous commemorations, and one we often hear at least once a year in America on the 4th of July is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky famous 1812 Overture complete with canon fire. Tchaikovsky wrote the Overture in 1880 but it was not publicly preformed for two years. As you might imagine, the logistics of 16 muzzle-loaded artillery detonations during a musical score is a logistical nightmare.

In 1969, A. K. Stanyukovich chased down some loose ends in the Borodino meteorite story. In 1973, NASA published a translation into English under the title of, “Where and when did the Borodino meteorite fall?” It’s short and worth a read. Here is the link to the e-zine formatted article.

http://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/4482794/where-and-when-did-borodino-meteorite-fall

From a historical meteorite collecting standpoint, there are few peers to Borodino. In the rarified air of famous historic witnessed falls, the backstory, culture, world events, and chain of custody all play a significant role in the meteoritically spiritual value of a stone. Somehow the Borodino meteorite made it off the bloodiest battlefield in the Napoleonic Wars, through eight decades of family curation, finally landing the hands of science.

Battlefield souvenirs are a controversial issue. I will never question the decision of someone  who was actually there, but saving a rock when so many lost their lives transmits a rare but necessary responsibility onto the meteorite collector. A tremendous effort was put into preserving the Borodino meteorite. And every keeper of such treasures has the responsibility to honor those who died in the battle that gave fame to a meteorite now in their posession.

Although the specimen of Borodino in my collection is small at a little over 0.13 grams, it does represent roughly 1/3500 of the accounted for material today. That is equivalent to a one gram sample of a 3500g TKW, or two grams of a 7kg fall. Or 10 grams of a 35kg fall. As you can see, in all cases the relative amount is significant. Now overlay the fact that the vast majority of Borodino remains in a single mass with the second largest piece almost completing the entire TKW. With both of those specimens in institutional collections, the amount of Borodino available to the private collector is just slightly more than zero.

When the bicentennial of the 1812 Battle of Borodino was commemorated two years ago, I paused to consider the implications and contributions the Borodino meteorite made to culture, science, and meteorite collecting. Even if not a rare type, nor an exceptional fall event having hit nothing but air and soil, the Stone of Borodino symbolizes optimism for better future just before one of the darker times in history. Had the sentry given up hope, or had Commander Dietrichs not taken the time, energy or inspiration to somehow preserve the stone throughout the battle, or had his descendants not believed in the importance of the rock caring for it long after every witness to the fall had died, we would all be lesser people.

War is hell. But hell can be overcome by indomitable optimism. Even in of death, a message can be passed to the next generation. And the one after that. And the one after that. The Battle of Borodino was immortalized in paintings, writings and song as well as within a single meteorite- Borodino: A Rock for the Ages.

 

Until next time….

For scale, there are 70,000 dots below, each representing a soul who lost his life during the Battle of Borodino. That’s  700 rows of 100 dots each.

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R.I.P.

 

About the Author

Martin Horejsi
Dr. Martin Horejsi is a Professor of Instructional Technology and Science Education at The University of Montana. A long-time meteorite collector and writer, before publishing his column The Accretion Desk in The Meteorite Times, he contributed often and wrote the column From The Strewnfields in Meteorite Magazine. Horejsi is currently a monthly columnist in The Science Teacher, a journal by the National Science Teachers Association. Horejsi specializes in the collection and study of historic witnessed fall meteorites with the older, smaller, and rarer the better. Although his meteorite collection once numbered over a thousand pieces with near that many different locations, several large trades and sales have streamlined the collection to about 250 locations with all but 10 being important witnessed falls. Many of the significant specimens in Horejsi's collection are historic witnessed falls that once occupied prominence in the meteorite collections of Robert A. Haag, James Schwade, and Michael Farmer. Other important specimens were acquired through institutional trades including those from The Smithsonian Institution, Arizona State University, and other universities.
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