BIMS behind the scenes visit to the NHM London and the Royal Society

To see all photos of our trip please see here

A group of members from the British & Irish Meteorite Society (BIMS) had long-planned a visit to the Natural History Museum meteorite collection but for one reason or another it had never come off. The catalyst for organising this trip was the ‘Objects in space’ exhibition curated by Professor Colin Pillinger at the Royal Society. This exhibition was only on for a few months so we decided to combine a visit to the Royal Society with a behind the scenes tour of the meteorite collection at the NHM.  After many emails and false starts to try to match availability of BIMS members and curators at the NHM we finally agreed a date of 29th March, 2012.

BIMS members (from left to right) Barry Lee, Kieron Heard, Mark Ford, David Entwistle, Luther Jackson, Graham Ensor and Martin Goff. We are stood by the Lake House meteorite at the Royal Society exhibition ‘Objects in space’

The day began with an early start for most of us as we made our way from all over the UK to meet at Trafalgar Square at 11 am. Coming from Manchester meant a 4am start for me and a 5 hour coach trip so it was good to see the beginnings of a glorious day emerge slowly through the gloom of the coach windows as it rumbled its way down the M6 motorway. The sun was shining, we all had the day off work and planned on talking meteorites all day, fuelled of course by food and beer in the pub at lunchtime. This had the potential to be a perfect day!

Closer view of the Danebury meteorite

After meeting and greeting at Nelson’s Column, we made our way to the Royal Society to view the exhibition ‘Objects in space’. This exhibition was curated by Professor Colin Pillinger and as well as meteorites included meteorite related artwork and original historic books. We were particularly excited to see the Danebury and Lake House meteorites which had not been seen by any of us before. The Danebury meteorite was discovered during an archaeological dig at the Danebury Iron Age hill fort near Stockbridge in Hampshire in 1974. It is classified as a H6 chondrite and was the first ever meteorite find in the UK. It was found approximately 70cm below ground level, in the backfill of an Iron Age pit. The hill fort site was occupied from around 600 BC to 50 BC. A single stone was all that was found and it weighs 30 grams.

Considerably larger at 93 kg is the Lake House meteorite which stood for many years on the front steps of a large imposing country house in Wiltshire and was affectionately known as ‘Grandfather’s stone’ by the family who lived there.  The Lake House later went on to become a residence of musician Sting and his wife Trudie Styler but the family who lived there prior owned it for many generations and it was them who brought ‘Grandfather’s stone’ to the NHM in 1991. Although confirmed to be a meteorite in 1991 by the late Robert Hutchison it really only recently come into the limelight due to the attentions of Professor Colin Pillinger.

Colin Pillinger had researched the history and origins of the Lake House stone due to the close proximity of the Lake House to Danebury (within 20km); he was looking at the possibility that the two specimens could be from the same fall.  If this proved to be the case then the mystery of the Lake House stone would be solved. However, after analysis this was found not to be the case and the Lake House meteorite was confirmed as a separate large chondrite find.

Edward King’s book titled ‘Remarks concerning stones said to have fallen from the clouds: both in these days and in antient times’

Another item on display at the exhibition was an original copy of Edward King’s book  ‘Remarks concerning stones said to have fallen from the clouds: both in these days and in ancient times’ which was published in 1796. There was also a Cornelia Parker artwork and Colin Pillinger’s personalised Damien Hirst spot painting. Although it was only a small exhibition it was certainly worth visiting and was a great start to our day.

We then made our way by tube to South Kensington where we settled at a pub for lunch and a pint or two. Whilst waiting for our food to arrive we all reached into our respective rucksacks to pull out some special pieces or recent additions to our collections to pass around. When the food arrived there was no room on the table because of all the riker and membrane boxes! We also garnered a few strange looks as we pored over our space rocks with loupes in one hand and a pint glass in the other. Although comfortably ensconced we had to move on for our afternoon visit to the Natural History Museum which was situated just round the corner.

In between the Royal Society and the visit to the NHM we had a lunch stop for some more meteorite talk. Meteorites and beer, a perfect combo!

Before beginning our behind the scenes tour  of the meteorite collection and after a quick photo call in front of the huge Diplodocus skeleton in the main entrance hall we visited the  mineral gallery, specifically ‘The Vault’ where the meteorites on public display are situated. Of particular interest to us was the huge 1,099 gram Tissint specimen that was recently acquired by the NHM from Dave Gheesling and Darryl Pitt. It was great to see this spectacular stone although it was hard to get a close look and see much detail as it was in a glass dessicator within a display cabinet. Also of note was a gorgeous specimen of the Johnstown diogenite and a huge polished slab of Imilac amongst others.

We then made our way back to the main entrance hall and met with assistant meteorite curator Deborah Cassey before being led down into the depths of the museum underneath the public galleries. The corridor leading to the meteorite storage room was lined with Victorian wooden storage units and glass fronted display cabinets. Some amazing specimens on show here were a large regmaglypted shield shaped Henbury individual and a good sized Murchsion complete stone.  Next to a cast of the Wold Cottage main mass and in front of a contemporary print of the historic meteorite also sat a more recent addition of an unopened bottle of ‘Falling Stone’ beer.  Wold Top Brewery was set up by Derek Gray who owns the land where the Wold Cottage meteorite fell in 1795 and his neighbour Tom Mellor in May 2003.  The first beer that they brewed was ‘Falling Stone’ bitter and it has won quite a few awards since then. The brewery describe the beer as follows:

“Our premium Best Bitter. A smooth and well rounded traditional Yorkshire bitter. Brewed from Wold grown Barley malt and hopped with Progress and Northdown hops, it’s darker colouring coming from the addition of Chocolate malt.

