The Western Australian Museum meteorite collection
A. W. R. Bevan, 2006. "The Western Australian Museum meteorite collection", The History of Meteoritics and Key Meteorite Collections: Fireballs, Falls and Finds, G.J.H. McCall, A.J. Bowden, R.J. Howarth
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The first meteorites recovered from Western Australia were a number of irons, the earliest of which was found in 1884 east of the settlement of York. These were named the ‘Youndegin’ meteorites after a police outpost. Some of the larger specimens were taken to London to be sold as scrap metal, but were recognized as meteorites and eventually acquired by museums. The main mass of Youndegin (2626 kg) was recovered in 1954 and is retained in the collection of the Western Australian Museum.
Despite a sparse population and relatively recent settlement by Europeans (1829), a number of factors have contributed to the excellent record of meteorite recovery in Western Australia. Primarily, large regions of arid land have allowed meteorites to be preserved for millennia, and these are generally easily distinguished from the country rocks. A less obvious, but significant, factor is that, in antiquity, Australian Aborigines do not appear to have utilized meteorites extensively. Finally, systematic collecting from the Nullarbor Region, has contributed to the large numbers of recoveries since 1969.
The ‘Father’ of the State’s meteorite collection was the chemist and mineralogist Edward Sydney Simpson (1875–1939) who, from 1897 to 1939, recorded and analysed many of the meteorites that formed the foundation of the collection. The first Catalogue of Western Australian Meteorites was published by McCall & de Laeter in 1965 (Western Australian Museum, Special Publications, 3). Forty-eight meteorites were listed, 29 of which were irons (some of which have since been paired). Interest in meteorites increased in the 1960s, so that when the second supplement to the catalogue was published in 1972, 92 meteorites were listed with stones accounting for most of the additional recoveries. Today, the collection contains thousands of specimens of 248 distinct meteorites from Western Australia (218 stones, 26 irons and four stony-irons), and around 500 samples of potentially new meteorites (mostly chondrites from the Nullarbor) that remain to be examined. There are also specimens of 160 meteorites from other parts of Australia and the rest of the world. While numerically the collection is small compared to other major collections in the world, it contains a high percentage of main masses from Western Australia (around 85%), including many rarities, and has an aggregate weight in excess of 20 tonnes. The small proportion of falls to finds (4: 244) reflects the sparse population of the State. This may change significantly when a network of all-sky fireball cameras is established in the Nullarbor Region.
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This Special Publication has 24 papers with an international authorship, and is prefaced by an introductory overview which presents highlights in the field. The first section covers the acceptance by science of the reality of the falls of rock and metal from the sky, an account that takes the reader from BCE (before common era) to the nineteenth century. The second section details some of the world's most important collections in museums - their origins and development. The Smithsonian chapter also covers the astonishingly numerous finds in the cold desert of Antarctica by American search parties. There are also contributions covering the finds by Japanese parties in the Yamato mountains and the equally remarkable discoveries in the hot deserts of Australia, North Africa, Oman and the USA. The other seven chapters take the reader through the revolution in scientific research on meteoritics in the later part of the twentieth century, including terrestrial impact cratering and extraordinary showers of glass from the sky; tektites, now known to be Earth-impact-sourced. Finally, the short epilogue looks to the future.
The History of Meteoritics and Key Meteorite Collections should appeal to historians of science, meteoriticists, geologists, astronomers, curators and the general reader with an interest in science.