A Brief History
On November 7, 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus made his epic voyage to the New World, a large meteor fell on the town of Ensisheim, Alsace, Austria, in what is now France. Seen as a falling fireball 100 miles away, the meteorite (when it hits the ground, a meteor becomes a “meteorite”) landed safely in a wheat field.
The 280 pound rock left a crater 3 feet deep (not bad for a rock that size) and was quickly set upon by curious villagers. Contrary to popular belief, people back then were not a bunch of flat earth believing cretins and apparently knew what a meteor was, although you have to think having a rock that size falling from the sky would get you to wondering! Indeed, many did see it as an omen, but not so much as a supernatural event. Villagers began breaking off pieces as souvenirs (they never saw Creepshow), but authorities stopped that activity to preserve the meteorite as a gift to King Maximilian I (King of Germany and King of the Romans, and in 1493 he became Holy Roman Emperor).
A piece was lopped off as a present to Cardinal Piccolomini as well (he later became Pope Pius III).
Writer, poet and satirist Sebastian Brant memorialized the event in his poem, “Loose Leaves Concerning the Fall of the Meteorite.” Brant prepared broadsheets with his poem in which he described the rock as an omen. The Nuremberg Chronicle (Folio 257) also mentions the event (this was a religious oriented history of the world printed in 1493). German artist Albrecht Durer sketched the fall of the meteorite as well, based on his own observation of the falling orb.
A regular run of the mill chondrite meteorite (low in iron, high in iron oxide and silicates), triangular in shape, the rock now resides in Ensisheim in the Musee de la Regence, the local museum. Since the 12th Century, many meteorites have been discovered, easily distinguished from local rocks by their iron content. The Ensisheim Meteorite is the oldest documented fall of a recovered meteorite. In prior centuries, meteorites were indeed the subject of supernatural speculation and were sometimes revered. Iron beads made from a meteorite were discovered in Egypt dating back to 3200 BC. Meteorites were used by many people through the centuries as a ready source of iron (not having to be smelted from iron ore), ready to use. Native Americans, including Inuit people used the metal this simple way as cutting tools.
Although stories exist of people or animals killed by falling meteorites, no reliably documented cases exist, although the Ensisheim Meteorite would certainly have killed a person if it had landed on them! Non-fatal meteor strikes of people have happened, but rarely. One boy from Uganda was hit in the head and suffered no serious injury because the meteorite was slowed by passing through banana leaves! Chances are that at least some of the tales of people or animals killed by meteorites are true.
It is hard to say what any of us would have thought of meteorites if we had lived back in the days before modern astronomy. Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think you would have thought? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Dejouy, Léa and Philippe Thomas. Histoires de météorites: Ensisheim (Volume I) (Histoires de météorites (1)). INTERFACE 07, 2005.
Romero, George A., dir. Creepshow. WarnerBrothers, 2009. Blu-ray.