Serving The Meteorite Community Since 2002

The Untouchable Camp Verde

Ever since I started collecting meteorites my interest in the history and stories surrounding the specimens has been a prime motivator for what I would add to my collection. As a result, I have made the acquisition of worshiped or otherwise supernaturally idealized meteorites a motivating factor for what I collect. It so happens that one of the most interesting stories surrounding a meteorite comes from a “transported” specimen. These are meteorites found some significant distance away from their origin point. When found, they are usually thought to be unique meteorites, but like many things in the world, something is only true after study of it by a trained professional. For this reason many of these “unique” meteorites were eventually discovered to be identical to known specimens. While the Canyon Diablo meteorite is not at all rare in private or institutional collections, it is involved in a very unique story of a transported meteorite. It is a story that spans the distance from prehistoric times to modern day events.

Main mass of Camp Verde meteorite. Photo courtesy of Dr. Laurence Garvie. Copyright Center for Meteorite Studies.
Main mass of Camp Verde meteorite. Photo courtesy of Dr. Laurence Garvie. Copyright Center for Meteorite Studies.

I’m referring to the story of the Camp Verde mass of Canyon Diablo. This is a relatively large Canyon Diablo specimen, roughly 2 feet long, 1 foot wide, and 5-1/2 inches deep. It weighs roughly 135lbs and has the general shape of a leaf or arrowhead. For decades now the Camp Verde mass has been in the collection of the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University, and for that reason it has been considered something of an “untouchable” specimen to private collectors. Even some of the most respected merchants in the collecting community have been under the impression that the original mass of Camp Verde was still intact and had never been cut. When I would ask about available specimens they would tell me it is impossible to get a specimen of Camp Verde. It is called “untouchable”, for that reason. After some communication with ASU’s Dr. Laurence Garvie, as well as a modicum of diligent study, it turned out that all of those beliefs were erroneous. The mass has been cut (as discussed below) but specimens in private collections have been unheard of, until recently that is…

The rarity of Camp Verde specimens aside, in my humble opinion the most interesting thing about Camp Verde is the environment in which it was found, and the possible explanations for how it came to be there. The “transported” story, so to speak. For these reasons I offer the following combination of both history and editorial elaboration in the hopes that you will enjoy the story of this meteorite beyond just a few fundamental facts that can be found in reference books, or from other online resources.

The Camp Verde mass was cut many years ago with two specimens in other institutional collections. Grady (ref1) and Buchwald (ref2) agree in part on the distribution. There is a 541g specimen at the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, and a 671g specimen at the Natural History Museum in London. Additionally, in March of 2015 the main mass of Camp Verde and a 688g slice were temporarily placed on display at the Verde Valley Archeology Center. (ref3) As the meteorite was found in the Verde Valley area this was something of a “return to home” regardless of its origin point. It is of course important to consider why the Verde Valley region is a home for a meteorite specimen that should have been found 50+ miles away at the Barringer Crater? We will probably never know the answer to that question, but perhaps starting with some fundamental knowledge of the cultures which are indigenous to that area will get us an inch or two closer to an answer.

When people use the term “Pre-Columbian”, they frequently do not know the extent of its meaning. They assume that the precursor “Pre” meaning “prior to”, and “Columbian”, referring to Christopher Columbus, when put together refer to anything occurring prior to Columbus’s arrival to the Americas. That is correct, but in the terminology of Historians though Pre-Columbian also refers to the entire history of the Indigenous American cultures prior to when those cultures were exterminated, decimated or irrevocably altered by European settlers and their descendants. (ref4) This term plays a larger role in the history of meteorites than one might think as specimens like Iron Creek, Canada, among others, are known to have been removed from their Native origin by the expansion of European settlers into the Americas.

Full slice of Iron Cree meteorite. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institute. Copyright Smithsonian Institute.

One Pre-Columbian culture that is thought to have started at ~500 CE and died out ~1425 CE was the Sinagua culture. While their culture may have died, their lineage did not, and there are numerous current day Hopi clans that trace their lineage back to the Sinagua people. (ref5) If you have any command of the Spanish language you can tell that their name “Sinagua” means “no water”, and this was a fitting title for them. The Sinagua people inhabited primarily the centralized areas of current day Arizona, and they inherited their name from the earliest Spanish explorers who called this area “Sierra Sin Agua”. Unlike the adjacent mountains which are rich in perennial rivers, the mountains of what would eventually become central Arizona were absent of such a water supply. Regardless of this inhospitable territory the Sinagua people were successful in settling their early nomadic culture into numerous well developed sites across Arizona. They flourished in hunting, agriculture and craftsmanship of tradable goods such as pots, baskets, woven cloths, etc. Eventually they became active in the long distance trading that took place around the Gulf of California, which is the “marginal sea” that separates the Baha Peninsula from the Mexican mainland.

