First Meteorite of Egypt, The Crown Jewel of Mars' Meteorites
By Kevin Kichinka
Nakhla solidified from Martian magma 1.3 billion years ago. It was eventually blown off Mars by an asteroidal or cometary knockout punch and banged around the solar system for a few million years. Finally, on June 28, 1911 at nine o'clock in the morning, and heralded by "an explosion resembling a clap of thunder" it fell to Earth in pieces around the village of El Nakhla el Baharia in the Nile Delta of Egypt, producing "a fall of black stones", its flight path marked by "a fearful column".
How many and how much of those black stones actually fell from the sky that day? The Catalogue of Meteorites (1985) lists a total known weight (TKW) of "40 stones, of total weight about 40 kilograms". Presently, every popular and serious source of information about Nakhla repeats this charming gospel. But after searching the world for an answer, I believe the total recovered weight of Nakhla to be less than ten kilos. Since neither of the Catalogue's listed sources for this information, a 1911 paper by Hume and a 1912 report by John Ball of the Egyptian Survey Department records a weight of forty kilos, it appears that the Catalogue has simply created a time-honored typo.
Gentlemen, (and women), get out your erasers.
Dr. Hume, the author of "The First Meteorite Record in Egypt" (1911) was quite explicit about the weights, dimensions and characteristics of the specimens he collected or were subsequently brought to his attention. He visited the strewnfield, interviewed witnesses and collected specimens.
His first recovery was from the village of Ezbet Abdalla Zeid, where a single stone was recovered near a water wheel. A second specimen, of about 10 cm. long was recovered and broken up by villagers near a cotton field at Ezbet Abdel Malek. The largest recovered specimen, completely covered with fusion crust and weighing 1,813 grams, nearly struck Mansur Farag as he was turning his compost pile near Ezbet El Askar. A 432 gram specimen was also found near this town.
Hume acquired a totally crusted, 1,320 gram meteorite (already described in the sixth paragraph, Part One of this article) found in the village of Ezbet Saber Mahdi. A smaller fragment weighing 187.8 grams was also recovered. No where in his report does he mention the total weight of his specimens.
John Ball's (1912) paper "The Meteorite of El Nakhla El Baharia" lists more specimens. Ball writes "Dr. Hume...collected about a dozen specimens, including the largest known fragment. Later on, another fine fragment was collected by Mr. Bridgestock, of the Agriculture Department. As it was considered likely from this further find that still more specimens of the stones might be in the hands of peasants, Dahab Effendi Hassan, of the Geological Survey, was sent to the place in October, and succeeded in purchasing no less than twenty more of the stones, which in his opinion are all that were in the hands of the peasants at the time...Altogether about forty stones, of a total weight of nearly 10 kilogrammes, were collected...The weights of the individual stones range from 1,813 grammes in the largest specimens down to about 20 grammes in the smallest. The smallest fragment of which the fused skin is entire weighs 34 grammes."
Later, Ball describes the distribution of El Nakhla. "While the largest stones obtained in the fall, including the specimens given by the Ministry of the Interior and by Mr. Bridgestock, are preserved in the Geological Museum at Cairo, various of the smaller fragments have been presented by the Egyptian Government to the national geological museums of London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, St. Petersburg and Washington...".
The "Keeper of Minerals in the British Museum", G.T. Prior, wrote the first research paper on this meteorite in 1912 entitled "The Meteoric stones of El Nakhla El Baharia (Egypt)." This work was still considered vital by Robert Hutchison in 1975. Prior wrote in his introduction, "The stones, in number about forty and in weight nearly 10 kilograms, fell over an area about 4.5 kilometers in diameter, and were derived from the explosion of a single large meteorite... The weight of the individual stones varied from 1,813 grams to 20 grams. Through the kindness of Dr. W. F. Hume, Director of the Geological Survey of Egypt, two fragments of stones of this, the first Egyptian meteorite, weighing respectively 725 and 274 grams, has been presented to the British Museum by the Egyptian Government. The smaller of the two specimens is part of a stone which fell in a cotton field, about 200 meters north-east of the village of Abdel Malek.".
