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Almanac 1999. Museums of The Russian Academy of Sciences, M., "Nauchny'mir", 2000, 338 p.



1999 is the 250th anniversary of the meteorite collection of the Russian Academy of Sciences. This meteorite collection is one of the oldest and most famous in the world. The collection became the foundation for the study of extraterrestrial material in Russia and played a significant role in the formation of the science of meteoritics. Meteorites have a huge scientific value. They come to Earth from the depths of space. Their rock records the history of the formation of the Solar System from its earliest days to the present. They speak of processes that happened in ancient, far away stars which have long ago disappeared, and about the depths of the Earth. They also record the conditions under which the planets formed and evolved. The origin of life and the fate of our civilization perhaps are also linked to meteorites 1 .

However, the meteorite collection of the Russian Academy of Sciences has more than just scientific value. The collection has been built up over 250 years. People of all kinds have contributed meteorites, from rich, educated bourgeois and nobles to ordinary peasants and Siberian nomads. This makes the Academy of Sciences' meteorite collection a unique social phenomenon as well as a scientific resource. The meteorite collection's archives show the evolution of the language, culture, and world view of the Russian people and the rise and fall of social and economic relationship. Unfortunately, the history of the meteorite collection has not been written. Only the period of its birth, which was an important part in the formation of scientific meteoritics, has been studied in detail 2 . In this short article we suggest that the meteorite collection of the Russian Academy of Sciences is a remarkable scientific and cultural inheritance and deserves more detailed study.

18th-Century Beginnings

The beginning of the Russian Academy of Sciences' meteorite collection was in 1749, when a huge piece of iron rock, weighing 700 kg, was found near Krasnoyarsk. This rock was later named the Pallasovo Zhelezo, or Pallas Iron. The story of the finding of the Pallas Iron had three main heroes.

The first was Pyotr Simon Pallas (1741-1811), a scientist, academician, naturalist, and traveler who spent more than 40 years of his life in Russia. He was born in Germany, spent most of his working life in Russia, and returned to his homeland at the end of his life. In Russia, Pallas is considered as a Russian scientist despite his German origin. During his years in Russia, Pallas traveled extensively and collected extensive material on Russia's geography, geology, zoology, botany and ethnography. Pallas made many discoveries. A volcano in the Kurile islands, a New Guinea reef, and the first Russian meteorite were all named in his honor.

It is known that Pallas did not find this meteorite by himself. The huge iron meteorite later to be known as the Pallas Iron was found when Pyotr Pallas was only 8 years old. He learned of the iron boulder only much later, in 22 years, (1771) when it was brought to Krasnoyarsk, far from the place of its finding. He realized the importance of the find and published a description of the unusual iron boulder in 1786 [Pallas 1786, 1788]. Appropriately, the boulder was later named in Pallas' honor.

The second hero in the story of the Pallas Iron meteorite was a German copper miner named Johann Kaspar Mettich. Mettich had come to work in Russia and in 1749 was the obersteiger (overseer) of the large copper mines of Karysh, and later Inspector of Mines for Krasnoyarsk Province. In 1771 or 1772, Mettich wrote a report to Pyotr S. Pallas, saying that he had noticed an iron boulder lying in the open about 300 paces from a mineshaft previously discovered by a Cossack named Medvedev. As a result of Mettich's report, later authors -- A. F. Gebel in 1868 and A.I. Eremeeva in 1982 - credit Mettich as the finder of the the Pallas Iron meteorite.

Mettich's report was the first document to mention the circumstances and year (1749) of the finding of the Pallas Iron. It is surprising that Pallas in fact learned of the mysterious iron boulder not from Mettich but from a soldier named Yakub who was helping him " to collect natural wonders ".

