Star Poop and Meteoritic Water: The Journey of the Trâpeăng Rônoăs Meteorite

By: Melinda Hutson, with Dick Pugh and Alex Ruzicka (Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory)

In early April 2014, a woman left a phone message for Dick Pugh stating that her mother had seen a meteorite fall in Cambodia and wanted to have it confirmed. Dick called back and agreed to drive to Woodland, Washington to meet them and look at their rock. Woodland is about 30 miles north of Portland, and was about a 100 mile drive for the rock owners. When he got back to Portland, he called me, said there were some communication difficulties, and asked me to drive to Woodland for a second meeting. Dick and I met with Nary Suon, and her daughter Saravy, who acted as a translator. They put a rock on the table and it was immediately obvious that they had a genuine meteorite. This was the start of about a year and a half of gradually teasing out the information needed for classification, which was complicated by the need to translate from Cambodian.

Through Saravy, Nary told us about discovering the meteorite. I began to understand what Dick had meant by communication difficulties. The information came out in a very non-linear fashion, with occasional small details being inconsistent (e.g., directions) when repeated several times. The story we heard that day is as follows:

Nary and a group of relatives and neighbors were preparing a rice field for cultivation on July 4, 2010. They were eating lunch when they heard a “whoo” sound and thought a bomb was incoming. Nary said she saw a “breaking rock”, but no light or fireball, with fragments flying different directions. She visually followed one piece behind a tree, then saw dust “fly up” and settle. They went over to investigate and found a large dark stone (~11.3 kg) that gouged a hole in a raised berm between fields. Everyone fanned out and found two more stones (~1.2 kg and 0.5 kg).

Nary continued by telling us that someone from a Cambodian magazine heard about the meteorite and wrote a story about her nephew and the large stone. Nary started to hear suggestions that a museum might send someone to take the stones away from her, so she locked them in a wooden cabinet in her house. When she came to the U.S. in 2013, she brought the ~1.2 kg sample with her.

Dick and I explained what information was needed to classify the meteorite. The first question we had was “where did it fall?”. The answer was “Campong Speu” (Saravy wrote this for us), which was either 15 miles or 15 km (maybe) south of Phlum Ping (?) airport. The three pieces were found southwest and southeast of the large one (maybe). Nary and Saravy gave us photographs taken the day the stones were found, a color photocopy of the Cambodian magazine article, and allowed us to borrow the entire meteorite, so that it could be weighed, photographed, and cut to provide a type specimen.

Photographs taken in the rice field in Cambodia where the ~11.2 kg stone was recovered. Top image: Nary Suon is in the center wearing a blue shirt. Her nephew, who was interviewed for the Cambodian magazine is in black to Nary’s left). Bottom image: Villagers standing in the rice field. The meteorite is immediately to their left in a berm. There is clear path from the top of the berm to the meteorite.

Back at the lab, there was a discussion between myself, Dick, and Alex. Alex serves on the Meteoritical Society’s nomenclature committee, and is a natural skeptic. While it was clear that we had a real meteorite, Alex was concerned that it might be a partial hoax, with the stone having been purchased from somewhere else. He pointed out that the sample was clearly rusting, more than might be expected for a relatively recent fall. He found the fall date of July 4 suspicious, as it is Independence Day here in the U.S. He also found it unlikely that anyone would actually see a meteorite fall and hit the ground. In addition, the details that we had seemed somewhat vague, without a clear indication of a find location. Both Dick and I felt that Nary and Saravy were sincere. Dick had asked a lot of questions about the actual fall (sounds, smells, visuals). It was clear that no one saw a fireball. The story was consistent with what would be expected for the final drop of a meteorite. There was also the documentation in the form of photos showing the villagers standing near a large stone, as well as the copy of the magazine article. Alex replied that Nary wasn’t shown in the magazine article, and that the stone in the photographs was not the stone we had in the lab. I pointed out that the person in the magazine article was also clearly visible in the photograph with Nary behind the large stone. Alex said that we needed to get a good fall location. Googling “Campong Speu” got me to Kampong Speu, which is a fairly large province in Cambodia. There are large numbers of villages with rice fields in that province and southwest of the Phnom Penh (not Phlum Ping) airport. We needed more information.

First view of the ~1.2 kg stone analyzed by CML. The sample has a nice fusion crust with flow marks, regmaglypts, and shrinkage cracks.

Second view of the ~1.2 kg stone analyzed by CML. The sample has a nice fusion crust with flow marks, regmaglypts, and shrinkage cracks. Notice the rust on the base of the stone.

