An Article In Meteorite-Times Magazine
by Martin Horejsi of  Martin Horejsi's Meteorite and Tektite Book

Lucky Numbers: Specimen Labels as License Plates from the Past

A well-known meteorite dealer once told me about a phone call he received. During the conversation, a meteorite owner wanted to know how to clean the surface of some small Canyon Diablo meteorites. Apparently, there were white numbers painted on the irons and it was bothering the owner. The dealer assured the owner that those numbers were painted on the individual meteorites by H. H. Nininger, and should not be disturbed because they are an important part of history. When the dealer and meteorite owner spoke again soon after, the owner confessed that the specimen numbers were just too ugly so he tossed all the little irons into a rock tumbler. Now they were shiny and pretty.

While some might call it graffiti, to those of us who treasure meteorites the numbers painted on our cosmic stones actually improves their look. Now Iím not sure when people started painting numbers on meteorites, but I assume it was sometime in the first-half of the 19th century, and most likely coincided with the advent of meteorite collection catalogs.


In The BeginningÖ

According to Lincoln LaPaz in his introduction to the catalog of the meteorite collection of the Institute of Meteoritics (1965) the first meteorite catalogs were by E. F. F. Chladni in 1817, and Paul Partsch in 1843. While Chladni is a well-known figure in meteoritics, Partsch is less known to the meteorite enthusiast. Soon after taking control of the Vienna collection in 1837, Partsch published the first meteorite catalogue of the Vienna Museum collection. In 1862, Otto Buchner published the first catalog of meteorites considered to be systematic in the technical sense. By 1949, again according to LaPaz, L. J. Spencer published a list of more than 100 meteorite collection catalogs.


Whatís in the Numbers?

Specimen numbers can take many forms, both in their physical makeup and in their meaning, but rarely does the number identify the collection or any important information about the specimen. Usually the number is a placeholder in the collection indicating the entry sequence, or as an indication of from what piece the specimen in question originally came. But in almost all situations, simply knowing the specimen number tells little about the specimen unless one knows from what collection the number belongs, and has access to that collectionís catalog.

Specimen numbers are often painted with India ink on a white oval. Examples of this form of numbering include the American Museum of Natural History, many of the Nininger collection pieces, and those from the Arizona State University collection among others.

However numbers can also be in blue or black pen, or as numbers painted directly on the specimen in white or red such as with Monnig collection pieces (which often begin with the letter ĎMí), Institute of Meteoritics (New Mexico) specimens, and American Meteorite Laboratory pieces. Another variation is one used by the Soviet Academy of Sciences and that is where the number is typed onto cloth tape, then the tape is stuck to the specimen.

A colorful variation is to use red paint, and arguable the most famous red numbers are those gracing hundreds of Holbrook individuals peddled by the Foote Mineral Company of Philadelphia over half a century ago. Like a black widow spiderís distinct marking, the rich, red Foote numbers almost float above jet-black fusion crust on specimens arrested immediately after crossing the atmospheric boarder into the United States. Then, as if a tourist moving through the bureaucratic enterprise, numbers are added to the specimen like stamps in a passport as they pass from collection to collection.


Specimen Numbers as Art?

It is often surprising that someone spent the time numbering tiny specimens. Minuscule meteorite pieces from the American Meteorite Museum and the American Meteorite Laboratory are known to have intricately painted numbers, some smaller than the date on a quarter. Or as with some petite members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences collection, a tape strip rivaling the size of the specimen itself.


Dividing the Numbers:

Each meteorite in the Arizona State University collection has a specimen number, say 122 for instance. If that specimen happens to be sliced into smaller pieces, the resulting pieces are given the same specimen number, but with a letter designation following the number. For instance if specimen 122 is cut, one of the resulting slices would be named 122a. If that smaller specimen is again cut, then a decimal extension is added to the existing number such as 122a.1 or 122a.2. This is exactly the same convention that Allan Lang followed when he sliced a piece of the Tucson Ring and offered some of the material for sale. Lang even produced a brochure showing the original specimen, and the resulting smaller pieces with their new but corresponding specimen numbers. It is through efforts like Langís that preserve the collection history of important localities like Tucson. It also provides another form of evidence that the piece in question actually has the provenance that is claimed.

When the Labenne family began to gather meteorites in the hot desert of the Sahara, they too needed to find a way to number the specimens. They have used several numbering methods including the traditional white paint background with black lettering. Other versions included white paint numbers directly on the specimen, and even engraving the number into the specimenís weathered fusion crust.

One Manís JunkÖ

There are many more interesting examples of specimen numbering involving things other than meteorites themselves. One example is an old inkbottle that was used by Fredrick Leonard to hold a collection of small Holbrook individuals. In this case, the bottle held the specimen number, and the number marked the location of 31 Holbrook specimens in the collection. Maybe the ink in this jar was used to number meteorites in the Leonard Collection. What a fitting use for the bottle.

Tektites, oddities that usually run in the same social circles as meteorite May also have specimen numbering. The famous Darryl Futrell Tektite Collection contained numerous numbered specimens with the "F" standing for Futrell, the "IT" for Thailand splash forms, and the number indicating the specific specimen within the "FIT" grouping.

A Plea for Preservation:

One last area of specimen numbering has to do with numbers that are not catalog numbers, but rather weights. Many of the Juancheng, China stones carried tape labels indicating their weight followed by the Chinese character for grams. While not specimen numbers in the proper sense, it is my feeling that the tape stickers should be preserved as a part of meteorite history given both when and where they fell.

Even with Nininger specimens, there is often more than just the specimen number. Some specimens also had the weight listed as well as the collection number. Sometimes the weight was printed directly on the specimen, other times it was listed in secondary form such as on cloth tape stuck to the specimen. As with the Juancheng pieces, my feeling is that the weight numbers deserve the same preservation as the formal collection numbers.

Historic specimen numbers on meteorites are like endangered plants and animals; without our deliberate protection, they will disappear from the earth forever.

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