Their habitations were varied and scattered throughout the region of central Arizona, and their structures were rudimentary, primarily consisting of “pit houses” dug into the ground with roof tops built roughly at ground level. Later their structures took more vertical shape, more consistent with what we would expect from the Pueblo structures of the turn of the 19th century. The last known Sinagua structure dates back to 1350 CE, and is a cliff dwelling in the Verde Valley called “Montezuma Castle”. This is one of the structures within what is currently referred to as Camp Verde, Arizona. The structure was erroneously named by Europeans as “Montezuma castle” regardless of the fact that there was no historic link to Montezuma himself, who was actually born a full 40 years after the structure had been abandoned by the Sinagua people. Additionally, while the structure is fantastic in its scope, it functioned more as an apartment building built into a cliff side then a “castle”. (ref6)

Scattered throughout Camp Verde, Arizona are numerous ruins of ancient Sinagua structures. In particular was the ruins of what would originally have been a Pueblo style structure built high on a mesa (“table land”, similar to a plateau) above West Clear Creek. It is often referred to as the “Clear Creek Ruins” for that reason, though they are more formally called the Wingfield Mesa Ruins. From here there is a view of the entire valley, and one could understand how this would be something of a desirable place to situate a building of importance.

The structure was something of a gathering place it seemed, with a large square perimeter of rooms surrounding a common courtyard, built in the form similar to a stockade. This makes it unique among Sinagua structures. (ref7) The roof of this would have been held up by frequent columns which when in place would have made the interior feel somewhat crowded by comparison to our current day structures. Many of the larger structures from the Sinagua culture were built over longer periods of time, with portions of the structure being used, falling into ruin, and being rebuilt on for the next. This was not the case for the Wingfield Mesa Ruins. It appears to have been erected all in one effort, perhaps suggesting that it was a structure of some importance.

Whatever its use, clearly this was something more than just your average household structure, and was thought of as something of a potential “honey hole” for people who had the inclination to hunt for ancient artifacts. George Dawson was such a person. He was a man without steady work in the Spring of 1927, and he took his desire for discovery with him when he visited this structure on the mesa to hunt for old artifacts. (ref8)

As Dawson searched the area he found what he assumed was going to be a small cyst grave site built into the ground of the courtyard area. On top of the cyst was a flat slab of sandstone, a common covering for cysts such as this that contain human remains. From the outside he could tell the slab was not big enough to be covering a grave for an adult. He immediately assumed the grave was for a child, and that it would contain the usual artifacts buried along with a child. These would be considered modern day treasures to collectors of such items. The position of this cyst (within a courtyard) is worth noting. Why would such a spot be picked to bury anything if it was not important to the adjacent structure?

Dawson carefully and tediously removed the sandstone lid. The cyst was of course not watertight, and after centuries had accumulated significant dirt and debris within it. He cautiously excavated, clearing the debris while being careful not to damage the artifacts within. Little did he know that what he would find would be much more resilient than the average Pre-Columbian pots, clay figures or stone artifacts.

He did indeed find various artifacts there, but soon enough more was revealed. Within the debris was a bundled up blanket of dried feathers. These were Turkey feathers to be exact, and they were swaddled around what he assumed would be the remains of the buried child. He reached in to remove the bundle, but it would not budge. It was much heavier than anything he had expected. Only with great effort could he eventually wrestle the contents of this bundle up to ground level. After removing the blanket from the heavy object he was no doubt baffled. It was a large mass of rusting metal which had seemingly no purpose in this blanket of feathers. Later the fragments of pots found buried with it would be used to place the burial date at roughly 1200 years before Dawson’s search.

Even in the early days of the history of meteorite collecting, knowledge of the Canyon Diablo meteorite was commonplace, particularly in this region of America. Dawson had some idea that this was a meteorite, but it was not until 1935 that anyone with any knowledge of meteorites was able to study it. Nininger heard of the specimen and went to see it, but it was not until 1939 that he was able to purchase it from Dawson. The sale was for a sum of $75, being roughly the equivalent of $1300 today. At that time the convention in meteoritics was to name specimens for the closest post-office or geological feature. Nininger gave the meteorite the name Camp Verde, due to the proximity of the structure it was found in to the town Camp Verde.

