Field of Science

The Thunderstone of Ensisheim

"It was nothing of this earth, but a piece of the great outside; and as such dowered with outside properties and obedient to outside laws."
"The Colour Out of Space", by H.P. Lovecraft (1927)

It was 11.30 a.m. of the 7, November 1492 that in the sky a “gruesome thunderbolt and long lasting roar” was heard and a rock impacted in a wheat field producing a crater “half a man length” deep.
Soon curious onlookers gathered around the hole, and with the help of some strong men and an oxcart the recuperated 127 kilogram heavy stone felt from the sky was carried with a solemn procession in the nearby city of Ensisheim, however not after some pieces of the rock were broken off as memorabilia.

Fig.1. One of the most popular depictions of the impact of the thunderstone of Ensisheim in a contemporary pamphlet by the Swiss humanist Johann Bergmann von Olpe from Basel.
The accompanying text explains as follows:
In the year thousand four hundred ninety two was heard a great clamour
That first outside the city in the seventh month of wintertime
A great rock at bright day felt down with thunderbolt
With a weight of three and a half centner and with the colour of iron it was brought here in a solemn procession, with great strength many pieces were broken off

The Austrian emperor Maximilian I., accidentally in the town for political reasons, also took two pieces for his collection and ordered that the remaining mysterious rock should be exposed in the local church. This seemed necessary, stones falling from the sky were believed to be dangerous premonitory signs of war, plague and famine and the product of evil forces - only by putting the rock in chains on holy ground their evil influence could be neutralized.

The shooting star became soon known as the “thunderstone of Ensisheim”, the news of its recovery was propagated by pamphlets all over Central Europe and scholars speculated about the significance of the strange rock.
In the first pamphlet the Swiss humanist Johann Bergmann von Olpe remembered of various signs in the sky and wonders observed in the last years, more remarkable than every thing that could be read in books, but this rock was by far the greatest of all miracles.
He continues to tell the extraordinary effects of the phenomena, the thunderbolt produced by the rock alone was heard all over Europe, or at least until the nearby Swiss.
Bergmann is sure that the stone is a sign for misfortune for all the enemies of the rightfully emperor Maximilian, god himself send it to declare his support for a war against France – another example of misuse of catastrophes for political reasons.

Fig.2. The impact as seen in the “Schweizer Bilderchronik des Luzerners“ by Diebold Schilling in 1512.

The “thunderstone of Ensisheim” is today the oldest known recorded case of a meteorite in Europe.
For the next centuries the case of Ensisheim will appear in various chronicles and report, but the origin of these rocks remains mysterious until the 18th century.
Two main explanations will develop - meteorites are solidified air or vapour and so phenomena of the atmosphere or in alternative eruption products of volcanoes and so phenomena of the geosphere.
An extraterrestrial origin was considered impossible because the space between the planets was considered free of matter, idea supported and promoted by the English astronomer Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

An important contribution comes from the German physician and lawyer Ernst Friedrich Chladni (1756-1827), he collects eyewitness reports and petrologic and chemical analyses and in 1794 publish his work entitled “Über den Ursprung der von Pallas gefundenen und anderer ihr ähnlicher Eisenmassen, und über einige damit in Verbindung stehende Naturerscheinungen” (About the origin of the by Pallas discovered and other similar masses of iron and their connected natural apparitions). He is the first to publish and carefully document the hypothesis that meteorites are not rocks from or formed on earth, but remnants of the formation of the solar system coming from the interplanetary space.


BÜHLER, R.W. (1992): Meteorite – Urmaterie aus dem interplanetaren Raum. Weltbild Verlag:, Augsburg: 192

Online resources:

e-meteorite (31.10.2001): Geschichte der Meteoritenkunde. (Accessed 29.03.2011)

GROSSMAN, M. (2010-2011): Meteorite Manuscripts. (Accessed 29.03.2011)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS