A September 1886 Witnessed Fall: Novo Urei, Russia
Novo Urei: The Stuff of Legends!
Putting the Urei in Ureilite
and the Muffin Hypothesis
|Novo Urei is truly the stuff of legends. Long before I knew the specific details of its fall and subsequent scientific discoveries about it, I’d heard tales about an amazing meteorite fall full of unforgettable events. Turns out, many of the stories were from the fall and recovery of the Novo Urei meteorite.As an owner of a important piece of ureilitic history, I take the Novo Urei stories personally and want them connected directly to Novo Urei instead of some generic meteorite somewhere.|
Meteorites are collected for both their science and their stories so it is a special treat when one of the most interesting meteorites ever also carries with it truly legendary tales surrounding its fall.
I don’t use the word “legendary” lightly. As a brief test for the legendary status of a meteorite, I made up this list of required criteria:
1) There can be no living witnesses to the event.
2) Parts of the meteorite’s story are known by many, but not always associated with the particular fall.
3) The story about the meteorite is regularly exaggerated or embellished.
4) The story about the fall or the science becomes a non-specific generic example of such an event.
5) The meteorite becomes a “type specimen” for a classic story.
6) A nickname, statement or important fact often leads or immediately follows the name of the meteorite when it enters a discussion, or is up for auction or exchange.
Other stones that I believe qualify as Legendary include Ensisheim, Orgueil and Weston. I expect Murchison will become Legendary in 2069, and Park Forest in 2103.
|Novo Urei has the classic look of a fresh ureilite. As it should since Novo Urei is the type specimen for the class and thus put the Urei in Ureilite!|
Most collectors have heard or read the following about a meteorite that…
-Caused peasants to fall to the ground in fear;
-Thunderbolts were falling from the sky;
-The stone was filled with diamonds;
-The meteorite was eaten right after it fell;
-The stone was smashed and eaten;
-The stone was full of diamonds and was eaten;
-The meteorite landed in a swamp;
-Two of the three fallen stones were lost.
|Years ago when I had the opportunity to photograph many of the amazing but undisplayed pieces in the Smithsonian’s collection, Novo Urei was on my list. The image above is the specimen in their collection. I believe this sample weighs more than 50 grams.|
According to an 1886 report by a teacher from Kirensk City named P.I. Baryshnikov, the events of the fall of Novo Urei were as follows:
In the morning several peasants plowed their field 3 km from a village.
The day was gloomy, the whole northeastern sky was covered by clouds.
Suddenly a light appeared all around.
In several seconds a strong report was heard, like a cannon or explosion.
Then came a second, louder noise.
With a loud noise a fireball fell to Earth a few meters from the peasants.
Frightened, they did not know what to do.
They fell to the ground and could not move for a long time.
They thought it was a strong thunderstorm, and that thunderbolts were falling from the sky.
Finally, one of them, more brave, came to the place where the thunderbolt had fallen, and to his surprise found only a shallow hole.
In the middle of the hole a black stone lay half-buried in the soil.
|The slicing of a ureilite is no simple task. As you know diamonds are hard, and often as hard as the blades used to cut these things. As with most rock cutting, the rock is not really cut per se, but instead a gash is ground into the stone resulting in to two or more separate pieces.Because of the extreme hardness of ureilites, they put up quite a fight with expensive saw blades. Luckily most people never have to cut one.|
The image above shows the precision of the cut resulting in a very clean 90 degree corner. Usually once cut, the prep ends since polishing a ureilite does not often bring out much detail and requires another serious effort that is both hard on man and machine.
Harry McSween, in his book Meteorites and Their Parent Planets (1999), wrote the following:
“On a September morning in 1886, several meteorites fell near the village of Novo Urei in the Krasnoslobodsk district of Russia. This was a particularly interesting fall for several reasons. One of the stones was soon recovered by local peasants, where- upon it was broken apart and eaten.
The motivation for this rather unusual action is not known, but this constituted an impressive feat from a dental perspective, because the meteorite contained numerous small diamonds.
The uneaten specimens from this fall proved to be a unique type of achondrite; subsequently recovered meteorites of this class are known as ureilites.”
“The ureilites are arguably the most bizarre and perplexing of all meteorites.”
“It seems likely that the ureilite parent body had a carbonaceous chondrite composition. The addition of a small amount of basalt (presumably extracted from these residues) to ureilites can produce a rock with the composition of carbonaceous chondrite.”
“One of the most interesting characteristics of ureilites (aside from their possible tastiness) is that they have experienced variable but typically intense shock metamorphism. In many specimens, graphite, the original carbon mineral, has been partly transformed by shock into its polymorphs, diamond and londsdalite (polymorphs have the same composition but different crystal structures).
