Space Buddha

Meteorites have been considered to be sacred and divine objects since ancient times. Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used meteorites as material for artifacts and blades. However, there has been no evidence of figurative illustrations or religious sculptures made of meteorites in literature.

A team led by Elmar Buchner of the Institute of Planetology of the University of Stuttgart recently reported on the petrological analysis of the so-called “Iron Man”, a 10.6 kg Buddhist sculpture, and confirmed its meteoritical origin. Comparing the composition of the statue with those of other known meteorites, the team have identified the meteorite from which the statue was carved: the Chinga meteorite.

Buddhist scuplture carved from Chinga meteorite.

The story of the statue could be a plot of an archaeological movie blockbuster (a la Raiders of the Lost Arck). The statute was discovered in the 1938 by a Nazi SS expedition in Tibet led by Ernst Schafer.  Back in Germany the statue ended up forgotten in a private collection until 2007. Preliminary results were presented at the 72nd Annual Meteoritical Society Meeting in Nancy, France. Since 2009, the statute has been in the possession of one of the authors, and the team were able to cut a plate from the socket of the statute in Vienna. The slice is now stored at the Naturhistorische Museum in Vienna. The statue is thought to portray the buddhist god Vaisravana, the guardian of the northern direction. According to Buchner, the statue was likely carved about 1,000 years ago by the pre-Buddhist Bon culture of the 11th century. However, the exact origin and age of the statue remains unknown.

Concentration of the crucial major and trace element of the Iron Man fragments show a composition of 84% of iron, 15% of nickel and traces of chromium, gallium, germanium, molybdenum, copper and silver. This composition matches the bulk composition of the Chinga meteorite, thought to have falled across the border region between Russia and Mongolia between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. The strewn field of the Chinga meteorite was discovered in the border region of Siberia and Mongolia in 1912, but the discovery of the Iron Man shows that the field was known well before.

The Chinga meteorite belongs to the iron meteorite class, ataxites sub-class for its high nickel content. Iron meteorites are composed largely of nickel-iron metal, and most contain only minor accessory minerals. These minerals occur in rounded spherules or nodules that consist of troilite, the iron-sulfide, or graphite, often surrounded by tiron-phosphides and the iron-carbides. All data suggest that the Iron Man is the third largest piece from the Chinga.

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[Francesco Pignatale & Sarah Maddison]

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