The third hero in the story of the Pallas Iron was a retired Cossack named Yakov Medvedev. Little is known of Medvedev. According to Medvedev himself, he had a hankering for the wandering life, hunted and worked as a blacksmith and had a great curiousity for prospecting. Under the Soviet government, Medvedev was credited as the original discoverer of the Pallas Iron. The reason of this oppinion 3 was not reported. Medvedev was searching for ore veins and likely found the mysterious iron boulder lying in the open air 300 paces from an ore deposit.

However, the author proposes that neither Medvedev nor Mettich was the initial discoverer of this first meteorite. The author believes it more likely that the boulder had already been discovered by local taiga tribes, whom Medvedev called Tartars. Medvedev's report to Pallas notes that the Tartars thought that " this holy iron boulder had fallen from the Heavens ". Later this sentence apparently gave the scientist E. F. Khladny the first thought about a possible cosmic origin for the boulder. However, Medvedev's note indicates that the local Tartars had already known about the presence of the iron boulder and its possible origin. In fact it seems unlikely that the tartars would have continued believing that the boulder was sacred object after it had been found by Mettich or Medvedev.

The actual discovery may be reconstructed as follows.
Medvedev lived a wandering life and learned from the local taiga Tartars about the unusual iron boulder. He decided to take a look around of something unusual (everybody would do the same), and found the boulder and the nearby ore vein. For duty or for profit, Medvedev reported his discovery to Mettich, the Overseer of Mines in Krasnoyarsk. Mettich was then ordered to investigate this ore vein (he wrote about that in his report). The Cossack Medvedev showed Mettich the iron ore vein and the nearby iron boulder. Mettich meticulously documented the finds.

It is completely obvious that he wrote everything down, because otherwise it seems unlikely that 22 years later in his report he would have been able to recreate from memory all the detailed circumstances of the find which he put in his report. Pallas' account of his conversations with Medvedev is very similar to Mettich's report. It is unlikely that Mettich showed his report to Medvedev, as the old Cossack was probably illiterate but it is likely that Mettich sent a copy of his report to various officials. If so, it appears that the significance of the find went unappreciated. And perhaps the scientific community would never have learned about the Pallas Iron. Knowledge of the iron boulder would have died in the taiga, and the birth of meteoritics would have happened in a different way.

But you can't rewrite history: The retired Cossack Medvedev performed his heroic deed, which played a decisive role in the story of the Pallas Iron, scientific meteoritics and to some degree opened the road to space for humanity. " With great labor he hauled this mass down from the mountain where it lay, and for 30 versts to his home, " Pallas wrote laconically.

Rumours began to fly that the Cossacks had found and recovered a miraculous boulder, or more likely a golden one. Why else would anyone haul such a heavy weight to his house? The Cossack Medvedev explained his actions to Pallas. " The amazing whiteness and malleability of the boulder, and its ringing tone when hammered, allowed me to think that the boulder might be of a material more noble than iron. The Tartars, who thought the boulder a holy stone fallen from Heaven, have confirmed me in this opinion… "

Finally the rumours reached Krasnoyarsk. Johann Mettich's report notes that " I know that the abovementioned Medvedev later hauled this boulder down from the mountains: but where it had been delivered I don't know. " Pallas' servant Yakub heard the rumour, and when sent on some business to Abakansk he visited Medvedev, chiseled off a piece of the boulder and brought it to Pallas. Pallas wrote, " …it was clear enough that this sample was natural iron……without delay I ordered that the whole mass, which then weighed 42 poods, be brought to the city. " Later Pallas asked the officials in charge of mines (i.e. to Mettich) for comments about this find. Johann Mettich pulled out his old notes and wrote the report referred to above. Using Mettich's report, it was possible to determine the place where the iron boulder had first been found. A monument was later erected on the spot - the only monument to a meteorite in the world 4 .

Now, looking back, we are faced with important questions:

What did Pallas see in this iron boulder that made him decide to report it immediately to the Academy in St. Petersburg? Pallas had no suspicion yet that the boulder had a cosmic origin.

Why did the Academy, after some hesitation, decide to transport the boulder to the capital?