Shock has also disturbed the isotopic clocks in ureilites. The olivine and pyroxene assemblage appears to have formed 4.5 billion years ago, but some some radiogenic isotopes were redistributed at 4.0 billion years ago.”
|My Muffin Hypothesis assumes that the individual of Novo Urei that was broken apart and eaten was actually a small highly oriented individual that not only resembled a muffin or cupcake, but also, due to its carbonaceous chondrite ancestry, offered the finders a peasant or familiar aroma of some sort.|
Over the years, when contemplating why anyone would eat a freshly fallen meteorite, let alone a one filled with diamonds it has been speculated that the meteorite may have smelled good, or was shaped like a loaf of bread. When I first read those suppositions I joked in my mind that if the peasants could mistake a cinder-black diamond-hard rock that fell from the sky for a loaf of bread, then there are big problems with either the local baker or the peasant’s drinking water.
Imagine the dialog:
Nikita: Hey Vladimir, check out this delicious looking piece of bread that just fell from the sky.
Vladimir: Looks a little well-done for my tastes. But it smells good like Grandpa’s vodka.
Nikita: Drat! My knife blade broke.
Vladimir: Maybe we can smash the bread apart on this rock.
Nikita: Or take it to the blacksmith. He has a big hammer.
Vladimir: Mmmm. It’s still warm in the middle.
Nikita: I think it’s kind of dry. Maybe needs some butter?
Vladimir: Tastes moist and salty to me.
Anastasiya: What are you idiots eating? You look like vampires with blood dripping out of your mouths!
But in the interest of science, I pursued it in my mind during a long trail run. My conclusion snapped into focus when I considered the 158g difference between the listed TKWs of Novo Urei by the Russian Academy of Science and the Catalogue of Meteorites.
A 158g meteorite is not very large, golf ball sized maybe?. Just by considering a small sized individual made consuming the stone a more palatable thought. Then I added to the mix that Goalpara was a highly oriented stone so it is conceivable that an oriented stone with an exaggerated rollback rim, distinct clean lipping, thick frosting-like flowlines, and a trailing face with a flat surface could make stone meteorite mimic a muffin’s look quite well.
Smells are often associated with freshly fallen meteorites, from sweet to sulfurous. The carbonaceous chondrite named Murchison is the poster child for stinky meteorites having offended the olfactory senses of many residents of the small Australian town in which it fell. Ureilites are related to carbonaceous chondrites so a smelly, possibly pleasantly so, muffin-like small black stone is actually a reasonable possibility.
So how would such a muffin fall from the sky? It’s a stretch, but imagine a bakery exploding. I’m not sure what the bakers in the Respublika Mordoviya of Russia used to heat their ovens in 1886, presumably wood, but a vat of something or other could blowup.
Or more reasonably, imagine a disgruntled shopper with freshly broken tooth throwing the stone-like muffin in a fit of rage where it landed at the feet of hungry field workers.
Formally, The Muffin Hypothesis states that one individual of the Novo Urei meteorite was exceptionally oriented resembling a pastry like a muffin, it emitted an odor adding to the disguise, and was small enough (~158g) when broken apart, the “crumbs” could be easily eaten without the dental damage imagined if the peasants bit into the meteorite as if it were an apple.
My conclusion, therefore, supports the need to dredge the contents of those outhouses nearby the fall site that were active during the few days after the fall. Unless it was common for the local residents to eat rocks, the stratographic layer under the outhouse corresponding to the appropriate timeframe should be relatively free from rocks except for those of interest.
|Pictured above is the polished face of a sample of Goalpara, a ureilite that was discovered (fell?) in 1868 in India. While I certainly enjoy the polished face and appreciate the work that went into such prep, this really is not, in my opinion, a dramatic improvement over a rough cut face. However, under magnification, it is a different story altogether.|
Novo Urei was the first meteorite in which diamonds were found. The discovery of diamonds was made by the Russian scientists Erofeev and Lachinov in 1888, only two years after its fall. Although Novo Urei, and all other fresh ureilites require a learned appreciation for their surface features, in thin section, they are an entirely different world. To quote Norton and Chitwood (2008):
“Under room lighting, cut slabs appear dark and opaque and just plain uninteresting. Thin sections of ureilites seen in cross-polarized light, however, show a spectacular color field of olivine and pigeonite in various crystal orientations.