From the point of view of Nininger there must have been many questions left unanswered… Where was the mass found by the culture who later buried it? Why was it buried in the manner of an important human? A blanket of turkey feathers was not created for just anyone’s eternal rest. This must have been an important object… Last but not least, was there any other history of this specimen in the local verbal history?

Nininger did not know at the time that it was a specimen of Canyon Diablo, he may have suspected this but there was no way to know for certain when he acquired it. Meteor Crater is roughly 53 miles from the Wingfield Mesa Ruins, so it would be foolish to simply assume it belonged to a nearby strewn field, though also foolish not to think it was possible.

One estimation of why Camp Verde was found in the Verde Valley instead of near the Barringer Crater is that the meteorite was an early fragment of the larger mass which broke off further away than other specimens would have when the original distribution of the strewn field took place. Another explanation is that the specimen was found where Canyon Diablo specimens would otherwise be found, and it was perhaps the only specimen found by these people regardless of the many that would make up Canyon Diablo over the years. Like any mass of iron though it would be thought of as important enough to hold onto. Even if they did not attribute supernatural origins to it, masses of iron this size would be thought of as useful, and weighing as much as a man it could easily have been transported on horseback.

Assuming the concept of it being a transported specimen is accurate, if this specimen was not considered unique, then why bring it back 50+ miles from the origin point? The burial of the specimen in a cyst suitable for a small human, and the further adornment of the specimen in a blanket of Turkey feathers (which would take a considerable amount of time to arrange) suggests this object was at least as important to their culture as a human with some influence would be. One specimen out of many would not necessarily be thought of as so important, but something unique certainly would be. Hence the thought that it was the only specimen that this culture had experienced.

We should not forget though that Pre-Columbian and Native cultures throughout North, South, and Central America are well known to have idealized or worshiped meteorites. It is entirely possible that someone of influence in this culture had experienced a similar specimen before, and convinced others that this mass of iron was worth putting on a horse and transporting home. This may have been their culture’s opportunity to have within it something that they knew other groups around them had already, and were benefiting from in some way.

Perhaps they thought of this specimen as being the largest of many? In their minds it could have been the thing that created the massive hole in the ground not terribly far from where they lived. Certainly cultures such as the Sinagua people had a long enough oral tradition by that time to know that large rocks sometimes fall from the sky and create holes in the ground. There were Sinagua encampments and structures built nearby Meteor Crater, and given this culture’s capacity for travel and trade at distant locations such as the Gulf of California, the particular people of the Sinagua culture who lived in what is modern day Camp Verde would certainly have been well acquainted with those encampments around the crater. If the Camp Verde mass were seen as the entity or deity capable of making such an impact on the very powerful and seemingly unmovable Earth itself, then perhaps this would have been thought of as a very special mass of iron indeed. Special enough that perhaps a structure should be built for it. Special enough that when they left the region, or their culture died out, burying it as described above would be justified.

The mass has often been described as having the shape of a leaf or an arrowhead, but there is one other vague resemblance to it. It resembles the form of a small person, a child, having a head, shoulders and even a spine of sorts. As Dr. Laurence Garvie of ASU has indicated during prior interviews, the “spine” of the mass has a smoother appearance from the rest of the mass, (ref8) as if having been rubbed there in ways that the rest of the mass had not been. One thought was that the Sinagua people would worship the mass by touching its backside, perhaps with similar intentions as people who think it is good luck to rub the belly of Buddha, or kiss the Blarney Stone. Dr. Garvie also noted that when the mass is struck it has a very lovely sound that resonates from it, much like a ringing noise. Perhaps this played a role in its appreciation by this culture, but how would we ever know as their verbal history was never written down well enough to include such details.

Regardless of how or why the meteorite got to Camp Verde, there it was found, and after Nininger acquired it, further study by Wasson and Moore between 1968 and 1969, respectively, revealed it to have chemical contents similar enough to Canyon Diablo to declare it as a Canyon Diablo specimen.

Nininger returned to Dawson in 1940 and requested that Dawson bring him to the find location. He did so, but after much examination of the burial cyst neither Nininger nor Dawson were able to find any evidence of the feather blanket it was wrapped in. Additionally, Dawson had no pieces of the feather blanket himself. He had exchanged written correspondence with Nininger since that time, the content of which indicated that throughout the twelve years of time between when he found the specimen, and when Nininger purchased it, Dawson had given away or sold all the remains of the Turkey feathers to friends, as well as general collectors of such ancient artifacts.

