The Cranbourne Meteorite

The Bunurong aboriginal people, a tribe of the Kulin nation, have for thousands of years inhabited the land south-east of the modern city of Melbourne.  Their country, covering about 8000 square kilometres, stretches from Werribee at its westernmost point, to Wilson’s Promontory in the south east and all the land in between including the Mornington Peninsula and the land south of the Yarra River, including the Dandenong Ranges.  Although this land was only sparsely populated with between 300 and 500 Bunurong by the time of British settlement in the 1830s, they had a rich culture with an oral tradition that had managed to pass down stories of significant environmental events that had occurred in the region. The Bunurong had been in the area so long they had witnessed the formation of Port Phillip Bay 8000 years previously caused by rising sea levels which were occurring globally due to the demise of the last glacial period.  The Bunurong oral traditions tell stories of their ancestors hunting kangaroo and emu in the valley where this body of water now lies.  

One wonders therefore what significance the Bunurong gave to an incredible event that occurred in their country sometime in the late 1700s some 50 years before the devastation of their culture that British settlement was to bring.  Roughly around the same time that Captain James Cook was sailing the Endeavour up the east coast of Australia an iron bolide from space, about the size of a truck, pierced the earth’s atmosphere in Bunurong country, coming from the North East and breaking up over a wide area between modern day Pakenham and Pearcedale.  The event would have been spectacular visually, even if it had occurred in daytime the larger pieces of the breakup would have appeared brighter than the sun. Had it occurred during the night, the event would have turned night into day creating a magnificent spectacle for Bunurong witnesses. This would have been followed by incredible sonic booms and shock waves that could have knocked people to the ground for kilometres around.  Indeed, there is no doubt the local Bunurong people would have attached a large amount of significance to the event.

From what is known about other cases of impact events being witnessed by Australian aboriginal groups, they tend to be accompanied by myths which portent catastrophe.  Indeed, the aboriginal tribe who border the Bunurong to the north, the Wurundjeri have a myth about a separate impact site at Lilydale, known in the Wurundjeri language as Bukkertillibe.  The story goes that Bunjil, the creator deity was displeased by the people’s behaviour and so became angry and punished them by causing a star to fall from the sky and strike the earth resulting in an explosion that killed many people.  What is more, across Australia there are many other such accounts of impact events being explained by stories of deities punishing humans by flinging fiery rocks at them in what were no doubt meteor impact events.

Unfortunately, it seems that any myth surrounding the later impact event to occur in Bunurong land was lost by the almost complete devastation of Bunurong culture that was to occur upon British settlement in their lands.  Bunurong alive today descend from a handful of aboriginal women who were abducted as sex slaves by Westernport Bay sealers who invaded the area in the early 1800s and any oral tradition about the event has been lost. So, one can only wonder how this incredible incident was viewed by the Bunurong in the late 1700s.  

What is clear is that it was to prove to be an extremely inauspicious occurrence, as Bunurong culture, which had continued in a consistent manner for thousands of years, was to be laid waste in the form of British vices, murder and diseases within 100 years.

One surviving account of what the Bunurong thought of the large iron meteorites in their country seems to suggest a more positive perspective of the incident.  The area of the strewnfield where the meteorites fell, between Pakenham and Pearcedale, while today a mixture of farmland and residential land, at the time of the impact in the late 1700s was largely swamp.  Once Melbourne was settled by entrepreneurs from Launceston in 1835 squatters immediately set about transforming the surrounding swamplands into pasture land for cattle grazing, including at what was later to be known as Cranbourne about 40km to the south east of Melbourne.  Here, protruding from some land owned by a Mr McKay there was a large body of iron and, years before it was identified as a meteorite, contemporary colonial reports state the local Bunurong people would:

“dance around it, beating their serpentine tomahawks against it, and apparently much pleased with the metallic sound thus produced”. 

Other unsubstantiated reports suggest the iron meteorite was revered as a symbol of fertility, and that the Bunurong performed fertility rituals around it.  This was apparently because, though the main mass was mostly buried, at the top of it there was a large protruding spur of nickel iron that, it is claimed, was in the shape of a phallus.  This, the largest of more than a dozen meteorites that would eventually be discovered, would later be referred to as the Bruce meteorite or Cranbourne no.1.

