Ensisheim! The King of Meteorites

Updated: Martin Horejsi’s Meteorite Books Website
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A November 1492 Witnessed Fall: Ensisheim, France

Ensisheim! The King of Meteorites

Born in 1492. Christened in 1727. Baptized in 1881.

Ensisheim

The particular collecting genera in which I haunt is the intersection between science, culture and the fall of a meteorite. Using this epistemological triangulation, no other meteorite is as important as Ensisheim, the King of Meteorites.

Ensisheim.

The name alone conjures up the immense depths that meteorites hold in our culture. For those new to the field of meteoritics, the hamlet of Ensisheim, France is a spiritual almost mythical land. Ensisheim, both the stone and the town, are a physical connection with our past on earth and our evolution in the Solar System. For me there is no greater treasure within a meteorite collection than Ensisheim.

The story as usually told is that shortly before noon on November 7, 1492, a meteorite fell in a field just outside the walled city of Ensisheim in Alsace. The only witness was a young boy who saw the single stone punch itself a meter deep into what is now the rich soil of the eastern French countryside.

When the citizens of Ensisheim learned of the fall, many people wanted their own souvenir of the event in the form a fragment chipped from the main mass. As the crowds descended on the helpless stone, the Chief Magistrate took charge and stopped further destruction. The stone was set at the door of the Ensisheim church where its fame was soon magnified.

On November 26th, the “King of the Romans” King Maximilian arrived in Ensisheim to consult privately with the stone. Several days later, Maximilian declared the meteorite to be a wonder of God, and then chipped off two small pieces of wonder, one for himself and one for his friend Archduke Sigismund of Austria.

King Maximilian gave the stone back to the good citizens of Ensisheim stating that it should be preserved in the parish church as evidence of God’s miracles. The stone was suspended from the church’s choir loft along with an official city record describing the event.

Then 500 years went by while other stuff happened.

Today, in the City Hall of Ensisheim, the 53.831kg main mass is protected by the Brotherhood of Saint-Georges of the Guardians of the Meteorite of Ensisheim.


Ensisheim

The rough edge of my slice, I like to believe, carries with it the dust of ages and maybe the fingerprints of King Maximilian or Wolfgang von Goethe or Ernst Florens Friedrich Chaldni in addition to those of my daughter and son.

So much has happened to this meteorite for so many years, and given Ensisheim’s head start in the race through time is so great, no other thunderstone can ever catch it let alone surpass Ensisheim’s reign as the King of Meteorites.

It is easy to see that the global circulation of Ensisheim will never meet collecting demands. However, we must remember that those who walked before us in the late 1400s, 1500s, 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s cared for the Ensisheim specimens allowing their continued collection transitions well into the 21st century. But will we do the same? The Brotherhood of Saint-Georges of the Guardians of the Meteorite of Ensisheim can only do so much.

Every century and likely every year, specimens of Ensisheim have grown smaller and smaller, whether by intent, accident, or attrition. Now 518 years into Ensisheim’s stay on earth, we are still fighting the same human avarice that disgraced the initial Ensisheim mass into half its original size.


Ensisheim

As an LL6 chondrite (I choked on the word ordinary) Ensisheim carries with it cosmic tales in addition to its earthly ones.

For me, nothing says impact and melt as well as a brecciated river.

When the Ensisheim meteorite was lovingly bathed in warm soapy water in 1881, it was a turning point in meteorite science, meteorite culture, and essentially was the symbolic baptism of a meteorite to save the soul of Ensisheim.

Although the city of Ensisheim was deep in debt through political expenditures including the building of a bridge, the wisdom of the ages held out and the main mass of Ensisheim was not sold off to a museum collection. Not that museums aren’t appropriate places for such things, it’s just that once the pride and identity of an entire city and its people are reflected the preservation, at all costs, of a singular artifact that can never have an equal, the politicians bickering and posturing over a budget sheet must look elsewhere to fill their coffers.

For if it were not for the great people of Ensisheim, the King of Meteorites would, if just lucky, occupy its own glass case in a museum somewhere. My guess is that if Ensisheim had been sold into museum servitude, it would have been further violated into a display hemisphere devoid of the greatness it now possesses sitting atop its throne just a stone’s toss from where it landed over half a millennium ago.

Ironically, it is to pay homage to the Great Ensisheim that many cross the bridge into the town completely unaware that the very over-water pathway traveled on their pilgrimage could have been traded for the King of Meteorites.


Ensisheim

An odd scar is is visible on the smallest of the cut edges. I suspect it was from an unpadded caliper stand where this slice lived for some time on display. And when talking about Ensisheim, “some time” could be centuries!

