An February 1883 Witnessed Fall: Alfianello, Italy
A Beauty Forged by Air.
A Form Destroyed by Rage.
A Treasure Lost through Excess.
My specimen of Alfianello reminds me of a polished rock bookend sold by the pair in small town gift shops. Its weight in can be measured in pounds, and its dimensions in inches- including its thickness. Of course metric units are the industry standard, but US measurement can be so much fun since their crude precision is smug with irresponsible surplus.
Making its debut at the Accretion Desk is an faux antique scale cube created by Tom Phillips. Tom calls these cubes “Martin Cubes” after me because he thought I would like them given my interest- make that obsession- with historic witnessed falls. Tom was right, and he can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
It was an interesting morning when I got a slab of Italian history from Bob Haag. The day before, while at the 2005 Tucson Show, my collection turned a corner in status when Bob passed a whole handful of torches on to me…for a price of course.
Bob and I were going to complete the deal the following day, so when I showed up the next morning, I quizzed Bob about the Alfianello sitting in his display case before completing our deal. He named a price, and in an rarely used but highly practiced reply, I agreed to the sale without really thinking about it. In fact I didn’t need to think much at all because deep down in my subconscious, the mere act of asking was already its own answer.
Fusion crust engulfs one edge of my slice like black on a charred log.
Sensuous undulations of frozen liquid rock embrace the regmaglypts like black silk sheets clinging to sweaty lovers.
In real estate, one can use market values of similar properties for comparison. But in this case, there was nothing like it available in the world (to my knowledge anyway) and there hadn’t been in a long time (as far as I knew).
Was it old? Yes, well over a century.
Did it have crust? Yup. Plenty.
A rich collection history? Richer than a $10 chocolate truffle.
What about TKW?
Well, the aimless blade of science-to quote Neil Young- would say there are 228kgs that fell from the sky. But a recent global collection inventory of Alfianello could account for less than a quarter of that amount. So with ~50kgs accounted for, that means that my piece of Alfianello represents at least 2% of the total known material. And given the number of smaller pieces in collections, it also places my piece in the upper echelons of size.
Good thing I don’t worry about such trivial details as classification. And so what if Alfianello is the most common meteorite class in the solar system. All kidding aside, although Alfianello is an L6 chondrite it does have some large chondrules including one very nice megachondrule. There is also enough shiny metal flake to keep a whole school of bass busy all day.
|This Easter Egg of a megachondrule overpowers every other internal feature on this slice. I figure that any time one can use a scale cube to show the size of a chondrule, it’s a good thing!|
But I digress. Although adding the purchase of Alfianello to my pile of amazing meteorites raised the total I spent with Bob that weekend by half again as much, I knew that there was no way such an opportunity would ever come my way again, or at least again before my wallet had a chance to recover.
|A rich collection history? What could be better than this? Oh, ok. I can imagine better too, but you’ve got to admit that provenance from the famous Humboldt University Museum in Berlin followed by the Robert A. Haag collection is hard to beat these days.|
On May 26, 1883, the Stevens Point Journal newspaper in Stevens Point, Wisconsin ran a story about the Alfianello fall. A few notable points in the playful slice of newsprint history include that the meteorite was hot, stunk, and most of all, shaped like a truncated cone.
A truncated cone?
A quick google search for “truncated cone” yields a first hit for wikipedia’s entry for frustum that contains the following line: “In the aerospace industry, frustum is the common term for the fairing between two stages of a multistage rocket (such as the Saturn V), which is shaped like a truncated cone.”
Here’s the text from the article:
The Rome correspondent of the St. James Gazette says that on the 16th of February some peasants working in a field near Brescia were startled by hearing a loud report like thunder. Looking up they saw the clouds torn open, and a large body followed by a train of bluish smoke hurtling through the air over their heads with the noise of an express train.
The aerolite buried itself in an adjoining field, the fall causing a shock like that of earthquake. It was felt ten kilometers away, while the report was heard at Verona and Piacenze, many miles distant.
When they had recovered from their fright the peasants hurried to the spot, and found a clean hole about three feet deep running in an oblique direction from north-northeast; and on digging down they came to a solid block, in the form of a truncated cone, weighing from four to five hundred pounds.
The surface, which was still hot, and emitted a sulfurous smell, was covered with a greenish black crust, full of small holes, such as would be made by finger-tips in a soft paste, which may have given rise to the report that one of the fragments bore the impress of a hand.
The proprietor of the clover-field in which the aerolite fell flew into a rage at his crops being trampled down by people coming to see it, and broke it up, when it was carried away piece meal. So he gained nothing but damage to his fields, while those who picked up the pieces found a ready sale for them, one man getting as much a seven thousand franks for a lump that weighed twenty-five pounds.
On a subsequent search by Professor Bombicci, of Bologna, several pieces of scorize, apparently detached from the aerolite in its flight, were found in the neighborhood.”
As you can read, the beautifully oriented 228kg individual of Alfianello was broken to pieces through the rage of the caretaker. But had the farmer played a different card, he might have had the story of one of the world’s most famous oriented stone meteorite falls in history forever linked to his family name in the history books. Sadly, even when stones fall from the sky today, they often suffer the same fate of shallow minds who misdirect their frustrations, or expect internally buried treasure.
On another note, it seems that “Professor Bombicci of Bologna” was a busy man. Here are two links for his legacy. The first is for the L. Bombicci Mineralogy Museum, and the second is for a specimen collection card from the Luigi Bombicci Mineralogical Museum at the University of Bologna founded 1860.
|Even the so-called ordinary L6 is filled with jewels from our ancient solar system. Under a microscope or magnifying glass, this slice of cosmic property provides acres and hours of enjoyment as you discover the shapes, colors and features jam-packed into a seemingly monotone structure.
You can mouse-over the images both above and below to compare real color to inverted color. By doing so, different features- and features within features- in the Alfianello matrix jump out.
Another more technical article was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 35 (1883), pp. 258-260. Here is an excerpt from that article addressing the circumstances of the fall and recovery of Alfianello.
Examination of the Meteorite which fell on the 16th February 1883, at Alfianello, in the District of Verolannova, in the Province of Brescia, Italy.
By WALTER FLIGHT, D.Sc., F.G.S. Communicated by Professor G. G. Stokes, Sec. RS. Received May 17, 1883.
I gather from a short preliminary notice, which has been sent by M. Denza to Professor Daubree, and has been published in a recent number of the ” Comptes Rendus,” a few particulars respecting the fall of this stone, and its general appearance.
Except for the megachondrule, this region of Alfianello matrix could be considered a random snapshot generalizable to all Alfianello material.
The more time you spend looking, the more you will see. But don’t forget that the picture above represents only about five centimeters across.
While the arrival of Alfianello was a major impact for the year 1883, it was not the greatest. That honor goes to the famous eruption of Krakatoa volcano in August. There are many reports that up to a year after the eruption human skeletons floated across the Indian Ocean on rafts of volcanic pumice only to wash up on the east coast of Africa. Just imagine how that would be explained! It would make the fall of a large hot stinky rock from space seem odd, but not terribly unusual.
Until next time…
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