A July 1790 Witnessed Fall: Barbotan, France
A Holy Grail Met With Disbelief
More than 200 years ago, a fireball of epic proportions stunned the residents of southern France. So amazing were the tales of the arrival of the Barboton meteorite that those who missed it, well, let's just say their cup of disbelief runneth over.
At 9:30 in the evening on July 24, 1790, over southern France, a brilliant fireball was witnessed by thousands of people that some reported lasted for 50 seconds. The fireball terminated in a tremendous explosion and stones showered down on the villages of Barbotan and Agen.
The events of the fall wrapped in excitement reached the ears of one Jean S.B. Saint-Amans, a naturalist from Agen. Believing that the stories of stones falling from the sky were nothing more than a joke, Amans requested an official testimonial documenting the event. Shortly thereafter, a deposition signed by not only the mayor of Barbotan and his deputies, but also 300 of the hamlet’s citizens arrived on his desk.
To hold specimens such as Barbotan in hand is one thing, but to enter a sizable representative of such an important and illusive meteorite into one's collection catalogue is another thing altogether.
I am thankful that I was able to do both. But rest assured, I have not missed the historical cues illuminating the awesome responsibility that curating such material places on its preserver.
Disgusted by the document, Amans convinced his friend Pierre Bertholon, the editor of the Journal des Sciences utiles to publish both a note about the supposed fall of stones, as well as what would become one of the greatest examples of professional disbelief in meteorite history.To accompany the "news" article, Amans penned something to the effect of:
How sad, is it not, to see a whole municipality attempt to certify the truth of folk tales in the public record.
[T]he philosophical reader will draw his own conclusions regarding this document, which attests to an apparently false fact, a physically impossible phenomenon.
Barbotan is old and getting older. For perspective, Barbotan celebrated its bicentennial birthday almost two decades ago. But it is still only two-fifths as old as Ensisheim.
For one, such as myself who specialized in collecting samples of historical meteorite falls, there are but a small set of the “holy grail” meteorites. No single locality can claim the themselves as The Grail, but rather there are the usual suspects whose arrival forever changed the course of humankind. Those stones and irons deemed not worthy of Grail status are still of much value and much loved, but alas, their impact merely added to the mounting evidence initially put forth by one of the Holy Grailers.
Sadly, many meteorite collectors and enthusiasts of such things generally gain their knowledge and appreciation for certain meteorites based proportionately to the specimen’s total known weight, and thusly its corresponding acquisitionability. Ensisheim, Siena, L’Aigle and Weston are the leaders of the pack of grails, but the members of the Grail Club also include Barbotan, Tabor, Krasnojarsk, Hraschina, and Luce’, among others, by contributing greatly to the course of humanity regardless of their propensity to avoid being dropped as a name while average collectors talk. And this is certainly understandable.
According to the account of Barbotan's fall as described in the Meteorites of Europa CD ROM by Pierre-Marie PELE:
Saturday July 24, 1790, at 2130 hrs, Mr. de Carrit-Barbotan and Mr. Baudin were walking in the court of the Castle of Mormès.
Whereas the sky is calm and without cloud, they observe an intense gleam suddenly.
Raising their heads, they see a meteor of fire moving south towards north.
The meteor broke into several incandescent fragments. Three minutes later, a violent detonation sounds.
The meteor[ites] fell close to Julliac and a quantity of stones were found in this city up to Barbotan. Others fell still further.
Fragments of this meteorite fell into the moors, the forests, in certain farms but without causing damage, although Meunier writes that one of the stones killed a bull and a shepherd.
Several old texts omit to mention some villages where stones fell. The strewnfield is extremely wide as it goes from Losse, Mérin, Eauze to Créon d'Armagnac
Barbotan was on my list for years. Rarely was I ever able to even converse with someone who had seen any material for sale, let alone have some in their collection. But that all changed one day.
To make a long story short, I found myself in the position to purchase a wonderful piece of Barbotan. The problem was that I didn’t know what the price would be. Above all, I did not want to miss out on this specimen, but I also had to prepare myself to make the necessary kneejerk reaction to buying the Barbotan regardless of price knowing that while there might be regrets, I could deal with them later.
When the return email about Barbotan showed up in my inbox, I took a deep breath and clicked it open. I stared at the number, it not making sense at first. Carefully sliding my index finger across my glass computer screen, I followed the horizontal path of pixels connecting the word Barbotan to the dollar sign, and then to the few digits to the right.
|Bits and pieces of crust are scattered along two of the sides of this angular fragment. There is also a portion of a collection number peeking out from one edge. I've tried to chase the origin of this number but so far no luck. Maybe the Paris Museum?|
I considered the possibility of error or typo in the price, but also, drawing on my experience working with old collections, that the number glowing in front of me was completely in line with pricing generalizations often made when there are no comparables in the neighborhood.
I tried to steady my breathing as I made a phone call worried that email would be too slow. Without a hitch, Barbotan, France, a fall from over two centuries ago, arrived to my doorstep insured and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.
What is known about the collection history of this specimen of Barbotan is that it spent time in the famous Jim Schwade Collection prior to it stay in the even more famous Jim DuPont Collection.
That leaves only about 150 years of the collection history of this specimen unaccounted for.
Welcoming Barbotan into my humble collection was one of those turning moments in meteorite collecting that I have been lucky to have had more than my share of. It’s a point where the bigger picture of meteorite collecting and the importance of one’s collection take on a higher meaning. It is accompanied by a wave of responsibility, and a need for caution. In the most shallow of comparisons, it is like the birth of a child. Actually, no it isn't and I know I’m in too deep to ever get out of this one. But in a feeble attempt to pull my foot from my mouth, I will say that to use the word “own” in reference to a holy grail meteorite is a clear sign that the collector’s maturity is still in the future.
No, the grails aren't owned. They are only preserved in collections since the world’s entire human population has turned over several times since the courageous citizens of Barbotan solidified into the public record the fiery arrival of their moment in history.
Until next month…