Ensisheim

The longest cut edge of the slice shows more of the wonderful melt rivers meandering along this narrow piece of history with the same dignity as if it were flowing across a polished face.

Ensisheim woodcut

Graphic used with permission.

 

At the spring 1881 meeting of the Geological Society of the Upper Rhine, the stone of Ensisheim was removed from the City Hall and brought to an Inn in Gebweiler named The Golden Angel. The main mass was showing more its neglect than its age being “encrusted with a centuries-old accumulation of dust and dirt.” The geologists bathed the stone in warm, soapy water scrubbing it clean.

At a Society dinner served with the famous Alsatian wine known as the Knight of Alsace, Professor Knop of Karlsruhe continued a tradition started by Sebastian Brant by reading a poem about Ensisheim aloud to the group. The wonderful verses presented below chronicles the almost 400 year history of the Ensisheim meteorite at that time.

The Meteorite of Ensisheim
Fallen on 7 November, 1492 

Sonambulent is everlasting space
There wanders timelessly a meteorite,
Planet-struck, in its dreams
The numbers of its brothers pull it along.
In the black-reflected light,
It perceives in ultimate distance
The wine-cheered face of earth.

It can no longer restrain itself,
So long has been the wait,
In the cold of outer space,
Already frozen into crystals,
Now it wishes to change its place.
Filled with great desire
It scents, and hesitates no longer,
The Knightlet of Elass.

The attraction is tremendous
And it speeds up in its course;
As soon as it enters the atmosphere
It is slowed with a thunderclap.
Enveloped in heat and shock
In its headlong flight, it plunged
One meter deep in the soil.

From Ensisheim to the Vosges
The message spread at once
That a stony guest has arrived
Which had fallen from the sky.
Also Maximilian came,
Accompanied by his advisors
Favorably disposed toward science
He discussed the meaning with his council.

Thereupon, he cut with mighty strokes
Two pieces from the dark stone
And as true evidence of a sign from heaven
He coolly pockets them.
He spoke: “You shall take good care of the stone,”
To the burghers of Ensisheim,
“It will bring luck and blessing,
To your community.”

In memory of his words
They took the promising find
And hung it in the church of that place
And two hundred and sixty pounds.
And there it hung along in piece
Until the priest, overwhelmed with fear,
Saw in it here on this earth,
The devil himself.

The stone, admired and chipped at,
Insulted and jeered at,
That had been diminished to half its size,
Was transported into the city hall;
Here it lay in an alcove
Stripped of the church’s blessing,
An angel bound and imprisoned
For almost 400 years.

Until now a company of geologists
From here in the upper Rhine
Carried it to Gebwiler
And checked into the Golden Angel,
They held a lecture and session
On the nature of the region,
With research on the time scale,
And on an excursion they went.

And when the ‘Cock’ crowed
About the coral-meteorite of Hungary,
Although with crying and bickering
The one from Ensisheim was shown,
Thus spake the stone: If Eozoon
Had not disappeared
The glorious Cock, who had found it,
Would have recovered it.

The geologist at once recognized,
With their stone-friendly eye
In him a close relative
And they mourned his hard fate.
With water, with soap and brushes,
They scrubbed him thoroughly
And restored to splendor
The “Prince of the Sky.”

Now the stone showed openly its identity,
As a brecciated chondrite;
Pyrrhotitie grains and nickel-iron
Olivine and chrome-magnetite
And with metallic luster,
The stone opened its eye
And faced at the Round Table
The incomparable Knightlet.

The stone would have loved to stay with us
But it had to be guarded very well,
Torn from its lover’s hearts
It was brought back to its old imprisonment;
There it is still awaiting salvation
For a call from Berlin-it would mean,
In view of the public treasury,
For both a great profit.

It would be released from its misery,
The injustice of history revenged
The citizen would be delivered from his debts;
And Maximilian’s prophecy would be right.
And the little black fellow
Once banished as a devil
Would be transformed as a Golden Angel
For the benefit of Ensisheim.

 


I’m looking forward to the day when another banquet celebrates the King of Meteorites and a poem is read to 21st century people. The poem, filled with words from history as well as those from our modern world, relives the elegance of the past while gracefully transitioning to our internet-connected responsibilities to Ensisheim.

 

 

In the end, all we can do is say thank you citizens of Ensisheim. Thank you for caring about generations you would never meet. Thank you for sharing your honest words without fear a more scientifically literate society would scorn your beliefs. And thank you for saving the King.

Until next time….


The Accretion Desk welcomes all comments and feedback. accretiondesk@gmail.com


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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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