Article | Updated 9 months ago
For more than a century, Western Australia has been a rich hunting ground for prospectors and collectors, and has proved a prolific source of meteorite finds. This article presents an account of how the Western Australian Museum meteorite collection was born and continues to grow.
The birth of a public mineral collection
In 1881 the Reverend Charles Grenfell Nicolay (1815-1897) was authorised by Governor Sir William Robinson to begin a public collection of rocks, minerals and fossils. This pioneer mineral collection formed the basis of a 'Geological Museum' housed in the Guard Room at the Fremantle convict establishment adjacent to Nicolay's private residence. Initially, the collection is reported to have fitted into two glazed bookcases. The establishment of the Geological Museum at Fremantle in 1881 saw it become the first government-funded museum in Western Australia. The institution rapidly underwent several name changes from the 'Registry of Mines and Minerals' to the 'Registry of Minerals' before settling on the 'Geological Museum'.
The first discoveries
The early history of meteorite recovery in Western Australia reflects extensive mineral exploration and the clearing of land for agriculture that, serendipitously, resulted in the discovery of meteorites.
The earliest meteorites found in Western Australia were a number of irons, the first of which was discovered on 5 January 1884, when agriculture was being established east of the settlement of York, a small town 80 km east of Perth. These were eventually recognised as belonging to the same ancient fall and named the ‘Youndegin’ meteorites after a police outpost. Reverend Nicolay sent several fragments to the British Museum for further analysis. In exchange, Lazarus Fletcher, Keeper of Minerals, sent 85 specimens of minerals from classic European and North American localities, making a significant contribution to the growing mineralogical collection.
Over the next 45 years, numerous other masses of the Youndegin were recovered in the same general area. These masses were sold to mineral dealers, purchased by natural history museums or distributed among private collectors all over the world. One of these fragments was even made into a horseshoe that hung in a blacksmith's workshop in York for many years! The main mass of Youndegin, which weighs 2626kg, was recovered in 1954 and is now retained in the collection of the Western Australian Museum.
As for all precious items, meteorite trafficking has existed and it is suggested that during his visit to Australia in 1896 the meteorite collector and mineral dealer H. A. Ward may have borrowed a large mass of 92.3kg in order to cut it. Some 20 kg of material was sold or exchanged in large and small slices from Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York.
The early meteorite collection
Following the initial discovery of the Youndegin irons, meteorites were recovered periodically from Western Australia. Despite a sparse population and relatively recent settlement by Europeans (1829), a number of factors contributed to the excellent record of meteorite recovery. Primarily, large regions of arid land have allowed meteorites to be preserved for millennia, and these are generally easily distinguished from the country rocks. A less obvious, but significant, factor is that the Aboriginal people of Australia do not appear to have utilised meteorites extensively, either for tools or for amuletic purposes. This is in contrast to other countries with ancient civilizations where meteorites have been collected and used for a variety of purposes over thousands of years. Moreover, intensive prospecting for nickel during the 1960s led to a number of discoveries in the Eastern Goldfields.
The most prominent scientist involved with the early description of meteorites from Western Australia was the chemist and mineralogist Edward Sydney Simpson (1875- 1939) who, from 1897 to 1939, recorded and analysed many of the meteorites that formed the foundation of the collection. Minerals of Western Australia, Simpson's famous work, published in three volumes after his death, is still the principal reference work on mineral occurrences in the State.
Observed meteorite falls
Owing to a sparse population, meteorite falls are rarely observed in Western Australia. Only six authenticated observed falls have been recorded, while 275 Western Australian Museum’s meteorites belong to finds (collected without observing the fall). Another 500 meteorite specimens from the Nullarbor remain to be described.
Among these six recorded meteorite falls, one could have been deadly. Thus, on 30 September 1984 at 10:10 a.m., after the appearance of a brilliant fireball accompanied by sonic phenomena, a single crusted stone weighing 488.1g fell just four to five metres from two women sunbathing on Binningup beach, approximately 20km north of Bunbury.
On average, the southern part of Western Australia enjoys 243 days per year with clear skies. Fireballs with the potential to yield meteorites are frequently reported; however, the recovery rate has been extremely low. In an attempt to improve the recovery rate of observed falls, a network of all-sky cameras was established in the Nullarbor Region.
The Nullarbor Region
The full potential of the Nullarbor Region as a source of meteorite finds was not realised until the mid to late 1960s. Nevertheless, the semi-arid to arid climate of the Nullarbor is conducive to the preservation of meteorites. This climate combined with a general lack of vegetation and contrasting limestone country rock has made the Nullarbor an ideal hunting-ground for meteorites and many continue to be recovered from that area by systematic searching.
A meteorite as big as a motor car
In 1963, the prospector Mr T. Dimer claimed that he could locate an enormous iron meteorite that was reputed to be 'as big as a motor car'. Rumours of a large meteorite on the Nullarbor had evidently circulated since at least 1944. Two expeditions to locate it were conducted during the 1960s but remained unsuccessful. However, in April 1966, close to the Trans-Australian Railway Line 16km north of Mundrabilla, two massive masses estimated to be 10-12t and 4-6t were discovered. The smaller of the two large Mundrabilla masses, weighing 6.1t, was shipped to Germany for cutting. Slabs of Mundrabilla measuring approximately 135 x 70 cm are on display at the Western Australian Museum and the Natural History Museum in London.
In all, several thousand fragments from about 200 distinct meteorites, representing about half of all meteorites known from Australia, have been described from the Western Australian Nullarbor to date.
Other meteorites in the collection
Since the establishment of the collection there has been an active program of exchange with other institutions. In 1971 an exchange of specimens was arranged with the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Samples of the Russian material were later exchanged for specimens of rare meteorites from the Natural History Museum in London. In line with other museums, the policy pursued is to acquire, for comparative purposes, material from meteorite types that are poorly, or not at all, represented in the collection.
Martian and Lunar meteorites
The Western Australian Museum meteorite collection holds samples of 275 distinct meteorites from Western Australia, samples of 30 meteorites from the rest of Australia, and samples of 160 meteorites from the rest of the world, making a total holding of 435 described and named meteorites. While numerically the collection is small compared to other major collections in the world, it contains a high percentage of rarities including samples of three Martian meteorites, Nakhla (Egypt 1911), Zagami (Nigeria 1962), and Dar al Gani 476 (Libya 1998), and a sample of the lunar meteorite Dar al Gani 400 (Libya 1998).
This article is based on a paper published by Dr Alex Bevan, Head of Department Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Curator of Mineralogy and Meteoritics at the Western Australian Museum, that talks about the WA Museum meteorite collection.
The Washington University in St. Louis is a leader in terms of meteorites research. To learn more about meteorites, consult updated lists of Martian and lunar meteorites known so far or find good websites about the topic, visit the website of the Washington University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.