Photograph courtesy Elmar Buchner
Published September 27, 2012
Update, October 25: A new paper—citing features inconsitent with Buddha statues, circa A.D. 1000—suggests the statue in question was created in the 20th century. The report does, however, agree that the figure was carved from a meteorite.
Call it a blast from the past. Uncovered by Nazis in Tibet, an ancient Buddhist sculpture turns out to have been carved from a meteorite.
Known as the "Iron Man," the 22-pound (10-kilogram) figure is likely a Buddhist god. Seated, he wears a large swastika on his midsection—a good-luck symbol in Buddhism.
In 1938 a team of Nazis traveling in Tibet came across the statue and—possibly intrigued by the familiar bent-armed cross—brought it back to Germany. There, the "Iron Man" remained in a private collection in Munich until 2007, when the statue became available for study.
Since then, Elmar Buchner of the Planetology Institute at Stuttgart University has been analyzing the Buddhist statue, which is thought to hail from 11th-century Tibet. Buchner says the statue was carved from a meteorite that landed somewhere between Mongolia and Siberia roughly 15,000 years ago.
Among the clues is the sculpture's telltale mineral content and structure, which give it away as a kind of meteorite called an ataxite. "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 ... It is the rarest type of meteorite you can find," Buchner told the BBC.
No doubt the figure was dear to the artist who sculpted it, but what is it worth today? Its status as the only known human figure carved from a meteorite may give it a value of $20,000, according to Buchner. But, he said in a statement, "if our estimation of its age is correct and [the sculpting] is nearly a thousand years old, it could be invaluable."
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
The Innovators Project
After achieving nuclear fusion at age 14, Taylor, now 19, is working with subatomic particles for solutions to nuclear terrorism and cancer.
Larvae attract more larvae, but not if they don’t have any bacteria. by Ed Yong
Latest News Video
The nation's most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen is taking a 2,000-mile road trip from Montana to its new home in Washington, D.C.