Plenty of romantics have made a wish upon a shooting star as it streaks across the night sky. Those bright beacons of hope are actually pieces of space debris burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. And if they survive to hit the surface, they are called a meteorite. Many early human cultures called it ‘star metal,’ or some variation thereof.

Meteorites consist mainly of iron with a small amount of nickel. When they fall through the atmosphere, they develop a thin, black crust of iron oxide that quickly weathers to rust. Though iron meteorites comprise only about 5% of observed meteorite falls, they are relatively easy to distinguish from terrestrial rock and last longer in soil.

The Willamette Meteorite is the largest meteorite ever discovered in the US, of about 7.8 square meters long with a weight of 15.5 tons!

The Willamette Meteorite!

The Willamette Meteorite. Source: Wikimedia Commons

How is Meteoric Iron Formed?

Iron meteorites are composed of two minerals – kamacite and taenite, which often occur together. The interlocking crystals of these two minerals combine to form a unique arrangement, the Widmanstätten pattern, which indicates the relatively low pressure at which iron meteorites are formed.

Primitive humanity used meteoric iron in the earliest stages of metal culture. Iron rarely occurs natively within the earth, so it was primarily obtained from meteorites, of which the dropping from the sky provided them with a metal of remarkable excellence. 

The Toluca Meteorite!

The Toluca Meteorite, displaying Widmanstätten pattern. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Who Used Meteoric Iron?

Throughout history, iron meteorites were used for their  iron content, which was forged into cultural objects, tools, or weapons. Past evidence to prove the use of meteoric iron includes:

  • During the Bronze Age, people used meteorites to create iron weapons.
  • Mexicans forged the meteor that fell at Toluca in 1776 into agricultural implements.
  • Native tribes used two meteorites found in Chile in 1889 for the fabrication of spurs, stirrups, spearheads, and knives.
  • In South Africa, the Namaquas wrought meteoric iron into assegai points and farm tools.
  • Fragments from the Gibeon meteorite were used for ages by the Nama people of Namibia.
  • The Iron Man, a statue of Vaiśravaṇa, was likely carved from an iron meteorite. It has been speculated that it may be made from a fragment of the Chinga meteorite.
Ivory lance tipped with meteoric iron.

Ivory lance tipped with meteoric iron.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Why is Star Metal Rare?

This metal was scarce and in high demand because it could be forged with common metals to make durable weapons and tools of high strength. In addition to weapon smithing, tiny pieces were sometimes sliced and polished for inlay work. Before knowledge of advanced mining practices and iron forging existed, this was the only way most early cultures could access this alloy.

Today meteoric iron is used in niche jewelry and knife production, but most of it is used for research, educational, or collecting purposes.

Join Shop LC on Live TV, June 12, 2019, for your own chance to own a piece of star metal!