Ancient Buddha statue looted by Nazis chiseled from meteorite; Harvest Moon tonight

The moon shines among cirrus clouds during twilight last night. Photo: Bob King

At a casual glance, the moon looked full last night, but the real full moon – the Harvest Moon – will roll out tonight. It rises in the east in Pisces and won’t set until sunrise Sunday.

If you live in the Duluth, Minn. region, a harvest moon celebration will be held today from 6-8 p.m. at the breakwater at Agate Bay next to the lighthouse in Two Harbors. The free event features a bonfire, speakers and refreshments.

See birds migrating at night by using the full moon as a spotlight. Photo: Bob King

And if you have a small telescope or binoculars, I encourage you to point it at the moon to watch birds during their fall migration.

Within minutes, you’re likely to see at least a few swiftly-moving silhouettes of warblers and other small birds pass in front of the moon as they wing south. Many birds fly at night not only because they expend less energy (cooler nighttime temperatures)  but also to avoid predators.  Practiced birdwatchers should be able to identify individual species.

Statue of a Buddhist god, possibly Vaisravana, the god of wealth or war, carved from a meteorite. It’s about 9.5 inches tall and weighs 23 lbs. Credit: Elmar Bucher

It’s been such a busy week for astronomy news, I haven’t had time until now to share the story of the thousand-year-old statue of Buddha carved from an iron meteorite.

While ancient peoples have used iron meteorites to fashion anvils, jewelry and weapons, this is the first known instance of a human figure carved into a meteorite.

The statue, nicknamed the “Iron Man”, made its way to Germany from Tibet after a 1938-1939 expedition by zoologist and ethnologist Ernst Schäfer, who was sent to the region by the Nazis to research the origins of the so-called Aryan race. The statue became part of a private collection after World War II. You’ll notice that the Buddha wears a swastika or hooked cross, an ancient symbol that may represent the sun. It was later co-opted as the symbol of the Nazi movement.

Regmaglypts on the iron-nickel Murnpeowie meteorite found in Australia in 1909. Credit: James St. John / Wiki Commons

When Stuttgart University researcher Elmar Bucher first saw the Iron Man  in 2007 he immediately suspected it was fashioned from a meteorite. Why? Bucher noticed that the backside was pocked by regmaglypts, thumbprint-like depressions formed when softer parts of a meteorite melt away during its heated flight through the atmosphere. Regmaglypts are found on both metal and stony meteorites.

The backside of the Iron Man statue shows thumbprinting or regmaglypts. Click to enlarge. Credit: Elmar Bucher

The owner allowed Bucher and his team to test five tiny samples of the exterior of the statue in 2007 and two larger samples from deeper inside where there was no contamination from handling. Chemical analysis revealed that the material exactly matched the iron-nickel meteorite called Chinga that fell to Earth 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. Masses of it are still found along the Siberia-Mongolia border.

The Chinga meteorite was first reported in 1913 but obviously was known earlier. It’s an uncommon type of iron meteorite rich in nickel called an ataxite. When polished, it has a mirror-like finish. I wouldn’t doubt that the statue once shone with equal brilliance. Think about how much work it must have taken to carve it from hard meteorite metal. As for what it might be worth, dare I say, the sky’s the limit?

A polished slice of the Chinga iron meteorite. Photo: Bob King

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

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