An ancient statue of a Buddhist god was carved from an even more ancient meteorite, a group of German scientists announced on September 26.
It’s an ataxite, a meteorite composed of a rare combination of iron laced with nickel, said scientists studying the statue, which was acquired by the Nazis in Tibet in the 1930s. The researchers suspect it’s Vaisravana, who represents wealth or war, though they couldn’t be sure.
Analyzing the composition, Elmar Buchner of the University of Stuttgart and his colleagues determined that the statue most closely matched rocks from the Chinga meteorite field. This area on the Siberian-Mongolian border is strewn with at least 250 fragments from a space rock that plummeted to earth many millennia ago.
"The statue was chiseled from an iron meteorite, from a fragment of the Chinga meteorite which crashed into the border areas between Mongolia and Siberia about 15,000 years ago," Buchner said in a statement quoted by LiveScience.com. “The sculpture possibly portrays the Buddhist god Vaisravana and might originate in the Bon culture of the eleventh century.”
The Bon culture pre-dates Buddhism, which contains many elements of the Tibetan indigenous religion. But they were not the first or last ancient peoples to worship meteorites.
“The fall of meteorites has been interpreted as divine messages by multitudinous cultures since prehistoric times, and meteorites are still adored as heavenly bodies,” the researchers said in their abstract. “Stony meteorites were used to carve birds and other works of art; jewelry and knifes were produced of meteoritic iron for instance by the Inuit society.”
Turtle Island’s most famous meteor, the Willamette Meteorite, was revered by the Clackamas people, who today are among those represented by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde of Oregon. The Clackamas called the rock Tomonowos, meaning Heavenly Visitor or Visitor from the Moon.
"I was absolutely sure it was a meteorite when I saw it first, even at ten meters," Buchner told BBC News of the Buddha statue, adding that further analysis confirmed it. "It is rich in nickel, it is rich in cobalt. Less than 0.1 percent of all meteorites and less than 1 percent of iron meteorites are ataxites, so it is the rarest type of meteorite you can find."
Buchner and his team published their findings in the journal Metoritics and Planetary Science, describing their study of the statue they dubbed the Iron Man as something out of an Indiana Jones movie in their paper, “Buddha from Space.” The figure was taken to Germany after being discovered in Tibet in the late 1930s by Ernst Schäfer as the zoologist carried out a mission assigned him by the Nazi party to find Aryan roots, LiveScience said. The statue carries on its chest a swastika symbol, a Buddhist symbol for luck that the Nazis notoriously adapted for their own purposes. After being owned privately for some years, the statue was finally made available to the research team.
Iron Man weighs in at 23 pounds or so and is 9.5 inches tall, LiveScience said. As a meteor alone it could be worth about $20,000, the researchers said, though if it is actually as old as they suspect, it could be invaluable, Buchner told Discovery News.
"If we are right that it was made in the Bon culture in the eleventh century, it is absolutely priceless and absolutely unique worldwide," Buchner told BBC News. "It is extremely impressive, it was formerly almost completely gilded—there is a great mystery represented by it."