Clearly, the original literature indicates a total of nearly ten kilos of Nakhla were recovered.
Charles Meyer, Jr. of the Johnson Space Center, created a web site a couple of years ago called "The Mars Meteorite Compendium" (http://www-curator.jsc.nasa.gov/curator/antmet/mmc/mmc.htm). One section is a brief but thorough study of Nakhla's mineralogy with photos. Meyer also compiled a chart of known Nakhla repositories, and was the first person to cast doubt on its accepted TKW.
I contacted some of his listed institutions and individuals seeking confirmation of their holdings and/or details of the subsequent distribution of their specimens. Somewhat puzzling, was the silence with which most of my queries were greeted. "Off-the-record" conversations confirm, however, the historic lack of movement of the larger Nakhla specimens between institutions. Using Meyer's work, figures from the Catalogue of Meteorites and "The Guide to the Collection of the Geological Museum/Cairo", (and doing a little sleuthing on the side), I submit to you, my audience of esteemed researchers, museum curators, and fellow collectors, an amended TKW of Nakhla.
The Catalogue's 1985 list of world repositories, exclusive of Egypt, is as follows:
Washington, U.S. Natural History Museum - 644 grams
Berlin, Humboldt Museum - 602 grams
Vienna, Naturhist. Museum - 500 grams
Paris, Museum d'History Natural - 430 grams
Harvard University - 159 grams
The holdings from the above five institutions from these older records pre-date the surge in private collecting and scientific research focusing on Mars's meteorites. The impact of collecting and science is adding to their distribution, but only in the sense of "making little ones out of big ones".
The British Museum of Natural History's holdings:
#1911,369 - 667 grams + 9.1 grams (fragments)
#1911,370 - 156 grams + 17 grams (fragments)
#1913,25 - 641 grams
#1913,26 - 313 grams
#1913,27 - 110 grams
Monica Grady, the Curator of Meteorites at the British Museum, confirms these holdings although I believe that she'll find that Robert Hutchison used 25 grams of #1913,26 for his 1975 study. This accounts for a TKW of 4,248.1 grams so far.
The 1955 "Guide to the Collection of the Geological Museum/Cairo" reads, "altogether about 40 stones, of a total weight of nearly 10 kilograms were collected...the weights of the individual stones range from 1813 grams in the largest specimen down to about 20 grams in the smallest." They list these specimens:
#12833 - 29.59 and 20.24 grams
#12834 - 1813.2 grams
#12835 - 431.5 grams
#12836 - 1318 grams
#12837 - 1650.9 grams
#12838 - 393.7 grams
These total 5657.13 grams. Although the Museum in Cairo has not yet replied to my inquiry, I have confirmation from recent visitors to the Museum that they have retained these specimens, less some recent "shrinkage" to one specimen (probably #12836) and the reported donation of the 20.24 gram stone to Hutchison for the same 1975 study.
Meyer's register of repositories includes other minor holdings, totaling 1,314 grams, of institutions and individuals from around the world not recognized on the first three lists. Since the publication of Meyer's work, traceable, re-distributed material has shown up in dealer catalogues and at auction. In consideration of the fact that the smallest fragment recovered weighed 20 grams, any listed repository of less than that amount, or < 20 gram groups of fragments created by trades or research can be ignored.
My inquiries and personal experience indicate that some of the smaller fragments listed by Meyer were created by the Humboldt Museum after WWII when they had a need to raise money, and later, simply in trade for different material. Andrzej Pilski, a frequent contributor to this periodical, has just received the current list of meteorites held by the Humboldt Museum. The Museum claims ownership of only 170.3 grams for Nakhla, not the 602 grams that are listed in the Catalogue of Meteorites (1985). This apparent re-distribution of 431.7 grams seems to account for many of Meyer's "newer" repositories.
