An Article In Meteorite-Times Magazine
by Martin Horejsi of Martin Horejsi's Meteorite and Tektite Books
The Meteorites of the US National Museum of Natural History
Part 2: Behind Locked Doors
Part one of this column (April 2002) dealt with the meteorites offered up for public viewing at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. With the exception of a handful large irons, the meteorites in the display are just out of reach, protected from curious fingers by thick plate glass. But there is obviously much more to the meteorite collection than meets the public eye. To fully appreciate the size and scope of the US National Collection, one must venture behind locked doors.
The bulk of the US National Meteorite Collection resides in cabinets, on shelves, in drawers, in various boxes, on tabletops, in corners, and just plain sitting on the floor (and yes, even the cliché iron meteorite as a doorstop). It is not a storage system in disarray, but rather one evolving from over a century of collecting rare, often-unclassified objects ranging in size from microscopically thin dime-sized slices glued to fragile glass slides to solid masses of iron outweighing cars.
One enters the main meteorite storage area through a non-descript door off one of the labyrinthine array of hallways running under, over and around the veneer of museum displays. Once inside, it is clear that this room is home to the caretakers of the meteorite gods. There is no place on earth with a higher concentration of historical meteorites than here.
The center of the rectangular room contains a large wooden table, with the surrounding walls thick with a myriad of meteorite storage solutions. One long wall is floor-to-ceiling in giant glass-doored cases filled with huge slices, individuals, and end sections any of which could easily be the main mass of its locality. The opposite wall is lined with specimen drawers, each like little city of aliens from space. Inside every drawer are smaller subdivisions filled with exotic and ordinary members of the meteorite community living side by side but each with a separate address.
The overwhelming number, size and quality of the specimens in this collection dwarfs any personal attempt to amass the components necessary to make even the faintest attempt to represent our current level of meteorite science. When confronted with a wall of meteorite slices, many larger than the famous Catalogue of Meteorites (including the 4th edition!) it becomes painfully obvious that the vivisection taking place to supply collectors with tiny meteorite trinkets misses the point completely. Staring into the face of an individual specimen of Cumberland Falls, a piece the size of my own face in fact, drives home the point that while DaVinchi's brush strokes would still be present on square-centimeter patch of his lovely Mona Lisa, the tiny swatch of canvas would hardly tell much of the story.
Prior to arriving at the Smithsonian, I studied the collection's catalog making a list of the specimens I hoped to photograph for my various articles, projects, and personal curiosity. Rare achondrites, LL3s, E chondrites, type specimens, meteorites of local interest, and famous falls all were on my list. I knew my time within this sacred cathedral was limited so once at the alter, I pulled out my list and camera equipment. Tim McCoy was more than patient with me as systematically photographed the specimens. I could have spent weeks painstakingly photographing each extraterrestrial, but this trip only afforded me a few hours in this room.
The photographs I took that day have appeared in many printed and online articles, on educational websites, on personal websites, emailed all over the world for research interests, and even graced more than a few office walls and doors in the dusty halls of academia. I have donated the use of my images to several authors for their books, for use in the development of university course materials, given them to educators on CD as well as printed in color, and provided them, as always free-of-charge, to various meteorite projects throughout the world including the past and current meteorite calendar efforts.
As we cleared off an area of the large tabletop, out of habit I set up my camera for microphotography. I was used to photographing specimens at sizes common to the collector, but here, like a bird watcher a world of dinosaurs, the close-up equipment was only needed for capturing specific anatomical features. And those features were often themselves much larger than the average specimen of that same locality drifting in the turbulent waters of ebay. In fact, I found myself more than a little uptight about the destruction of larger meteorite pieces to serve the collecting desires of the public, even though I myself was one of those collectors. But for now anyway, I let my eyes feast upon whole individuals, complete slices, and fist-sized specimens of ultra-rarities.
One of the type specimens I had an interest in was Novo Urei, the namesake for ureilites. These enigmatic achondrites of uncertain origin are arguably the most ugly of the stones, but also the most fascinating, one reason... diamonds.
Goalpara, India, another ureilite scored a little higher in the beauty contest, but not by much. Still, as I stared into the polished face of this end section, subtle details emerged in quantity and quality almost never seen in the small pieces dotting private collections.
Of the very few meteorites whose falls were photographed, the first was the H5 stone called Pribram. It fell in 1959 in what was then called Czechoslovakia. The fall of two other stones were deliberately captured using specialized cameras, and even more meteorites made accidental cameo appearances on various home and surveillance videos. But Pribram was still the first. In fact, even though meteorites are known as "the poor man's space probes," if one added up the costs for the network of cameras, and all the man-hours and supplies necessary to record and recover the three space stones, they would easily be the most expensive meteorites in existence!