Over the next several months, while we analyzed the meteorite, we managed to get the magazine article translated. Several details in the article helped provide corroboration of Nary Suon’s story. Reading the story is somewhat like listening to Saravy’s translation of Nary telling about the fall and find of the stone, suggesting that the inconsistent details were typical of the people who saw the stone fall. The second paragraph said that the owner of one of the rice fields saw the rock drop and picked it up. Nary Suon is that property owner.

The article described in detail the rituals that were performed. Villagers took pictures and saw different aspects of God in the rock. Villagers visited, burned incense, and prayed, lending further powers to the stones. They repeatedly poured water over the rocks and drank the water for its healing powers. The repeated wetting explains the rusting we observed.

Finally, I ran “8 Roach Sakarach 2554” through Google with a request to translate to a modern calendar. It came out as July 4 2010, confirming the date that we’d been given. Things were looking good, but we still needed the fall location. The article said “the village of Komwill”. No such village exists according to Google. Nor could I find any reasonable variant.

The first of two pages of an article describing the finding of the Trâpeăng Rônoăs meteorite

Translation below:

The rock dropped from the sky, M. Choum Pech pointed to the spot where the rock had fallen. ‘It’s amazing the rock dropped from the sky!’ he said. The khmer people then yelled out ‘Arch Pkai!’ meaning star or star poop.

Four of the Cambodian people that saw the rock said it must be a rock from the angel that dropped from heaven. An owner of one of the rice fields saw the rock drop and picked up the rock and put it in a glass cabinet. Once the rock was in the cabinet, the people in the village poured water on the rock as it set in the cabinet. As the water flowed over the rock, they took the water and used it as medicine as they felt it had healing powers.

It was 11:03 am on 2010. 8 Roach Sakarach 2554. This is the year of the buddah. At this time the rock dropped from the sky into the village Komwill. Mr. Choumpach saw the rock drop from the sky and approached the rock with his wife. He and his wife have a 1 year old son. The son was born on the year of the pig. They have a wonderful marriage and family. His wife has a job and works at a factory. Prior to the rock falling from the sky, the wife had a dream that her husband was building a house and two ox came into the house and the husband hit the two ox and killed one of them instantly. The next morning after the wife had the dream, the rock had fallen from the sky. The rock had fallen from the sky and when it hit the ground it sounded like a big bomb. The people said there was a loud ‘pop’ in the sky and then they saw the dirt fly way up in the air. They said there was a hole of around 200 yards from people and when the rock hit the ground they all ran for cover as they thought they were being attacked by a bomb. Once the rock settles some of the courageous people approached the area where the rock had fallen to see what this strange thing from the sky was. One of the people was Mr. Choum pech. At first, he did not see anything but then he began to dig in the area where it had fallen. After he dug over a half a yard, he saw the strange rock. It had a black color and it wasn’t smooth. It looked like a chopping rock. The rock was large and weighed 11.3 kilos. He put the rock on him motorcycle and he brought the rock to his house.

Once he brought the rock to his house, he wanted to use it as a knife sharpener. Everyone in the village was fascinated by the rock and came to see it. They would come and rub and pour water on the rock. As they poured the water on the rock, the water started to bubble on the rock and they believed the rock had spiritual powers. They believed it must be from heaven.

The wife had another dream. She dreamed about an angel that told her the flowers grow in the water and that the rock was from god. Mr. Choumpach is 49 years old. He would drink the water that flowed from the rock all the time. When the rock fell from the sky, he heard a sound in the sky for three minutes and then a loud ‘pop’! and then if fell to the ground. He also believed it was a gift from the spirits. When they took the picture of the rock, they saw God in the rock. They took a lot of pictures of the rock and each one was different when they developed them. They saw buddah in the pictures and the ‘palm’ of God in the pictures. People came from all over to see the rock, including 7 temples which consisted of many priest. They all came to pray and give the rock spiritual direction. There were a lot of visitors from the city offices to come and see the rock and they all said they never seen anything like this rock before. They said the rock was from another planet. The old lady name ‘Satee’ who is 85 years old said ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before’ and she believed the rock was from heaven. When the rock fell, she heard the loud ‘pop’ when it hit the ground. The old lady named Koonsy, who is 64 years old is Mr. Choumpach’s mother in law. She announced that the whole village heard the sound for 10 miles away. She said it was very loud. She said the dirt flew way into the air and everyone thought it was a bomb and began to hide. Everyday they burn incense and pray to the rock because they believe the angel dropped the rock from the sky to help the people and shield them from illness and make them healthy. There was another old man who went to the rice field and heard the rock fall from the sky. The place where it dropped there were no mountains around. He believed the rock is from the angel. There was an old lady who was from a different province who came to the area and prayed for everyone in the village. She felt since they got the water from the rock and drink it, they are feeling healthy.

