IMCA Insights – April 2006
IMCA MythBusters
by Norbert Classen

Welcome to the April issue of IMCA Insights, entitled IMCA MythBusters. This time I’d like to take you on a journey, and to introduce you to another facet of the IMCA’s work: education, information, and research. Let’s start with a brief historical review of the role of meteorites in cult, and religion.

Meteorites in Cult and Religion

Since prehistoric times, meteorites have been worshiped and venerated by countless tribes and cultures as the epitome of the sacred. The ancient civilizations of the West make no exception, and there are several examples of the worship of alleged meteorites in the Greco-Roman tradition. The black cult stones were called “bethyls” or “baitylia” by the ancient Greek – a word that is derived from the Hebrew language, where “bethel” (or: “beth-el”) stands for the “Residence, or House of God”.

Mircea Eliade, a renowned expert for religious history, claims that the Palladion of Troy, the Artemis of Ephesos, as well as the Cone of Elagabalus in Emesa were actually meteorites, stones that had fallen from the sky, objects from heaven, believed to contain supernatural powers.

In his book “Rocks from Space”, Richard O. Norton mentions the sacred stone in the temple of Apollon at Delphi, Greece, a rock that was said having been thrown to Earth by the Supreme Being, Kronos, marking the “omphalos”, the navel of the world. The Roman historian Titus Livius recalls the story of the meteorite of Pessinunt, Phrygia, a conical object also known as “The Needle of Cybele”, the Phrygian Goddess of fertility. After the Romans had conquered Phrygia the meteorite was conveyed in a gigantic procession to Rome, where it was worshiped for at least another 500 years.

Unfortunately, none of these ancient bethyls have been preserved up to this day, making it hard to prove that they were actually meteorites – with one exception, the Black Stone of Paphos, Cyprus, a rock that has been venerated as the aniconical representation of Goddess Aphrodite since at least 1,300 BC.

Historic coin showing Roman Emperor Trajan (front),
and the sacred Black Stone of Paphos, Cyprus (back)

This subject has been discussed on the MeteoriteCentral Mailing List in late 2005, and IMCA Member Martin Altmann wrote:

“Yes, one stone survived. The sacred stone of the temple of Paphos on Cyprus, which is depicted on many classical coins (Traian, Vespasian, Drusus, Caracalla, etc.), was recovered during excavations at the temple site more than hundred years ago. It was kept in the cellar and the stock of the National museum of Nikosia for an eternity, until it was transported to the local archaeological museum in Kouklia, where it’s on exhibit now.

Never a sample was taken for authentification. If the stone actually is a meteorite, it will be a sensation, proving that the bethyls worshipped in temples of the classical Greek, Roman, and Seleukid period, such as the omphalos in Delphi, the stone in the temple of Ephesos, the stone of Astarte in Sidon, the stone of Emesa, or the stone in the temple of Zeus Kasios in Seleucia were true meteorites. And even if it will prove to be no meteorite, it would still be well worth the try, anyway.”

Since I have always been interested in meteorites in history, and in the history of meteoritics I tried to find out more, and I enjoyed the links to the few pictures of the Black Stone of Paphos on the web which were provided by other list members. Unfortunately, these photos were all more or less blurry, and pretty small, and it was hard to tell anything from them. But what I saw was enough to convince me that it might be well worth the time to pay a visit to Cyprus, and the ancient sanctuary of Aphrodite in Palaeo-Paphos (Kouklia).

Pilgrimage to Palaeo-Paphos, and the Black Stone

A few weeks later – I nearly had forgotten about the Black Stone of Paphos – my wife Gerda and I came across a last minute offer for a one week vacation in Paphos, Cyprus. It didn’t take long to decide, and we boarded a plane to Paphos on January 19, 2006. We landed on Cyprus, took a taxi to our hotel, and checked in into the Queens Bay, late in the evening.

The next morning I tried to find out how to get to Palaeo-Paphos, and the local archaeological museum located in the medieval fortress Chateau de Covocle near Kouklia. We soon found out that there was no bus from Nea-Paphos (the modern city) to Paleo-Paphos, and the ancient sanctuary. Thus we decided to visit some nearby archaeological sites, first, such as the famous Tombs of the Kings, or the Roman Mosaics in Nea-Paphos – both UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites, and well worth a visit.

On the second day I couldn’t hold it any longer – I simply had to see the Black Stone, and I wanted to solve the mystery of its origin once and for all. So we took a taxi for the 30 km ride to Kouklia, and the Chateau de Covocle. My anticipation grew as we arrived and entered the archaeological park that was once the sanctuary of Aphrodite. We paid a modest entrance fee, and I immediately headed for the first museum room where the ancient bethyl waited for me.

The Black Stone of Paphos – the aniconical representation of Goddess Aphrodite;
Scan of a postcard which I acquired at the local museum’s shop in Kouklia

When I entered the museum, my eyes immediately fell on the Black Stone of Paphos – no wonder since it was much larger than what I had expected. From the photos on the internet I would have guessed that the stone might be a one or two kilo chondrite, but with dimensions of about 130 x 90 cm this stone was huge, and I estimated its weight to be about one metric ton! My heart began to beat faster.

It was high time to check the stone more closely. I pulled out a small neodymium magnet, and checked its magnetic properties. To my surprise and utter disappointment the strong magnet didn’t stick to the rock, and upon closer inspection the apparent fusion crust revealed to be the sticky remnants of centuries of libations with honey, and all kinds of love fluids. With a hand magnifier I checked the interior of the rock and came to the conclusion that this ancient bethyl was nothing more than a huge andesitic boulder – but a boulder with a more than intriguing conical shape, and a deceptive black crust. A perfect meteor-wrong.

I would have taken photos of the details of the rock, but the National Laws of Cyprus prohibit taking photos inside of museums. So I ended up with a postcard of the Black Stone of Paphos, one of the most famous meteor-wrongs in history. When I turned the card around to read its caption I was taken aback. It read: “Bethyl of andesite from the Sanctuary of Aphrodite at Palaipaphos”. Obviously, the stone had been checked as for its true nature before, something that just wasn’t recorded in the files of the Meteoritical Society, or in the files of the otherwise omniscient internet. On the other hand I was glad to have a modest confirmation of the fact that I know my rocks, and am still able to tell a wrong from a right.

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed by the outcome of this investigation – in the end, this could have been a breakthrough in archaeo-meteoritics, a new discipline that I had created in mind on my way to Palaeo-Paphos. But wait – there’s more to the picture than meets the eye: why the heck did the people in the Late Bronze Age opt for such striking meteor-wrong? Maybe it was deliberately chosen because it resembled a real bethyl, or maybe the ancient Achaeans even believed it to be a real meteorite? If so, they would have to be familiar with at least some actual meteorites – something that leaves much room for speculation, and future investigations.

These are the thoughts that were going through my head while I enjoyed the rest of our vacation. The myth of the Black Stone of Paphos being a meteorite has been laid to rest, but part of the mystery remains. If you are aware of the whereabouts of other historic bethyls, or other enigmatic black rocks, don’t be afraid to call your local MythBusters. We at the IMCA are willing to travel thousands of miles for a hot rock, even if it’s just to prove that it’s no hot rock at all, or that meteorites aren’t even hot when they land on Earth – all in the name of and for the sake of our primary concern: authenticity.

In the next issue of IMCA Insights, due out in May 2006, fellow IMCA Board Member Don Edwards will introduce himself to the public, and present you with a fine article about how he came to collecting meteorites, and more. Stay tuned, and hope to see you again, next month.

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