These ugly ducklings of the achondrites are some of the most beautiful of the asteroidal achondrites.”
|Due to the dark matrix of a ureilite, the fusion crust is generally more apparent though its texture than its contrast. The above image shows the briefest appearance of crust on my slice of Novo Urei.The photograph below shows the wonderful, very durable crust on my end section of Goalpara,|
Novo-Urei has been on my wish list for as long as I’ve had a wish list. I guess you could say Novo Urei was my wish list.
I remember once seeing a tiny piece of Novo Urei on ebay. It was about half a gram in mass and the bidding started at $250. I hesitated and lost it. Figuring that more would show up, I first contacted the seller only to learn that there was no more available.
That loss never left me. I knew there was a gaping hole in my collection that only Novo Urei could fill.
|As they say (and who is ‘they’ anyway?) beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Such is true for the Ureilites and in this case, Novo Urei is a world class supermodel at whom I cannot stop gawking.There is nothing about this meteorite that is average. There is nothing mundane, and there is nothing ordinary. Novo Urei is exceptional across the board from any direction, from any perspective. It is an amazing sample of our solar system, of our interaction with such material, and of how the field of science and folklore can change forever due to one specific thunderstone.|
While Novo Urei was not the first ureilite to fall (or I guess it was due to semantics), it is the type specimen for the class called ureilites. Way back last century when I first learned about ureilites, I, like many, assumed the class was named for Harold Urey, a famous American cosmochemist. It was a understandable mistake given that howardites are named for Edward Howard, a British chemist, and diogenites were named after the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Apollonia. I wrote an Accretion Desk column about Harold Urey and ureilites back in 2004.
The Meteoritical Bulletin lists the total known weight of Novo Urei as 1900g, while the Russian Laboratory of Meteoritics lists the total mass of the three stones as 2058g. Regardless of the 158g difference, it is the fall date, class, type specimen, diamonds, and TKW that makes Novo Urei one of the most difficult stones of any flavor to add to one’s collection.
The worldwide distribution of Novo Urei, according to the Catalogue of Meteorites, is as follows:
The main mass is listed as in Museum Mining Institute in Leningrad.
The world’s second largest piece, listed at 481.3 grams, is in the Academy of Sciences in Moscow . Their 460 piece is pictured here.
The Smithsonian’s USNM holds 83g, and 55g are in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. The Field Museum in Chicago claims 36g, and 34g are in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. The American AMNH in New York holds 10g, Berlin claims 4.1g, and the last entry over one gram is 1.9g in the Vatican Collection.
There are only six ureilites witnessed to fall. The first was Dyalpur, a single 280g stone that arrived 14 years before Novo Urei. The remaining four are Lahrauli, a 900g stone that landed in India in 1955; Haverö, a 1971 Finnish fall of 1544g; Jalanash, a 700g stone that dropped in Mongolia in 1990; and Almahata Sitta, a 2008 heavily witnessed fall of 3.95kg of fragments.
Even including the recent fall of the anomalous ureilite Almahata Sitta, the global total weight of all witnessed falls of ureilites totals only about 9.6kg. Still short of an arbitrary 10kg threshold. Compare that to the rare aubrites of which there are nine witnessed falls and of those, four have personal TKWs greater than the combined sum of all ureilite falls (with one aubrite fall alone 100 times as much), and only two of the nine aubrite falls have TKWs less than the ureilitic heavyweight Novo Urei.
Its obvious that the collecting air is quite rarified when playing with these stones, and the prices and trade values match. In my opinion, witnessed fall ureilites rub shoulders in collecting circles with the SNC namesakes and carbonaceous chondrite falls of the 1800s.
|Not all specimen cards are created equally. When it comes to clout, authenticity and importance, few can challenge the Russian Academy of Sciences cards.This card chaperoned Novo Urei into my collection and is what should be expected when such material changes hands.|
Although the card’s text is a little thin compared to my other Academy cards (Pesyanoe, Chervony Kut), and the handwriting is not as elegant, this card is many decades younger than my others and is more utilitarian in its use.
As most obsessive and compulsive collectors of meteorites know, the thrill of the hunt and the gamble of negotiation that hopefully leads to capture generates the personal stories that fuel the collecting drive.
When the DHL man handed me the package that that had been keeping me up at night, it was a bittersweet moment. The excitement of a very long sought after Novo Urei specimen was tempered by an empty wish list. Sure, there are other specimens I want, but the quest for Novo Urei literally defined my collection wish list, and I had never really thought much beyond it. For a while it even felt that Novo Urei was an unintentional capstone of my collection.
But there is always more. Soon my hunting instincts were back at work, the glow of Novo Urei fading away. And there was another legendary small stone that fell in 1812 clamoring for attention. An even older and smaller TKW meteorite whose journey was deeply entwined in conflict, music, and national pride. But that’s another September story.
Until next time….
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