Only a few weeks after Christopher Columbus reached the New World in October 1492, another foreign explorer-this time an errant space rock-touched down on firm ground following its own protracted journey across an inhospitable expanse.
This extraterrestrial visitor came to be known the Ensisheim meteorite, named for the Alsatian town adjacent to the wheat field where it impacted on the morning of November 7, 1492 (according to the Julian calendar). It is the oldest meteorite impact with a confirmed date on record, and has become famous for its dramatic fall from the heavens, an event that was witnessed by onlookers and recorded for posterity by writers like the Italian priest Sigismondo Tizio.
“At this point there has to be mention of the immense portent which was seen this year in Germany: for on the seventh day of November , near the city of Ensisheim and the village of Bauenheim above Basel, a great stone fell out of the sky, triangular in shape, charred, the color of metallic ore, and accompanied by crashing thunder and lightning,” Tizio said in his History of the Sienese. “When it had fallen to earth it split into several pieces, for it had traveled at an oblique angle; to the amazement of all, indeed, it flattened the earth when it struck.”
Leaflets about the meteorite impact. Image: Sebastian Brant
A young boy is said to have found the impact site first, attracting a crowd of awed spectators. In an age when comets, shooting stars, and other celestial phenomenon remained unexplained, the appearance of the meteorite was quickly attributed to divine intervention.
Naturally, everyone wanted a chunk of the rock that God had deemed fit to chuck at Earth. Any superstitious reservations they might have had about the “thunderstone” or “firestone” as some took to calling it, did not prevent them from breaking off pieces to take home as souvenirs. Some slices were also saved to be sent to dignitaries, like Cardinal Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius III.
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King Maximilian I of Austria, who happened to be passing through Ensisheim on his way to war with France, also stopped by when he heard about the godly rock. He took a piece for himself and, demonstrating a wonderful obliviousness of cosmic context, declared that this meteorite was definitely a sign that his army would defeat his enemies. For what it’s worth, he was right, and his army went on to quash the French invasion of his territories. However, this rebuff was not permanent, and Ensisheim shifted back and forth between nations over the centuries, and now lies back within French borders.
The meteorite was not interpreted only as a portent of military triumph, however, as showcased by a broadsheet called The Meteor in Ensisheim, written by the satirist Sebastian Brant.
“Beneath [woodcut illustrations] lay Latin and German rhymes telling of God’s righteous anger at his wayward people,” writes historian John Waller in his book Dancing Plague. “Christendom was steeped in vice, said Brant. Miserable sinners all, His children had forgotten both Christ’s sacrifice and the awful flames of Hell.”
Ensisheim meteorite on display. Image: Konrad Andrä
King Maximilian I was compelled by this explanation as well, and ordered that the meteorite be moved to Ensisheim’s town church where it would be less prone to enacting mischief and evil deeds, while also serving “as a reminder of God’s wrath over the rank sinfulness of the times,” Waller said.
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“The meteorite was fixed to the [church] wall with iron crampons to prevent it from wandering at night or departing in the same violent manner it had arrived,” according to Erik Gregersen’s book Outer Solar System. “It resides in the town of Ensisheim today, although visitors in the intervening centuries chipped off all but 56 kilograms (123 pounds) of its original 127-kilogram (280-pound) mass.”
Indeed, the remaining core of the meteorite is still on display at the Musée de la Régence in Ensisheim, while many of the pilfered pieces have shown up in other collections around the world, securing the impact’s legacy in material form.
It’s been 524 years since that day, and we know a lot more about the random alien fireballs that occasionally crash into the planet. Far from foreshadowing provincial earthly concerns, these objects portend, if anything, that the indifferent universe beyond Earth doesn’t give a rat’s asteroid about about the outcome of 15th century European battles or the potential enchantment of inanimate objects. Whether that reality would have made the people of Ensisheim feel any better or worse about their famous cosmic visitor, however, we will never know.