Why did the Konferenz-Secretary of the Academy, Shtelin, in his 1774 paper to the Royal Society in London about the latest scientific discoveries in Russia, report with pride about this first find of natural iron in Siberia.

Shtelin named only two discoveries. The first was the discovery of the Aleutian Islands and the second was the finding of the Pallas Iron. A later author, A. I. Eremeeva, probably correctly determined the reason for the sudden interest. At that time, limited amounts of pure natural iron had occasionally been found, but there were always suspicions that these finds were the remains of ancient metalworks. The Pallas Iron was clearly not the product of ancient smiths. It was the first confirmed discovery of naturally-occurring pure iron metal. In the 18th century, naturally occurring pure iron might have been of commercial interest. Indeed, if the natural iron occurred in large accumulations, then the process of metallurgy could have been greatly simplified.

So the origin of the Pallas boulder triggered heavy scientific debates, which became even hotter with the publication in 1794 of a book by E.F. Khladny titled " On The Origin of The Natural Iron Mass Found by Pallas And Other Similar Iron Masses And Certain Linked Natural Phenomena. " Khladny was a foreign member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences known for his work in acoustics. Khladny's book laid the foundation of scientific meteoritics. It made the first suggestion of a cosmic origin for the Pallas boulder and other "aerial stones ", or aerolites, which had been reported to fall from the sky but were not accepted as true since the scientific community believed it was physically impossible for such a thing to occur.

Khladny's idea was not accepted right away, but it had been stated and gradually opened colossal horizons for the mind. Extraterrestrial material, previously seen only through telescopes, could now be touched directly and studied by laboratory methods.

A whole range of questions appeared requiring immediate answers. But to solve them, meteorites were needed. Only one practical question remained to be answered - a mere technicality - how to collect meteorites efficiently. It has been long and hard to solve this question.

The 19th Century: A Time of Change

The Russian scientific community was skeptical of Khladny's ideas. The idea of stones falling from the air did attract some attention and a growing scientific debate. In 1807, a book by A. Stoikovich " About aerial stones and their origins " was published in Kharkov. It was the first very detailed monograph in Russian about meteorites. In 1819 a very fundamental monograph by I.M. Mukhin called " About Miraculous Rains And Stones Falling From The Air (Aerolites) " was published in St.Petersburg. Both books gave a critical view of Khladny's ideas.

The Academy of Sciences showed only minor interest in meteorites for many years. No organized attempts to study or collect meteorites were made, although from time to time the Academy did receive meteorites which were sent to its address.

Thus, in 1811 the Academy's collection already had 7 meteorites, and in 1846, 19 meteorites.

The largest changes happened in the second part of the XIX century when a book titled " About Aerolites in Russia " by A.F.Gebel was published in 1868 in St. Petersburg.

A.F. Gebel, probably a chemist, was the curator of the Mineralogical Department of the Academy of Sciences and was passionately interested in meteorites. Gebel was the first in Russia to fully accept Khladny's conception. He organized a meteorite collection strategy.

By 1868, the Russian meteorite collection had only 45 samples, while the Museum of Vienna had 200. Disappointed by the limited Russian collection, Gebel understood that " almost equal numbers of aerolites fall on equal surface areas of the Earth " and consequently that " the reasons for the difference must be in the higher population densities…in Western European countries… "

Gebel noted that the " mismatch between the number of falls in Russia and abroad is an effect not only of the population density, but should also be changed by improvement of the curiosity, attention and interest to these subjects from our town and rural populations… " These simple thoughts are the first demonstration of the social aspect of meteoritics. Indeed, because meteorite falls are so rare and there are so few scientists, ordinary people are the main observers and collectors of meteorites. So the number of collected meteorites is determined by social characteristics of a population - its size, density, economic and cultural levels.

The growth curve of the number of Russian-source meteorites in the Russian Academy of Sciences collection is a clear confirmation of these conclusions. Consequently, to expand the meteorite collection it is necessary to go to the people and work actively with them. Fortunately, as further history showed, our people are very interested in stones falling from the sky, and respect scientists and always supported and helped them in the collection of meteorites 5 .

