A new report about an ancient Tibetan sculpture may sound like something you've seen in the movies. It involves an important archaeological find, it was once in possession of Nazis, and it holds a newly discovered secret. The sculpture, it turns out, was probably carved from a 15,000-year-old meteorite, researchers report. It sounds like Indiana Jones was involved, but not so.
All this is laid out in a report on the statue in the current edition of the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science. /
The "iron man" statue is thought to be a depiction of the god Vaisravana, the Buddhist King of the North, aka the Hindu deity Kubera, report German researchers led by Elmar Buchner of the University of Stuttgart. The statue was probably carved about 1,000 years ago. The researchers started testing the statue's origins in 2007 after its auction to a collector, who allowed it to be tested.
"In Tibet, meteoric iron used to be carved, but that tradition died out a long time ago, and only ancient artifacts are known," says Buchner and colleagues in a report on the statue in the Meteoritics & Planetary Science journal.
Complicating the investigation, the 23-pound "iron man" has a peculiar history. A Tibetan expedition organized by Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler and led by zoologist Ernst Schäfer discovered the statue in 1938. The expedition probably brought the statue to Germany because of the swastika carved in its center, a good luck sign that existed in Tibetan culture long before the Nazis appropriated it as the symbol of their racist ideology.
Chemistry tests show the statue's iron matches fragments of the "Chinga" meteorite field found near the Tibetan-Mongolian border in 1913 by gold prospectors, the study says. A large chunk of that meteorite -- the third largest known from the meteorite field -- was probably carved into the statue, Buchner says in a statement: "We believe that this individual meteorite fragment was collected many centuries before."
"All the evidence hangs together that it is from the Chinga meteorite," says Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History curator of meteorites Tim McCoy, who was not part of the study. He called for art historians to analyze the statue more carefully to certify its putative ancient origins, tied by the study team to a Tibetan Buddhist culture roughly 1,000 years old. Iron meteorites have been carved into more ancient objects, such as knives, beads and fishhooks, McCoy says. "But this is the most elaborate object I've ever seen carved from a meteorite. Somebody put a lot of work into this."
"Iron meteorites are basically an inappropriate material for producing sculptures," the study concludes. "The challenging use of the 'iron man' meteorite as well as the partial gilding of the statue implies that the artist was certainly aware of the outstanding (extraterrestrial) nature of the object carved."