Meyer's exhaustively researched worldwide repository holdings of 10,787.53 grams leaves us just a few "double-counted" specimens over the 9.9 kilos TKW of Nakhla recorded in the earliest documents.
If this re-assessment of the "traditional" forty kilo TKW still leaves lingering doubts in some minds, than one must ask- where is the "missing" thirty kilograms of this meteorite? Misplaced? There's no evidence that Nakhla was ever treated by anyone as anything less than one of the "Crown Jewels" of Meteorites. Ruthless people have taken extreme measures to acquire it.
Add the listed holdings of Cairo (1955), the British Museum (1998) and the Catalogue of Meteorites (1985), and the TKW of Nakhla is 9,905.23 grams. Twenty-six of the original "about forty stones" can be accounted for by reviewing the historic record. No records exist indicating that any more material has ever been found since the recovery of specimens in 1911. I submit that the early accounts totaling 9.9 kilos should again be the recognized total known weight of this important meteorite.
Of course, one might ask if the TKW of any meteorite, even Nakhla, is important. I would argue that from the scientific side, it is incredibly important. Researchers, although able to gather information from amounts measured in micrograms, often destroy material. For better or worse, a much smaller recognized amount of Nakhla may limit its availability for future study to only the most prestigious institutions and for only the most crucial research. Of immediate concern is the apparent use of the "40 kilo" TKW as a "constant" in calculations theorizing ablation losses, exposure ages, crater size on Mars and size limits on fragments created from the Martian impactor(s). Could all these results now be flawed?
From the collector's viewpoint, 75% less Nakhla equates with far more rarity in the minds of collectors of this already scarce, expensive material. Look at the numbers again. I surmise that less than a kilo is in the public domain for collectors, and even that small figure includes an amount already destroyed or reserved for science.
Could more still be laying near the banks of the River Nile? I asked Bob Haag, who has visited the strewnfield in 1984 and again in December, 1995.
"In both of your trips, did you even get close to finding or buying any?"
"No, there's a common rock laying around everywhere that matches the description I give people, I think it's diopside, and they were bringing me multi-kilos of that. The closest I got to buying any, if that's what you want to call it, was with the Museum in Cairo. I was offering them Esquel, Murchison, Allende - mega-kilos, man, and all they wanted to lop off was a gram. No way! They were valuing Nakhla like Moon rock."
"Can you describe the strewn field?"
"It's in the Nile Delta. When I was there in '84 it was all very densely populated, rural, with a lot of mud huts. This last time I was there they were starting to put in apartment buildings. Every other square inch is planted with strawberries, okra, cucumbers, it's beautiful farmland."
"I know you had a 120 gram specimen at one time. Will you describe how you acquired it?"
"I got that in a trade with the Humboldt Museum in Berlin. I traded them 5 to 1 for Zagami. I had to cross at "Check Point Charlie" to get there. This was before the Wall came down - it was cool."
"I know you must have Hume's map of the places Nakhla was picked up. Did you go to all five locations in the strewn field?"
"No, I only went to El Baharia. You can forget that! They don't know what you're talking about. It ain't gonna happen there. The next time I go, I'll go to the others."
"Nakhla's basically not attracted to a magnet. It's friable. The Nile floods the area every year. You have to walk through everyone's cucumber patch to look for it.
"Do you realistically think that you have a chance of finding more?"
"I'm convinced that there's four times more, you just have to look. You gotta go for that one chance in hell that you'll find it."
That's why Bob Haag's "The Meteorite Man."
Finally, I would be remiss to not address a simple but profound statement from the Nakhla lore - "One of the stones killed a dog".
This unattributed quote appears in the Catalogue of Meteorites among the other information regarding Nakhla. Some might even suggest a more appropriate title for this feature I've written should be - "El Nakhla, First Meteorite of Egypt, Crown Jewel of Mars' Meteorites, Killer from the Sky."
Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I humbly suggest to you that there has been no murder. The facts speak differently. There's no body, no habeas corpus. The only eyewitness is impeachable. My client is not guilty.
Russ Kempton, a frequent contributor to Meteorite! and the well-respected Director of the New England Meteoritical Services, researched this story a few years ago. "I've spent considerable time tracking down the "killing the dog story" he told me recently. "We're painfully thorough in our research, and it's been frustrating trying to track down this unverified report. We've checked with the Smithsonian, we've gone through the historical records of the Cairo Natural History Museum. We see nothing to substantiate this, it's a great myth - but there's no dead dog."
Hume's "The First Meteorite Record in Egypt" has a description of the incident:
"Readers of the "Egyptian Gazette" will remember that a White Column was reported by correspondents of the "Al Ahali" as having appeared in the sky at the village of Denshal, the first station on the railway between Damanhur and Kafr el Zayat. An agriculturist of Beheira, Mohammad Ali Effendi Hakim, gave the following description of the occurrence, which is stated to have taken place on the 29th of June: "The fearful column which appeared in the sky at Denshal was substantial. The terrific noise it emitted was an explosion which made it erupt several fragments of volcanic materials. These curious fragments, falling to earth buried themselves into the sand to the depth of about one meter. One of them fell on a dog at Denshal, leaving it like ashes in the moment."
So what is wrong with this story, this legend in the annals of meteorite history?
First, the meteorite El Nakhla fell on the 28th, not the 29th.
Second, Denshal is south of the strewn field. A telegram from the Sub-Mudir of Denshal to Dr. Hume, who had already noted this discrepancy reads - "In reply to your telegram, we inform you that some twenty days ago, at midday, the inhabitants of Denshal village heard an explosion resembling a clap of thunder, accompanied by a small quaking in the atmosphere, but no stones fell, as was the case in El Nakhla el Baharia, Markaz abu Hommos."
On November 25, 1912, the now-familiar John Ball, Ph.D. and an employee of the Egyptian Geological Survey, mentions the "dog story" in his report to the Ministry of Finance, Survey Department.
"The locality where the fall occurred is inhabited chiefly by uneducated peasants, and the meteorite would probably have been lost to science but for the action of a farmer, Mohammed Ali Effendi Hakim, who communicated a note of the occurrence to the Arabic Newspaper "El Ahali". It was found on subsequent enquiry that the place and date given in the newspaper account were not quite correct, the newspaper account gave the fall as Denshal, which is about 33 kilometers south-east of El Nakhla el Baharia, and the date as June 29th. Careful enquiries at Denshal showed that no meteorites had fallen there, nor had the smoke-column been seen. The statement in the newspaper that one of the stones fell on a dog at Denshal, "leaving it like ashes in a moment" is doubtless the product of a lively imagination."
So dies the dead dog story. Long live the dead dog.
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I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the following scientists, museum curators and meteorite dealers who shared their knowledge and gave me their encouragement: Chuck Meyer, Jr. and Allan Treiman (Johnson Space Center), Harry McSween, Jr. (University of Tennessee, Knoxville), Alan E. Rubin (UCLA), Dr. Tim McCoy (Smithsonian), Monica Grady (British Natural History Museum), Russ Kempton (New England Meteoritical Services), Bob Haag, Blaine Reed, Michael Blood, Marvin Kilgore, Al Lang (vendors of fine meteorites), Martin Horejsi (University of Idaho), Marilyn Lindstrom (Curator of Antarctic meteorites - Johnson Space Center), Andrzej Pilski (roving European correspondent), Frank Stroik (University of Wyoming), Derek Sears (University of Arkansas), Joseph Boesenberg (American Museum of Natural History), S. Tellier (Lunar and Planetary Institute).
Kevin Kichinka can be contacted at MARSROX@aol.com