A mining engineer named Yu.N. Simashko was the first to put Gebel's ideas into practice. Simashko, who was a passionate lover of meteorites, was the first to introduce the terminology and name of a new science - meteoritics. Simashko actively popularized meteoritics, traveled extensively searching for meteorites and collecting information from people about meteorite falls and finds. He also bought and exchanged meteorites with foreign collectors. Simashko collected meteorites not for the Academy of Sciences but for his private collection. At the turn of the twentieth century, Simashko's collection contained almost 400 meteorites and exceeded the collection of Academy of Sciences. Its fate was tragic. After Simashko's death, his widow sold his meteorite collection. Only few samples remained in Russia 6 .

Towards the end of the XIX century, interest in meteorites was growing in Academy of Sciences and in other scientific and government organizations. Meteorite collections also were formed in Odessa, Kiev, Kharkov and Tartu. Moscow State University began gathering samples of meteorites in its mineralogical collection.

A wonderful collection of meteorites was formed in the Forestry Institute (now the Timiryazev Agricultural Academy).

Finally, and surprisingly, in 1898, Tsarist Russia passed a law making all meteorites government property. According to this law: " …meteorites must be transferred to Government Museums. Any person finding a meteorite has a duty to transfer it to a Museum in person, or to submit it to an official of the education ministry or to the local government, or indicate the location of the meteorite for transfer to a Museum " [Nature…,1916].

The Academy of Sciences offered a reward for anyone finding a meteorite. Even during the Soviet period, there was no such law, although rewards for the finding of meteorites continued 7 . The result of the XIXth century was the complete understanding of the cosmic origin of meteorites and the development of a strategy for collecting them.

The 20th Century: The Golden Age

The XIXth century had laid the basis for the efficient growth of the meteorite collection. Only organizational and technical issues remained. Academician Vladimir I. Vernadsky determined to solve them.

Vernadsky, the scientist, philosopher, and politician who founded geochemistry and biogeochemistry is well known. But few people know that V.I. Vernadsky was the main leader of meteorite research in the Soviet period. V.I. Vernadsky believed that meteorites have a galactic origin. Calculations of meteorite orbits confirmed this directly -- and so the study of meteorites opens a door to study the depths of the Universe 8 . This expanded understanding increased the urgency of building up a substantial meteorite collection.

Vernadsky fully accepted Gebel's ideas about collecting of meteorites by people. " Especially in this field of knowledge we need the support of the broadest layers of the population. The number of recovered meteorites is directly proportional to the cultural level of the people and its activity in preserving meteorites, " wrote Vernadsky. With Vernadsky's leadership, the organized study of meteorites began. A special meteorite expedition was organized in 1921. In 1922, a Meteorite Department was opened at the Mineralogical Museum. In 1935, a Meteorite Commission was created, and in 1939 a Meteorite Committee.

The scientist L.A. Kulik 9 brought many of Vernadsky's ideas to life. Kulik was undoubtedly the single most important figure in the history of Russian meteoritics. His name became well known after his first heroic expeditions to the taiga to study the giant Tunguska explosion. Kulik made great strides in studying the Tunguska event. In addition to Tunguska, Kulik's main achievement was the collection of meteorites. Kulik took charge of the meteorite collection efforts with great enthusiasm, organization and heroism. At first he worked almost unaided. He went on solo expeditions and suffered deprivations. A great writer and speaker, L.A. Kulik actively spread information about meteorites among the Soviet population. He organized a group of volunteer observers and correspondents in the Meteorite Department.

From then on, an increasing number of reports about meteorites began to arrive in the Meteorite department. Based on these reports, Kulik visited the sites of finds and falls, and bought and traded meteorites from persons and museums. Piece by piece, Kulik collected everything that was left in a Russia devastated by the Civil War. He raised the meteorite collection from near destruction, enriched it, and supported the development of fundamental investigations of extraterrestrial material in Russia.