The name Falling Stone is inspired by the first UK recorded meteorite which fell in Wold Newton and not by the effect it has on the people who imbibe too much of this very Moreish beer!”

An original print showing the Wold Cottage meteorite next to a cast of the WC main mass with a bottle of Falling Stone beer in the background

We were then shown into the meteorite storage room which had already been coined as meteorite nirvana by some of us! Firstly we were shown a variety of teaching meteorites laid out on a table. These included a Gibeon etched individual shaped like a door knob, this had been done to show the widmanstatten pattern from all angles. Also on show here was a huge end cut of Estherville and by huge, although I don’t know the exact weight, I would guess at 20kg plus. We then moved on to more historic and exotic fare. We all had different wish lists of specimens in the collection that we wanted to see and Deborah very kindly made repeat trips to the storage drawers around the room to bring out numerous historic pieces on our lists. Of course, unsurprisingly there were quite a few UK specimens that we were all interested in seeing.  Deborah and also Gretchen Benedix who was busy working in the background were able to answer all of our many questions that we bombarded them with throughout our visit. Although as we gawped open mouthed at the many stunning specimens that were brought out this often curbed our vocalness!

The cut face of Beddgelert

We saw Beddgelert, Pontlyfni, Rowton, Aldsworth, Barwell and Ashdon. Wold Cottage and Launton were on my wish list too but both of these were on temporary loan to Tate Britain for the exhibition ‘The Robinson Institute’ by Patrick Kieller. With regards to Pontlyfni we were given a brief talk by Alison Hunt (Post doctorate) who has been researching winonaites and Pontlyfni in particular. Winonaites are very primitive achondrites that are related through their oxygen isotope compositions with the IAB Iron meteorites. Pontlyfni is important as it is the only witnessed fall among the winonaites and has the most reduced and fine grained matrix of the group. We also had an input from Phd student Natasha Stephen on some current research work being done on Tissint.

Ashdon is a beautiful meteorite made even more so as it is one of the relatively few recorded UK falls

Of the other UK meteorites we saw, Ashdon was certainly of note. It amazed us all as it was much more oriented than any of us had realised, with flow lines radiating from its domed face. A piece of Barwell that was pulled from one of a few drawers crowded with specimens of that famous Christmas fall of 1965 was also of note as it contained a large dark basaltic inclusion. Graham in particular was fascinated by the Barwell story as he lives only 15 minutes from the town of Barwell and remembers the fall from when he was a boy as it fell the day after his 9th birthday.

Personal highlights for me were seeing the Rowton and Aldsworth meteorites, both rare, historic UK falls dating from 1876 and 1835 respectively. Neither is seen very often, if at all in private collections and I was lucky enough to be able to add both locations to my collection recently.

The Rowton meteorite, a rare witnessed iron fall and the UK’s only iron meteorite

David had a few Russian specimens that he was interested in, specifically Borodino, Pervomaiskey and Marjalahti. We were all intrigued by the large specimen of Marjalahti pallasite as all the olivines had weathered out leaving an unusual looking nickel iron skeleton behind. We finished off our NHM visit with a small specimen of ALH 84001. Having never seen any ‘in the flesh’ before it was good to see a small piece of the infamous meteorite from Mars that caused such a furore in 1996 when it was announced that that it might contain evidence for microscopic fossils of Martian bacteria. It was a fitting end to our visit.

We finished off our visit with a piece of the infamous ALH 84001

We heartily thanked Deborah for her time and as we all had some free time before our respective journeys home we retired back to the pub! Talk revolved around planning our next trip and possible places to visit. It’s always hard to plan around different preferences and to accommodate everyone when we live all over the UK but it’s very worthwhile when it all comes together. To briefly sum up our visit, I would say, unseasonably good weather, spectacular meteorites, good food, good beer and great company, what a fantastic day! Luther Jackson produced a short video of our day which cane be seen below, thanks Luther for allowing me to publish the video here.

After returning home we decided to send a little something to Deborah and the other curators at the NHM to say thanks for their hospitality and time in arranging our visit and for being so accommodating with our requests on the day as it was very much appreciated. After a bit of thought, we couldn’t think of anything more fitting than a crate of ‘Falling Stone’ beer!

To see all photos of our trip please see here 

The photos above are all copyright of Msg-Meteorites and are re-produced here with the kind permission of both the Natural History Museum and the Royal society.

Further reading:

Hunt,  A.C, Benedix, G.K. and Howard,  L. (2011) Pontlyfni, the inside story: Distribution of metal and sulphide revealed by micro computed tomography. The 74th Annual Meteoritical Society Meeting.

Robinson, J.D. (2009) The authenticated meteoric falls of the British Isles, (self published)  Co. Durham, England

Pillinger, C.T. and Pillinger, J.M. (2011) Evaluation of various hypotheses relating to the location of the fall and the subsequent history of a large meteorite lately recovered in Wiltshire, UK. The 74th Annual Meteoritical Society Meeting. 

Pillinger, C.T, Pillinger, J.M, Greenwood, R.C, Johnson,  D, Tindle, A.G, Jull, A.J.T, and Ashcroft, M (2011) The meteorite from Lake House. The 74th Annual Meteoritical Society Meeting.