By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A mineral previously exclusive to meteorites was found by the Dead Sea. Meteorites tend to predate Earth itself, though their existence was in doubt just two centuries ago. Meteorites are collected for study or private ownership.
A newly discovered mineral near the Dead Sea had previously only been found in meteorites, leading to a geological conundrum as to its origins. Allabogdanite, the mineral in question, was discovered just a few decades ago in iron meteorites; its appearance in Israel marks its terrestrial debut.
Meteorites fall to Earth from outer space, and most of them predate the existence of our planet. Extraordinary facts like these have helped the space rocks cultivate a devoted following of collectors.
In his video series The Origin and Evolution of Earth: From the Big Bang to the Future of Human Existence, Dr. Robert M. Hazen, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Earth Sciences at George Mason University, explained how the collection process proceeds—or doesn’t.
Deserts of Ice
“For a long time, meteorite collections were biased on their distinctive iron-nickel metal meteorites,” Dr. Hazen said. “These dense objects often feature black crusts and weirdly sculpted shapes that cause them to stand out in a field or streambed. What’s more, iron meteorites are magnetic, so it’s fairly easy to identify and separate them from ordinary stones.”
According to Dr. Hazen, this all changed in 1969 when Japanese scientists found thousands of untouched meteorites lying on Antarctic ice fields. The Antarctic is home to several such fields of blue ice in vast fields; areas like this are called ice deserts. In ice deserts, snow never falls, and any black object is easy to spot against the white surface.
“It’s so tempting to go out and pick up piles of space rocks,” he said. “Fortunately, there are rigorous international treaties that ban any commercial exploitation of Antarctica. Those restrictions, plus the fact that access to the remote ice fields is extremely dangerous and limited, ensure that these irreplaceable extraterrestrial treasures are going to be preserved for scientific study.”
Instead, the ice plains are plotted into grids and scientists explore them one square mile at a time. Discoveries are recorded, hermetically sealed, and sent somewhere like the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History to be studied.
Deserts of Sand
“Almost as rich in meteorites, though much less amenable to systematic recovery and sterile preservation, are the great sandy deserts of Earth, including those in Australia; the American Southwest; the Arabian Peninsula; and, most productively, the vast sandy Sahara Desert,” Dr. Hazen said. “Meteorites can be worth a lot of money, so word has spread widely among the desert-crossing nomads.”
According to Dr. Hazen, any meteorite stands out as an odd object against the uniformity of the desert sand, and it’s easy for a traveler to pick one up and carry it to the next village at which they stop. This has led to a considerable unofficial guild of meteorite middlemen.
“It’s kind of a network linked by satellite phones and there is all this hyperbole that goes along with selling meteorites,” he said. “The middlemen are very rarely experts; what they do is they offer the nomads a pittance in cash for any fresh find, and then the stones pass from one dealer to the next to the next. The standard packaging is a mixed burlap bag of rocks.”
These bags are marked up each time they pass from one dealer to the other, until they reach what Dr. Hazen said was the commercial centers of Morocco and Egypt, which are Marrakesh, Rabat, and Cairo. From there, they usually end up on eBay or for sale at an international rock and mineral show.
Dr. Hazen has found himself being offered a burlap sack of rocks in Morocco before, referring to the deals as “unsettling.”
“You’re brokering these things in the dingy, windowless back rooms of the typical tan mud-brick house, away from the blazing desert Sun,” he said. “It’s so dark inside that it’s almost impossible to see what’s being offered. In my experience, some of the rocks are just random Earth rocks—you might think of it as ballast.
“No one tells the complete truth in the desert, and all the deals are final.”