After Vernadsky's death, Academician V. G. Fesenkov became the Head of the Meteorite Committee. Fesenkov was one of the USSR's leading astronomers. E.L. Krinov became the scientific secretary of the Meteorite Committee after beginning his scientific career in the 1920s in the Meteorite department. Krinov continued Kulik's collection work, based on the same method of active work with the people.

On February 12, 1947, came the giant fall of the Sikhote-Alin meteorite. It brought wonderful new samples and caused a flood of interest in meteorites in the USSR. The collection was growing rapidly. The intensity of scientific studies of meteorite material grew along with the collection.

This research was strongly supported by academician A.P. Vinogradov, a student and colleague of V.I. Vernadsky. Vinogradov became the first director of the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry. Under Vinogradov's leadership, the Vernadsky Institute conducted wide-ranging investigations into the chemical composition of meteorites, their ages and radiation history.

The Institute actively collaborated with the Meteorite Committee and other organizations. Meanwhile, fundamental aspects of meteorite formation (cosmogony) were studied by O. Yu. Shmidt's laboratory at the Institute of Physics of the Earth, meteorite geochronology was investigated at the Institute of Geochronology of The Precambrian, and meteorite astronomy and orbit dynamics were studied at the Astronomical Society.

Step by step, Russian meteoritics was taking a leading role in the world. Meteoritica, an annual magazine, was organized, and summary monographs were published. Yearly all-USSR meteorite conferences were organized starting in 1949. The future appeared promising.

However, in the 1970s, huge changes occurred in methods of collecting meteorites, and large new horizons were found. It was shown that meteorites may be effectively collected in Antarctica and in deserts, where they are usually well preserved. Professional meteorite collection expeditions were organized. Huge numbers of meteorites began flowing into meteorite collections around the world. Among them completely new types of meteorite material were found.

Unfortunately, these sources of meteorites were unreachable for Russian investigators. For various reasons, Russia, the country which discovered Antarctica and maintained an active network of Antarctic stations, was unable to organize search and collection of meteorites on the icy continent. Several Russian attempts were made to collect meteorites in Antarctica, but unfortunately finished without result. In the desert regions of the USSR, the climate appeared unfavorable for the preservation of meteorites. The Russian meteorite collection rapidly fell behind other world collections in both quantity and scientific significance.

The collection is still unique in the number of meteorite falls submitted to the collection from people10. In this period, R.L. Khotinok continued working with the population, continuing the collection efforts of Kulik and Krinov.

The 20th century had been a Golden Age for the Russian meteorite collection, with more meteorites collected than in the previous 150 years. But the century ended with a depression. Since 1992, no further meteorites have been added to the collection from within the territory of Russia. The reasons for this crisis are obvious. We are all witnesses and participants. The curve of accumulation of Russian meteorites has immediately reacted to the negative social, political and economic processes in our society, and has shown that the scale and influence of the crisis for scientific investigations are comparable only with the damage of the Revolution and Civil Wars.

The Present: Current Condition of The Collection

The meteorite collection of the Russian Academy of Sciences is the biggest and most unique collection of meteorites in Russia today. The collection contains 980 meteorites and approximately 25,000 individual samples. The collection also includes samples of tektites and impactites (rocks from terrestrial impact craters). 182 of the collection's meteorites were collected on the Russian and USSR territory. They are mostly represented by the main masses. Foreign meteorites were received by exchanges. Exchanges are currently the only way to expand the collection.

In number of meteorites, the Academy's collection is smaller than several other worldwide collections, such as those of Japan, the USA, Austria, Great Britain, Germany, and France, but it is significantly bigger than the collections of such countries as Canada and Italy. Moreover, according to the number of meteorites collected on the territory of the host country, the Russian meteorite collection holds second place in the world, after the collection of the National Museum of USA 11 .

