The Meteorite from Lake House – Journey’s End?

Professor Colin Pillinger and “the meteorite from Lake House” now on display to the general public at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. (image: Andy Tindle)

Last Tuesday, a small group from the Open University headed down to the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum for a rather special event. A unique British meteorite was finally going on display to the general public and we had been invited to the media launch. So what was all the fuss about? Well, “the meteorite from Lake House” has an extraordinary tale to tell. We still don’t know all the details, but here is the story so far:

The Open University’s Lake House Extraterrestrials outside the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum (from left to right: Diane Johnson, Judith Pillinger, Colin Pillinger, Richard Greenwood, Dave Revell, Liz Sugden and John Watson. (image: Andy Tindle)

For as long as anyone could remember, a large rusty bolder sat close to the front door of Lake House, an impressive Elizabethan mansion located in the village of Lake near Salisbury. It was a long held tradition that the rock was a meteorite, but no one could be certain. Then, in the early 1990s, the owners of the house contacted scientists at the Natural History Museum in London, who were able to confirm that the rock really was a meteorite. It was subsequently transferred to a storage facility, where it languished until a few years ago, when Professor Colin Pillinger decided to investigate things further.

The Lake House Elizabethan mansion, Lake near Salisbury. The meteorite can be seen clearly on the steps of the mansion in a 1908 Country Life photograph of Lake House (image: English Heritage/John Rendle)

The reason Professor Pillinger wanted to take another look at the specimen was because its composition matched that of Danebury, a small meteorite found by archaeologists during the excavation of an iron-age settlement. The Danebury Hill fort is only a relatively short distance from Lake House, so perhaps there was a chance that the two objects were the products of a single event, in which a large meteroid broke up during atmospheric entry producing a strewn field comprising many meteorite fragments ?

The Danebury meteorite (top left) weighs only about 30 grams and was found at the bottom of a grain storage pit by archaeologists excavating the Danebury iron-age hill fort in Hampshire (bottom right). (images: Andy Tindle/English Heritage)

Dating of Danebury indicates that it fell only a few thousand years ago, whereas “the meteorite from Lake House” arrived on Earth much earlier and gave a “weathering age of approximately 10,000 years before present. So, the two space rocks must have fallen during two distinct events.

But questions still remained. How did the meteorite get to Lake House and how come the owners seemed to know that the rusty, weathered bolder was a meteorite? One theory was that, at some time in the recent past, it had been imported from abroad. Professor Pillinger and his wife Judith undertook a study of historical records and investigated the background of previous owners of the Lake House estate. They uncovered photographic evidence showing that the meteorite had been located on the doorstep of Lake House for at least 80 years. The possibility that it had been imported from the “colonies” in the early twentieth century looked increasingly unlikely. In fact, oxygen isotope evidence demonstrates that the meteorite had been weathered in a cold climate. It was also covered in fragments of the local chalk country rock. There now seems little doubt that the specimen is a genuine British “find” and may have been transported to the Salisbury area by glaciers, in a similar way to that proposed for the rocks used to construct nearby Stonehenge.

But who had found the meteorite and put it on the doorstep of Lake House? Professor Pillinger’s research suggests that one possibility is that it was dug up by Edward Duke. He was a previous owner of Lake House and an antiquarian who excavated burial mounds in the local area.

Edward Duke (1779-1852) (inset) inherited the Lake House estate in 1805 and devoted his leisure to the study of antiquities, including nearby stonehenge. (image: wikipedia)

Weighing in at just over 90 kg, “the meteorite from Lake House” is by far and away Britain’s largest meteorite. Only a relatively short distance from Lake House, the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum makes an ideal home for the meteorite. The Museum has a fine collection of local archaeological artefacts, particularly appropriate in view of the possibility that the meteorite may once have been used in the construction of an Iron Age burial mound.

Professor Pillinger introducing the new meteorite display. The event was widely covered by both the national (Guardian, BBC, Daily Mail) and local press and even made it to the blogosphere. (image Diane Johnson)

To celebrate the opening of the meteorite display, the Museum has organised a two week programme of activities aimed at school students, in which they will also have the opportunity to study other meteorites and Apollo lunar samples supplied by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). As part of the Museum’s programme, Professor Colin Pillinger gave a special talk, in which he presented details of the mystery that surrounds the identification and recovery of “the meteorite from Lake House”. Professor Pillinger’s Royal Society talk on the same subject is still available on the web.

The Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum are putting on various schools workshops using the STFC extraterrestrial materials collection (displayed on the table). Dr Andy Tindle of the Open University is seen here demonstrating the benefits of the Virtual Microscope to the Museum’s Learning and Access Officer, Ruth Butler. (image: John Watson)

And so, “the meteorite from Lake House” seems to have finally come to the end of its long journey. Starting in the asteroid belt, it reached Earth at least 10,000 years ago, landing in a frozen, unknown northern wasteland. It was then transported south by a glacier, deposited on Salisbury Plain and probably used to build a tomb by Iron Age man. It was then dug up by a gentleman archaeologist and, for perhaps a century or so, rested near the doorstep of the Lake House mansion. In the early 1990s, it was transported to the Natural History Museum, London, and eventually consigned to a storage warehouse. After all that, it is comforting to know that the meteorite is now on open display at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, where hopefully it will help to inspire and excite visitors for many years to come.

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