I asked Tim about the slice of Chassigny noted in their catalog. He produced a beautiful triangular sandstone-brown slice with fusion crust like dark chocolate cake frosting thinly smeared on two of the three edges. Then he brought out another SNC type-specimen, Nakhla.
In contrast to Chassigny, the individual of Nakhla was covered with a licorice-black crust. Miniature windows of missing black skin allowed the little green Martian living inside to peer out at us, but still hide safely under his tar-like blanket of fusion crust. Considering that one of the largest and most complete Nakhla individuals recently gave its life for science, to spend moments of my life pondering this individual was a rare treat. The mostly crusted exterior of this individual of Nakhla bears witness that this majestic fellow has changed little since imprisoned by earth's gravity in 1911.
Ninety percent of the CO3.4 named Lancé is held in one institution in Vienna.
This French chondrite fell in 1872, but has had little distribution elsewhere in
the world. I'd read about Lancé, and I'd seen Lance' referenced in many research
articles, but I had yet to see a piece of much size. With 47kg of the 51kg in
one collection, it is easy to see why. Carbonaceous chondrites vary wildly in
their appearance. Allende and Axtell are of similar classification, but even the
beginning enthusiast would be hard pressed to confuse the two on looks alone.
Ornans is a sickly gray color sharing only the intrinsic beauty of a sun-starved
nursing home resident. While Murchison's jet-black interior, littered with
colorful chondrules and inclusions radiates with life. It is for this reason
that I wanted meet Lancé in person and capture his face on film.
Tim, sensing my appreciation of Lancé, pulled out a surprise specimen. It wasn't
just a slice of Allende, but one as large as a dinner plate! Covered with the
inclusions classic of Allende, this slice was also a treasure-trove of
chondrules. Even a small piece of Allende can offer a fair picture of this
meteorite's beauty, but to tour real estate of this caliber borders on
extravagance. The coin in used for scale in the pictures is a US quarter (24mm
Because of its excruciating rarity, many individuals of Cumberland Falls were
sliced up like a loaf of bread. But if you ever have the pleasure to meet a
fusion crusted individual of this aubrite from Kentucky, it might strike you as
looking quite similar to, well, a loaf of bread (not the rectangular blocks we
Americans call bread, but the wonderful round cushions that flow from European
bakeries). The oven of the earth's atmosphere baked the crust on this enstatite-rich
achondrite to golden-brown perfection. Most stones exit the oven burned black.
But care must have been taken in the kitchen that baked this loaf of Cumberland
Falls because its soft tan crust gently covers a snowy-white interior filled
with herbs of brecciation and metal flake.
On the opposite side of the spectrum of the beautiful Cumberland Falls is the
obtuse primitive achondrite known as Winona. While ugly May be an
understatement, research is showing a connection between the Winonaites and the
IAB/IIICD irons. This might explain some of the confusion over how Winona
expresses herself. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but even if Winona had
been part of the public display, I would have found her hard to look at. I still
cannot imagine why she gathered the attention she did from the Native peoples
who interned her in a stone crypt so many years ago.
The Oakley, Idaho iron missing from the public display (as mentioned in part one
of this story) was sitting peacefully in a corner of the backroom. Tim said that
a slice from the huge oriented iron had been taken for study. Oakley is a
dramatic example of orientation. The triangular mass has an obvious flow
direction beginning with the leading edge, then fanning out across a widening
robe of regmaglypts, gently tapering in thickness to non-existence like
Superman's cape flowing in the wind.
The Smithsonian is one of the very few places in the world that can cut and
prepare an iron meteorite slice of such huge size that no average mortal can
lift it. Sitting on a wheeled cart was a slice of the Old Woman iron so large
that one could mistake it for a car door. The Idaho-shaped iron, while not the
most beautiful iron in the world, was striking to see because this Old Woman is
really a coarsest octahedrite. When she was found in 1976, the Old Woman weighed
in at 2753 kilograms, but several comically large slices like this one have been
taken from her. These slices might be the largest window ever into the most
difficult Widmanstatten pattern to grasp visually. Years ago, I remember joking
about building coffee tables with the huge slices of the 280 kilogram Rio LiMay
chondrite that Edwin Thompson sliced up. This slice of Old Woman slice, however,
could make a nice kitchen table.