Despite Russia's current economic depression, the country remains on the honor roll of leading keepers of meteorite material. As mentioned above, the major weak points of Russian collection are the lack of numerous Antarctic and deserts finds of meteorites which poorly are represented in the Russian collection. We would like to hope that the situation will change in the future.

In our collection practically all types of meteorites are represented. It is an excellent foundation for scientific investigations in Russia and worldwide. Every year 50-100 samples of meteorites are given to foreign and Russian scientific laboratories. The collection is held at the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry (GEOKHI) of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN) and is supported by the funds of GEOKHI's Laboratory of Meteoritics. The collection has a rich archive.

A part of the collection is exhibited in the Museum of Extraterrestrial Material at the Vernadsky Institute and in the Fersmann Mineralogical Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Samples for investigation, exhibits, and educational purposes are provided based on detailed requests sent to the Laboratory of Meteoritics 12 .



Gebel A.F. About aerolites in Russia. St. Petersburg, 1868, 136 p.

Eremeeva A. II The birth of scientific meteoritics. M. Nauka, 1982, 253 p.

Pallas P.S. Travels in various provinces of the Russian state.. St. Petersburg, 1786, p.2, b. 2, p. 385-482; 1788, part 3, first half, 624 p.

Nature and people. Magazine 08.12.1916.



1 The Mesozoic mass extinction was likely a result of collision of a large cosmic body with the Earth. Recently this conception has received more and more support. Thus, the problem of asteroid collisions seems relatively real.

2 There are good Russian and foreign sources on this question. See especially the monograph by A.I. Eremeeva [1982].

3 Medvedev is considered the discoverer of the Pallas Iron not only in the scientific literature but in official sources of the Soviet period (for example, the Bolshaya Encyclopedia).

4 These activities were organized by A.I. Eremeeva.

5 Source: Letters of the Meteorite Committee and people of our country. Note that a meteorite fall is an amazing and spectacular phenomenon and is remembered long after. So people send letters to the Meteorite Committee, in which they report very accurately the circumstances of some meteorite falls even as much as 60 years after they happened.

6 Based on A.F. Gebel's data, in the XIX century meteorites were found in many private collections. Unfortunately, all these collections have disappeared. Probably this is the fate of most of the private collections. As a rule they disappeared after the owner's death.

7 It is interesting to note that for the whole period in which rewards were offered for finding a meteorite, only three people refused from their awards as a matter of principle.

8 Today it is well known that meteorites were formed within the Solar System. However, interstellar material has been discovered in meteorites, and this material is being tensively studied. Thus, today meteorites are the only source of information about processes in the interstellar environment.

9 At the outbreak of war in 1941, Kulik joined the Communist Party (Bolshevik) and went to the front. The Academy of Sciences sent a request to the Defense Commissariat to request the demobilization of the scientist. The order was received but Kulik refused to leave his militia unit. In October 1941 when the Germans attacked Moscow, Kulik was wounded and captured. Kulik was held prisoner in Spas-Demensk, a town in the Kaluga region. He worked as a nurse in a prisoner-of-war hospital. In April 1942 he contracted typhus and died shortly after. He was buried in the city graveyard. In 1960 a simple memorial was raised over his grave by the Academy of Sciences.

10 Meteorites are divided into falls and finds. Falls are seen to fall by witnesses and recovered, while finds are discovered without any connections to the fall event. Their relationship to meteorites is usually determined based on textures and material composition.

11 This is not a bad result if the low population density, taiga landscape, and long winter are considered. These factors greatly complicate collection of meteorites within Russia's territory.

12 To visit the Museum of Extraterrestrial Material you need to make a reservation. Please call (+7-095)-939-0205 and ask for the curator, Dr. Skripnik. Analysis of meteorites is performed by the Laboratory of Meteoritics (of the Vernadsky Institute, address: 119991 Moscow, Kosygin St, 19, tel. (+7-095)-939-7070.)


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