One might assume from this that Dawson had possibly made up the story of him having found the mass surrounded by feathers, and in doing, so enhance the intrigue of this discovery which might otherwise be considered somewhat commonplace to a man like Nininger. However, Nininger noted in his writings that he had not even heard the story surrounding the meteorite’s discovery until he had already decided to pursue purchasing it, and had traveled to Dawson’s home in Phoenix. (ref8)

The story of how Dawson found the specimen, and the interesting nature of its blanketed wrapping in the cyst, are considered factual now primarily due to Nininger’s examination of the burial site (ref8) and his agreement during other correspondence that this was all indeed true. There have been many documented cases of Pre-Columbian cultures dressing the dead in feather garments, or wrapping the dead in blankets of feathers. Additionally there have been numerous examples of meteorites having been buried by Native cultures. In fact, Camp Verde was not the first example of a meteorite having been wrapped and buried in the manner of a person. Dawson would have been unlikely to have heard of the Casas Grande meteorite of Chihuahua, Mexico. This iron meteorite was found in 1867, ensconced in a burial chamber within an ancient Incan temple in Chihuahua, Mexico, swaddled in blankets similarly to the bodies of humans that were buried in the same chamber. While Dawson had none of the feathers to back up his story, there is little reason to think that he would have concocted a story that agrees with our current day understanding of how some Pre-Columbian cultures entombed the dead.

Part slice of Casas Grandes meteorite. In collection of John A. Shea, MD. Copyright John A. Shea, MD.

Camp Verde then sat in Nininger’s collection for a few decades, but Nininger was getting older and maintaining his enormous museum quality collection was considerable work. Additionally, the financial yield that came from charging admission to his museum, and selling specimens of the many meteorites in his collection appeared to be dwindling. He had actually entertained the idea of retiring for almost a decade before this, and he was actively taking steps during that time to achieve this. It was in 1959 that the British Museum agreed to purchase what would be roughly one third of his collection, though this portion did not include the Camp Verde mass. Camp Verde was later included in the remainder of the collection acquired two years later in 1970 by Arizona State University, using funding from the National Sciences Foundation. The Camp Verde main mass has since that time been preserved by the Center for Meteorite Studies.

Recently in an extensive trade with CMS I was able to acquire the aforementioned 688g slice of Camp Verde that was on display at the Verde Valley Archeology Center. As the focus of my collection is worshiped meteorites, or meteorites which have been idealized for presumed supernatural qualities, I frequently have to seek out trades such as this with institutions to get a specimen that fits the mold of my collection. I would have been happy getting nearly any size specimen of Camp Verde, but I was lucky to find Dr. Garvie being somewhat sympathetic to my endeavor, and for that reason I will forever be grateful to his willingness to trade such an impressive specimen.

Part slice of Camp Verde meteorite. In collection of John A. Shea, MD. Copyright John A. Shea, MD.
Part slice of Camp Verde meteorite. In collection of John A. Shea, MD. Copyright John A. Shea, MD.
Part slice of Camp Verde meteorite. In collection of John A. Shea, MD. Copyright John A. Shea, MD.
Part slice of Camp Verde meteorite. In collection of John A. Shea, MD. Copyright John A. Shea, MD.
Part slice of Camp Verde meteorite. In collection of John A. Shea, MD. Copyright John A. Shea, MD.

In an effort to further document any specimens of Camp Verde that have been traded out of institutions I have solicited on multiple occasions for reports of specimens from the following collector’s resources: The Meteorite Mailing List, the IMCA Mailing List, and two well populated Facebook pages dealing with meteoritics in general, “Meteorites” and “Meteorites, Tektites, Impactites and Ephemera.” As far as I know, aside from my 688g slice there is only one other specimen of Camp Verde in a private collection. This is a micro specimen of primarily shale with a minimal amount of iron which fell off of my slice while I was mounting it to the magnetic display case where it resides. This specimen is in the private collection of Jesse Piper, who has a similar affinity for worshiped meteorites as I do. I felt like it was worth getting the specimen to him, even as small as it was.

Micro specimen of Camp Verde meteorite. In collection of Jesse Piper. Copyright John A. Shea, MD.

I made a considerable effort for the writing of this to acquire photos of the other slices known to have been cut from Camp Verde, and which are in institutional collections. Unfortunately, other than those images of the main mass which Dr. Garvie was kind enough to send me, no images were shared with me even after having requested them multiple times from those respective institutions.

1. Catalogue of Meteorites, fifth edition, By Monica M. Grady, British Museum (Natural History), Robert Hutchison, Natural History Museum (London, England), Andrew Graham, page 128-129
2. Handbook of Iron Meteorites, Buchwald, Vagn Fabritus, Center for Meteorite Studies, Arizona State University By the University of California, Berkeley, California; (1975), page 399-400
5. Native America: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia, volume 1, page 40

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