When the impact event occurred the main mass, due to the extremely high temperatures generated and the extreme air pressure it was subjected to on entering the earth’s atmosphere at such a high speed, broke up into a number of smaller pieces which were strewn in more or less a straight line stretching about 25km from modern day Pakenham to Pearcedale.

In 1853 a settler who was travelling by horseback through McKay’s land attempted to tether his horse to what he thought was a tree stump sticking out of the ground.  It was then that he realised that it was a mass of iron. Later that year a second iron mass about half the size of the first was also discovered about 6km to the north east on the land of James Lineham in what is today the suburb of Clyde. This mass would later be referred to as the Abel Meteorite or Cranbourne no. 2.  

In 1854, the phallus-shaped  spur on Cranbourne number 1 was cut off and 2 horseshoes were forged out of it.  These were then exhibited at the Melbourne Exhibition by a farrier named James Scott. It is not known what the Bunurong thought of this emasculating action, but the deed would certainly be viewed unfavourably by everybody concerned when it was established later that a priceless meteorite had in fact been defaced to make some horseshoes.

In about 1857, a farmhand discovered a much smaller iron near the location of Cranbourne number 1.  Even though the iron could fit in the palm of his hand it weighed 7kg because of its extremely dense composition of iron and nickel and was later to be known as Cranbourne no. 3.  Not realising its significance, it was used as andiron on a fire where it was exposed to extreme temperatures that caused it to split in two. The owner at this point threw away one half of the meteorite.

It wasn’t until 1860 that the iron masses were, finally, correctly identified as meteorites.  This occurred when a Cranbourne councillor by the name of Alex Cameron visited Melbourne in order to petition the government to build a railway line through the Cranbourne area.  In order to entice interest in his idea he suggested that it would benefit the colony to build the railway through the Cranbourne area because of what he claimed was the huge seem of iron that existed just beneath the surface of the land there.  The Melbourne town clerk at the time, Irishman Edmund Fitzgibbon, was an amateur geologist, and on hearing this bit of trivia knew that the councillor must have been mistaken, as there was no way such a huge seem of iron could have existed on what had been swampy territory.  He decided to inspect the iron for himself. He was shown both Cranbourne numbers 1 and 2 where he made trenches in order to determine their size. Both McKay and Lineham, the owners of the land on which the meteorites rested, offered Fitzgibbon the meteorites for free if he agreed to pay for the cost to deliver them to Melbourne.  He declined both offers, saying he simply wanted to generate interest in them as scientific curiosities and said it was now the government’s responsibility to arrange for their relocation.  

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Edmund Gerald Fitzgibbon

 

In February 1861 the famous German meteorologist Georg von Neumayer, who had, a handful of years earlier, established the first weather observatory in Melbourne at Flagstaff Gardens read a paper about the meteorites by the town clerk Fitzgibbon.  Both he and a German mineralogist named August Theodore Abel, who was based in Ballarat, and some other scientists were fascinated with the account and decided to set out to Cranbourne to visit the meteorites. The men camped the night at the sight of Cranbourne no. 1 on McKay’s farm, performing some magnetic experiments and taking some samples before McKay informed them that he had already sold it to a neighbour of his named James Bruce.  For the next fifty years this meteorite, known now as Cranbourne no. 1, would be known as the Bruce meteorite.  

Von Neumayer and his party continued on the next day and eventually located Cranbourne no.2 on James Lineham’s farm.  Lineham viewed the meteorite as a nuisance and was happy to sell it on, so it was purchased by Abel who made arrangements to have it delivered to Melbourne.  For the next fifty years this mass would be known as the Abel Meteorite.

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Georg Balthasar von Neumayer

Abel had it excavated and it weighed in at over 1 and a half metric tonnes, which in 1860 was the second largest meteorite in the world, only after Cranbourne no.1, which was to weigh in at 3 and half metric tonnes. Cranbourne no.2 generated great excitement on delivery to Melbourne where it was exhibited before being quickly shipped to London for the International Exhibition.  Before having it shipped to London, Abel had offered the National Museum, in Melbourne a chance to purchase it from him for 300 pounds, but they declined the offer saying it was too expensive. Instead he agreed to sell it to the British Museum for 300 pounds, which meant he made a profit of 250 pounds having purchased it from Lineham and transported it to Melbourne for fifty pounds.  

