27 September 2012
Ancient Buddhist statue, filched by Nazis, was carved from meteorite
by Will Parker
A 1,000 year-old Buddhist statue discovered by a Nazi expedition to Tibet in 1938 has been analyzed by scientists and found to be carved from a rare ataxite meteorite. Details of how the provenance of the relic was established have been published in Meteoritics and Planetary Science.
The statue, known as the Iron Man, weighs 10kg (21lb) and is believed to portray the god Vaisravana (known as Jambhala in Tibet). According to anthropologists, the relic displays stylistic elements associated with both Buddhist and pre-Buddhist Bon cultures.
It was discovered in 1938 by an expedition led by German zoologist Ernst Schäfer (pictured). Interestingly, the expedition was sponsored by Nazi SS Chief Heinrich Himmler and the entire expeditionary team were believed to have been SS members.
Schäfer would later claim that he accepted SS support to advance his scientific research into the wildlife and anthropology of Tibet. However, many historians believe Himmler's support may have been based on his belief that the origins of the Aryan race could be found in Tibet.
The statue was taken back to Germany and became part of a private collection in Munich. It only became available for study following its sale at auction in 2007.
The first team to study the origins of the statue was led by Dr Elmar Buchner from Stuttgart University. Buchner's team was able to classify it as an ataxite, a rare class of iron meteorite with high contents of nickel.
"The statue was chiseled from a fragment of the Chinga meteorite which crashed into the border areas between Mongolia and Siberia about 15,000 years ago," explained Buchner. "While the first debris was officially discovered in 1913 by gold prospectors, we believe that this individual meteorite fragment was collected many centuries before." Buchner adds that it is possible the statue originated from the Bon culture of the 11th Century.
Buchner is reluctant to put a value on the piece but he notes that it is the only known illustration of a human figure to be carved from a meteorite. "We have nothing to compare it to when assessing value," he said. "If our estimation of its age is correct and it is nearly a thousand years old it could be invaluable."
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