Another chondrite I wanted to photograph was the LL4 called Hamlet. Most of the
LL4 slices I have seeen were weathered finds or falls from more than two
centuries ago. This should not be surprising given that only eight of the 70 or
so known LL4s are falls with two dropping to earth in the 1700s, and three falls
each in the following two centuries. And of those three falls in the 20th
century, Hamlet is the only one in the National Museum because most or all of
the Witsand Farm LL4 has been lost, and all but five grams of the Bo Xian LL4 is
in one institute in China.
In 1868, a single rock fell from space and into Pakistan. Only one kilogram of
this schizophrenic little achondrite was preserved, and when Tim opened a small
cotton-lined box, I was probably looking at half that amount. Lodran is the
namesake for, of course, lodranites. At first glance, Lodran looks like what you
would get by taking a chunk of pallasite and tossing it in blender. Then take
the resulting mixture and bake it hot enough to melt the nickel-iron into tiny
spaghetti-like strings tightly binding the minuscule olivine crystals that
retained their beautiful color, but were reduced to consistency of sand.
The backroom we were in is just one of several housing the great meteorite
collection. Tim and I walked down a hallway, through more fireproof doors to a
large storage room entered through a two-by-four wood frame door fastened with a
padlock, and loosely holding a chicken-wire fence securing, or Maybe just
separating this area from others. Maybe a more descriptive designation for this
room would be as a purgatory for recently acquired meteorites. Stones and irons
of all sizes sat peacefully on tables, chairs, the floor, in boxes, and in
drawers. The meteorites stood around like emigrants in long lines awaiting their
chance at citizenship in the Great Collection.
Many specimens held tightly to cards like nametags reciting the only English words they could speak. As products of recent finds, trades, and discoveries of many flavors, the meteorites in this back-backroom were in rough shape when compared to the glossy supermodels of the main display. The smaller individuals were clothed in plastic bags, but the larger pieces sat as naked as the day they were born.
As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. But like another
saying, I still had one more card to play. I had an appointment with Brian Mason
and now was the time meet the living legend himself. For those less familiar
with Dr. Mason, I recommend reading the serialized autobiography he wrote for
Meteorite Magazine beginning with the 1996 August issue.
I met up Dr. Mason in his office where we talked a bit before we took a walk. The casually dressed emeritus member of the Smithsonian's science staff and I walked through the public meteorite display, a place where he said he rarely goes. It was fascinating to get his thoughts about meteorites while wandering between world-class displays. It was also interesting to see the juxtaposition of Dr. Mason being pushed out of the way by kids running through the exhibit. He took it in stride, but it brought home to me both why he would avoid the cattle herds of the public sector, but also that it took decades of painstaking laboratory work, much of it by Dr. Mason himself, to reduce the intensely complex story well-hidden within meteorites into a set of digestible displays of which much of the educated public can consume within a few minutes...and kids can run through for fun.
We moved out of the main meteorite display area to the room containing the Hope Diamond. At the edge of the room sat the great Tucson Iron. While the fans of the Hope Diamond gawked at its crystalline carbon contaminated blue, Dr. Mason and I studied the great Ring. Dr. Mason published his landmark book on meteorites, appropriately titled Meteorites, in the year before I was born. I tried to imagine the immense number of changes meteoritics has gone through in the past four decades. To stand along side one of the few people on this planet who drove the field of meteoritics through those amazing discoveries reminded me of how much we do know, but also how little we know.
The giant Ring sat quietly behind Dr. Mason. It was discovered in 1850, less than a century after the founding of the United States, and while Abe Lincoln was still four presidencies from the White House. Where will meteorite science be 150 years in the future? Will there even be a need to study meteorites then?
The Great Ring is solid. Only one major human attack scars its public face. But had the atmosphere of the earth been a little thicker, or even if the iron was going a little faster, we would have only been able to imagine what the Tucson iron would have looked like had it stayed a complete ring. It is with great effort, expense and personal sacrifice that those who went before us saved these stones cast to us from the stars. Likewise, people devoted their lives to probing the depths of meteorite chemistry. We are merely standing on the backs of the great men and women who came before us. While I was only a transient at the Smithsonian, albeit one who received some special attention, it is with great heartfelt thanks that offer my sincere appreciation for all the work the folks, especially Tim McCoy and Brian Mason, have done for the field of meteoritics. And I know in the distant future, my grandchildren will too.
I reached out and touched the scared face of the Tucson Ring and thought of the still-unknown mysteries in the chemistry of this iron. It is somehow related to the carbonaceous chondrites, as am I. My fingers ran across the thinnest part of the ring, and I thought about how easily this could have been broken by the hand of man or by the atoms of air. This great iron seems a paradox of fragility and durability. Just like life itself.