Meanwhile Fitzgibbon had obtained the remaining 3.5 kg of Cranbourne no.3 from McKay, exhibited it to the Royal Society, a Melbourne community of scientists and wrote a paper on it.  The publication of this paper gave rise to great interest in the meteorites in Europe. Even the Emperor of Austria at the time, Franz Joseph the first, wrote a letter to Henry Barkly, the Governor of Victoria at the time, asking for more information. Barkly had a sample of no.1 sent to the Emperor through the German-Austrian botanist Ferdinand Von Mueller, who was the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, and he also sent a larger fist sized piece of no.1 to the K.K. Hofmuseums in Vienna.

When it became clear just how important the meteorites were, many in the Royal Society decided it was of utmost importance that the main masses should be kept in the colony.  One member was Irishman Frederick McCoy who was also Director of the the National Museum in Melbourne. Knowing that Abel had already sent his mass to London, McCoy wrote to Mr Bruce as to whether he would be interested in donating Cranbourne no. 1 to his museum.  Bruce, being a proud citizen of the British Empire first and an Antipodean second informed McCoy that his request would be impossible, as he was determined to donate it to the British Museum. However, he told McCoy that he would be willing to have the meteorite cut in two, giving one half to the museum in Melbourne and one to the museum in London.  

He wrote his letter to McCoy in early January 1862, but it seems that McCoy did not reply immediately to this letter, and Bruce, taking this to mean a rejection of his proposal, on January 31st, gave Cranbourne no.1 to Von Mueller in order for him to present it to the British Museum.  Cranbourne no.1 was then moved to the University of Melbourne quadrangel, where it waited to be transported to London. When the Royal Society discovered that Bruce had arranged to send it to the British Museum, debate ensued in public throughout 1862 and many petitioned to have Cranbourne no.1 retained in Melbourne. Many members became outraged and publicly criticised Bruce’s actions in letters that were published in The Argus newspaper.  One in particular, a Dr. MacAdam, criticised Bruce for his lack of “scientific attainments”. Bruce however, wrote his own letter in December of 1862, in which he bitterly defended himself. In it he explained how he informed McCoy that time was of the utmost importance in replying to Bruce’s agreement to split the meteorite in two, but as McCoy hadn’t replied in almost a month, he was well within his right to send the meteorite abroad. He also included a stinging rebuke of MacAdam with the following words:

“As for Dr. MacAdam’s insidious sneer with respect to my scientific attainments, they may or may not be empirical; at all events, I have not thrust myself before the public.  If the great doctor’s last lecture is a fair specimen of his scientific attainments, I scarcely think he is free from the taint.  But, this is beside the question, I have yet to learn that, unless I am possessed of great scientific attainments, I cannot deal with any property I may have possessing a scientific interest, as I see fit, without consulting even the Royal Society.  Let the doctor commence to weed nearer home; there is plenty of room for the knife. I have lived long enough to know that they are not the men of greatest scientific attainments who are continually thrusting themselves before the public. I have spent many a pleasant day in the British Museum, and gained some information, why should I be prevented from making some return?  By what right do the Royal Society attempt to deal with my property against my wish? Would it not be more creditable to them to throw all selfishness aside, take a more cosmopolitan view of the the matter, and lend their aid, instead of throwing obstacles in the way.”

Just when it seemed as if the impasse could not be overcome, Henry Barkly came to the rescue by writing to the British Museum and arranging for them to return Cranbourne no.2  in exchange for Cranbourne no.1. This agreement seemed to appease all parties involved and also saved the larger meteorite from being desecrated by being split into two. 

Cranbourne no.1 was sent to London in 1865, where it is still on display in the Natural History Museum.  Cranbourne no.2 was returned to Melbourne and put on display in the National Museum. It can still be seen in the Melbourne Museum in Carlton to this day.

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Cranbourne #1, the Bruce Meteorite being excavated before delivery to Melbourne, February 1862.

