What’s on : Lectures
A Very British Meteorite
Martin Lunn, MBE, FRAS
In 1881 a team of workmen on a railway line near Middlesbrough had a close encounter with an intruder from outer space when a meteorite crashed onto the track. That meteorite has now become known as one of the most important on Earth. Join me to hear the curious and entertaining story of the Middlesbrough Meteorite.
The Middlesbrough meteorite is classified as a chondrite. It is approximately 6 inches in diameter, weighs 3 pounds 8.75 ounces (approximately 1.5 kg) and has a crust of unusual thickness – it was recovered in one piece.
The British Museum apparently wanted it for its collection. But the North East Railway company deemed the meteorite ‘lost property’, because it fell on their land, and insisted that it stayed in Yorkshire. It is part of the collection at the Yorkshire Museum.
This lecture will be held on Zoom at 7.30pm (GMT) and invitations will be sent to YPS members and the general mailing list two days before the event. This is a free event but non members can help to cover our lecture programme costs by donating here:
Meteorites are only so-called when they have hit the earth. They are called meteors while in the earth’s atmosphere, and meteoroids while in space. Most meteorites were originally ejected from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. They are of three main types- stony meteorites, mainly chondrites – about 86% of the total; iron meteorites; and stony-iron meteorites.
The Middlesborough Meteorite of the lecture is a chondrite weighing 3.5 lbs and 6”x5”x3” in size. Exceptionally, it is ‘orientated’ with a conical shape, caused by it rotating in the atmosphere rather than tumbling, and was also recovered immediately after landing. It travelled through the atmosphere at 20 to 50 miles per second.
Meteors hit the earth all the time. The largest known was the 6 to 7 mile diameter monster which hit the Yucatan peninsular 66 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. More recently, relatively large meteorites have been coming towards earth with increased frequency. Examples include-
· A very large meteor missed earth by only 15,000 miles in 1929.
· In 1908 an air blast blew down about 80 million trees over an area of 800 sq miles in a sparsely populated part of Russia.
It is believed a meteor exploded 5 miles above the ground and produced an air blast with shock waves travelling at 38,000mph.
The smallest meteorites are just a few nanometres in diameter and rain down all the time. The speaker collected samples of spherical micrometre-sized specimens in Museum Gardens using filter paper in a simple apparatus.
Many cataclysmic events in the historical record can now be linked to meteorite impacts, if only by strong inference. These include-
· The biblical Great Flood. In 2700BC a meteorite 100m across hit Austria. Fragments 10 to 15m across are believed to have hit the Mediterranean.
· The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (in about 1650 BCE. Archaeologists have found smashed pottery exposed to very high temperatures. There is little sign of life in the area for the following 500 years.
· St Gildas writing in about 536 refers to God throwing down thunderbolts. An air blast was reported, and the sun was dark for 18 months. It has been found that tree rings show no growth in the area from 536 to 538 BC.
Most meteorites fall in the sea, and most of those falling on land are never found.
Archaeology has demonstrated that meteors had a special significance for ancient peoples. Examples of meteorite iron frequently being used for symbolic purposes include a dagger made for Tutankhamun; a Bronze Age arrowhead found in Switzerlandand ; and jewellery made from the Hopewell meteorite in the Ohio River valley.
The Middleborough Meteorite was discovered on 14 March 1881 by a group of workmen working for the North East Railway- the site is now occupied by the James Cook University Hospital. They reported hearing a loud noise which was also heard as far away as Northallerton, and saw a hole in the ground with smoke coming out of it. One of the workmen gingerly put his hand in the hole, and pulled out the meteorite which he described as being ‘fresh milk warm’- consistent with the short time in the atmosphere, which limited frictional heat to the front surface. The find was reported up the managerial chain. A photo was taken by an ‘artist photographer’, and a cast was made of the hole. It was observed that the meteorite has drilled into the ground like a drill bit.
The astronomer Alexander Herschel became involved and tried to obtain the new find for the Natural History Museum in London. However, the railway company proved that they were its legal owners, and presented it to the YPS/Yorkshire Museum to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the British Association.
During the Q&A session, Neil Mackay reported that he had researched the railway company archives, including details of all the workmen involved. See The Journal of the North Eastern Railway Association, February 2020.