For approximately one year, Dick went back and forth with Nary and Saravy, trying to pinpoint the location of the village. This involved numerous phone calls, images and maps sent through the mail, and two more drives up to Woodland. At various times, he was told the village was “Konwill area”, “Komwill area”, “Kong Pesei area”, “Kong Pisie area”, “Prey Khlong”. We were told it was south of highway 4, east of highway 41, and west of highway 3. Sketches were drawn showing the two smaller stones in a vee-shape going south from the big stone, east from the big stone, and north from the big stone. Searches for “Prey Khlong” came up with a location that was nowhere near the highways that Nary referred to. None of the other names turned up during searches. We printed out maps of the areas bordered by the various highways that had been names and mailed them to Washington. Nary was unable to interpret what was shown in the Google map images. Nor were more conventional maps that I downloaded any better. She needed a Cambodian map, which she said she’d get on her next visit to Cambodia.

In late summer 2015, Nary returned to Cambodia and obtained a map of the area (“Administrative Map of Kong Pisei District, Kampong Speu Province 2011-2012” it says in English). Almost everything on the map is written in the Khmer script (Cambodian). There are a few places written in the English alphabet. There are co-ordinates on the map, but they aren’t latitude and longitude. We’re still not sure what co-ordinates are being used. With the map in front of her, Nary pointed out a red dot at an intersection, and highlighted the name in Yellow. The dot turned out to be “Kong Pisei” (on itouchmap.com) and a name on Google Earth that I could copy and paste into a Google translator, which produced “Pisey”. Eight kilometers to the northeast of “Kong Pisei”, Nary marked two locations as being the locations where the ~11.3 kg and ~1.2 kg stones had been picked up. The location for the larger stone had “Trapeang Roneah” (no diacritical marks) written on the map in English. About two to three kilometers to the northweast of “Trapeang Roneah”, was a location with a name in the Khmer alphabet, which Nary said was called “Prey Klong” and is the location where the medium-sized stone was recovered. She was unsure of the find location of the smallest (0.5 kg) stone. It is either to the northwest of the ~1.2 kg stone or to the southeast of the ~1.2 kg stone, but the three stones make a vee- shape with the largest at the vertex of the vee.

We were able to find the two locations marked on the Cambodian map on Google Earth and obtain latitude/longitude co-ordinates for the two larger stones. I was ready to go with “Trapeang Roneah” for the proposed name, but Alex said no. The nomenclature committee would require a more authoritative source. So we went to geonames.org and located the same area. There was a tag for location of the larger stone. Clicking it came up with the following as a name: Phumĭ Trâpeăng Rônoăs (alternates: Phumĭ Trâpeăng Rônaôs and Phum Trâp Ronéah). There was no tag for the medium-sized stone. So we submitted the meteorite to the nomenclature committee for approval as Trapeang Ronoas. After some debate via e-mail as to whether or not “Phumi” was important (it appears to stand for something like “town”, as in town of Trapeang Ronoas), the meteorite was approved as Trâpeăng Rônoăs (they wanted to keep the diacritical marks).

After the classification became official as an H4 chondrite, Nary Suon met one more time with Dick in Woodland, WA. Nary had retrieved the large stone from Cambodia and brought it for Dick to photograph, which he did on a sheet in the back of his pickup truck, with a rock hammer for scale.

The two larger pieces of the Trâpeăng Rônoăs meteorite. The smaller of the two shows a cut face, where sample was removed for analysis and to provide a type specimen.

The very rusty face of the larger meteorites resulting from ritual use in Cambodia.

The journey of the Trâpeăng Rônoăs meteorite has been remarkable. After being blasted off an asteroid and entering the Earth’s atmosphere as venerated “star poop”, it was infused with spiritual powers and ritually washed to provide “meteoritic waters”. Then the meteorite made its way across the Pacific to a scientific institution for study. It took a quite a bit longer than anyone wanted to tease out all of the information needed to provide an official name for the meteorite. But the journey is not yet complete. While the type specimen has found a home with the Cascadia Meteorite lab, no one knows what may lie in store for the remaining pieces.

About the Author

Melinda Hutson
Dr. Melinda Hutson serves as curator of the Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory (CML) at Portland at Portland State University, where she works on a variety of meteoritic research projects with Dr. Alex Ruzicka. Dr. Hutson teaches numerous geology/astronomy/planetary science courses to undergraduates. She also assists lab member Dick Pugh in CML's public outreach program.
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