In 1876 what came to be known as Cranbourne no.9 was found in a railway cutting, roughly 3km east of Beaconsfield Railway Station, when they were building the train line to Gippsland.  It weighed 75 kg and had apparently been exposed above the ground for many years, unburied, unlike the two main masses. It apparently fell into the possession of a German mineral dealer who destroyed it by greedily cutting it up into many pieces and selling each piece for a profit.

In 1886 Cranbourne no.10 was discovered on the property of a Mr Padley, about 7km south east of the old Langwarrin Railway Station, by an employee who was ploughing an orchard.  Padley saw the rock as a nuisance and simply moved it out of his way, not realising its significance. It was only when a Government geologist by the name of Murray visited the locality that it was Identified as a meteorite.  It was quite a large fragment, weighing in at 914kg. Murray encouraged Padley to donate it to the Melbourne Technological Museum and today it is located at the Melbourne Museum, Carlton.

In 1903 the Pearcedale iron, or what became known as Cranbourne no.11 was found.  It was quite large, weighing in at 760kg. This piece was to prove to be the most westerly fragment discovered as of February 2020.

1923 was a busy year for Cranbourne meteorites as another four were found this year all, nearby the largest fragment Cranbourne no.1.  Cranbourne no. 4 weighed in at almost 1300kg, no.5 356kg, no.7 153kg, and no.8 24kg. All 4 fragments were found in the same paddock, by farmers ploughing the land.

5 years later in 1928, Cranbourne no.6 was discovered, further to the north east, at Pakenham and was a smaller rock at just 40kg.  It was discovered during construction work involved in the widening of the Princes Highway, and like many of the others was buried at a shallow depth.  This piece is the most easterly of the the 13 pieces discovered as of February 2020.  

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Cranbournes # 4, 5 & 7, The Argus, 24 January 1924

Cranbourne no. 12, a small fragment of some 23 kg was only identified in 1982.  It had actually been found in 1927, but was not identified scientifically until the later date.  

The last piece to be found, Cranbourne no.13, was identified as recently as 2008.  A market gardener in Clyde, not far from the location of the Abel fragment, Cranbourne no.2, dug up a rock that had been annoying him for years.  He had intended to dispose of the 85kg piece at the local tip until a friend suspected there was something special about it and urged him to keep it.  Coincidentally, the man’s son was studying about the Cranbourne Meteorites at Clyde Primary School, and informed his teacher that his father was in possession of an unusual, heavy rock.  When the assistant principal of the school, Maruie Richardson, made enquiries with the parent, the latter agreed to take it to the school, so that the children could study it. The school arranged for a sample to be taken and sent to the Melbourne Museum, and it was confirmed then that the fragment was indeed of meteoric origin.

It should be noted that, while 13 fragments of this meteorite have been discovered there are more out there awaiting discovery.  As mentioned previously all of the pieces of the Cranbourne Meteorite were discovered in locations more or less in a straight line stretching 25km from Pakenham to Pearcedale.  In total, the mass discovered thus far comes to 8,500kg. If one looks at the map of the strewnfield inlcuded in the melbinmarvels.com blogpost about this event, it can clearly be seen that the fragments are clustered together at four different main areas along the 25km flight path.  These areas are at Pakenham, Clyde, Devon Meadows and Pearcedale.  

Within these clusters larger bodies, because of their greater mass, travel further along the flight path.  This can clearly be seen from the cluster at Devon Meadows, where Cranbourne no.1, the heaviest object, was further along the flight path to the south west than were the smaller bodies of Cranbourne numbers 4,5,7 and 8.  The only exception to this theory in this location was Cranbourne no.3 which was located further to the south west than the others, but at just 7.5kg it is possible that this iron was picked up by a human and carried to the area it was found in in the late 1850s.  

At both Pakenham, and Pearcedale the theory plays out as well, but with only 2 and 3 irons found thus far at these locations respectively, it is possible that searching in these locations for further irons may prove fruitful.  

But, perhaps the best chances of success in attempting to find more of the fragments of the Cranbourne Meteorite would be at Clyde, where, until 2008 the only fragment to have been discovered was the massive 1.5 tonne Abel Meteorite, Cranbourne no.2.  The theory predicts that upon separating from the main body, Cranbourne no.2 would have had smaller fragments detach from it, before it finally came to rest. And this theory was proven correct, when Cranbourne no.13 was found in 2008, close by, just to the north east.  However, there are almost certainly more of these smaller fragments out there in the Clyde area.  

Unfortunately, since 2008, much of this area has been rezoned as a residential area and a housing estate has been built on what was until about 3 years ago farmland.  Therefore, an extensive search using metal detectors would be much harder to carry out today.  

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In 2001 the Pakenham Gazette interviewed Glenda Tait and Jean Hermon, who were granddaughters of Suzanne Lineham, who was a 9 year old child of James Lineham, on whose property Cranbourne no.2 had been taken from in 1860.  Jean Hermon told the newspaper that her grandmother remembered as a child the impact the transportation of the meteorite had on local members of the Bunurong aboriginal tribe.

“Grandma said the meteor was worshipped by the aborigines who came to the property.  She said it was so special to them that they cried when they saw it being taken away.”

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Jean Hermon & Glenda Tait, 2001

This account of the importance attached to Cranbourne no.2 by the Bunurong people, as well as the earlier one related by Mr McKay in regards to Cranbourne no.1, leads one to suspect that the impact event was the source of some profundity for the tribe.  It is a terrible shame that, what that significance entailed, was lost. Indeed the Cranbourne Meteorite was to prove to be a particularly inauspicious occurrence for the Bunurong people. That this prized possession of the Bunurong was transported out of their lands to the capital city of the Empire that had so decimated their culture is perhaps symbolic of the British invasion of Bunurong land.  One could view the Cranbourne Meteorite lying in the Natural History Museum in London as the Bunurong’s Elgin Marbles. Perhaps one day, the British government will return this culturally significant artefact to the Bunurong people as a gesture of goodwill.  

Thank you for listening to this episode of Melbourne Marvels on the Cranbourne Meteorite.  My name is Eamonn, the creator of Melbourne Marvels. You can help me out by subscribing to the podcast on itunes, spotify or your Android podcasting app.  You can also help support me on Patreon from as little as $1 US an episode. If you can’t afford that you can support me by giving me a 5 star rating on Itunes, this helps the discoverability of the show.

Credits:

I would like to personally thank Peter Skilton of the Mornington Peninsula Astronomical Society for answering enquiries I had about this topic.

I got most of my information for this podcast from the journal volume titled Descriptions of the Victorian Meteorites with Notes on the Obsidianites which was in the journal Memoirs of the National Museum, Melbourne.  It was written by R.Henry Walcott, and published in April 1915.

Also, the Transactions of the Royal Society by Royal Society of Victoria, published in 1860, contained the information regarding the display of the horseshoes at the Melbourne Exhibition of 1854, the information regarding the Cranbourne councillor Alex Cameron petitioning the construction of the railway in 1860 and also the information regarding Fitzgibbon’s own visit to sites of the two main masses near Cranbourne.

Other helpful documents were primary sources by the individuals involved in the first assessments of Cranbournes 1 and 2.  Notably Results of the Magnetic Survey of the Colony of Victoria Executed During the Years 1858-1864 by Georg Balthasar von Neumayer, and published in 1869.  This is the document which records the information regarding colonists’ observations of the Bunurong’s relationship with Cranbourne #1.

The information about the Bukkertillible impact event at Lilydale I first learned about by reading On the Astronomical Knowledge and Traditions of Aboriginal Australians by Duane Willis Hammacher II, from December 2011.  He cites Robert Brough Smyth, 1878, in The Aborigines of Victoria: With Notes Relating to the Habits of the Natives of Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania, as to where this information is from.  I should note here that on finding this primary source I noticed that the correct spelling was Bukkertillible, not Bukkertillibe as Hammacher had in his thesis.  I copied this spelling mistake for my podcast and pronounced it wrong in the recording.  I only noticed the error on reading the primary source.

The other main source I used was Australian Gem and Treasure Hunter, Year Book1982, by William Cappadonna.  This contains much of the information regarding the predictions for where future finds of meteorites in the Cranbourne area are likely to be.

Credits: Narration and research by Eamonn Gunning

Music By: James Longley; Klankbeeld; Frankum; Andrewkn

Eamonn Gunning

21/02/2020