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The Camp Verde Meteorite in the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies.


In 1915, “an amateur collector of Indian relics” uncovered a stone-lined cist in “a ruin along Clear Creek east of Camp Verde.” It was described as “a little pocket in the earth walled and covered over with flat rocks.” He thought it might be a child’s grave. But, after removing 15 to 18 inches of loose dirt, he found a “feather cloth” inside of which was a large “oak leaf-shaped” object that was eventually determined to be a meteorite.

In 1935, Henry Nininger (1887–1986), a self-taught meteorite scientist and collector, heard about the item. He visited the location of the find in 1937 with the collector. He recounted how they “reached the crumbled walls of a small room, in the corner of which there was a slight depression and several flat stones protruding from the drifted dust and debris.” Pottery sherds, according to the archaeologist of Tuzigoot National Monument, identified the site as a Sinagua dwelling. After visiting the site, Nininger purchased the meteorite for $75.

The meteorite, named the Camp Verde Meteorite, weighs 135 lbs.

In 1946, Nininger founded the American Meteorite Museum (1942–1953) near Winslow, close to Meteor Crater. The museum moved to Sedona (1953–1960) after the new Highway 89A was built. The Camp Verde meteorite was on display at both locations. The remains of the original museum near Meteor Crater can still be seen in the distance when driving along Meteor Crater Road.

Studies have confirmed that the Camp Verde Meteorite is from the Canyon Diablo fall, east of Flagstaff, that created Meteor Crater about 50,000 years ago. Evidence from the crater established that Native Americans not only visited the site but had also dwelt at the crater. Four sites were mapped on the south side of the crater by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1891–92. “Camp sites” with abundant pottery sherds and flint chips with some arrow points were found on the plain to the north of the crater.

But how did a 135-pound meteorite make its way almost 100 miles over mountainous trails from Meteor Crater to Camp Verde without the use of wheeled conveyance or beasts of burden? It is not inconceivable that it could have been carried, but Laurence Garvie with the Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University believes that it is more likely a fragment of the original 300,000-ton meteorite that separated from the main mass as it broke apart in the atmosphere and landed closer to Camp Verde.

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The discovery of the Camp Verde meteorite is similar to the discovery in 1928 of the Winona Meteorite in a stone-lined box or cist, near a small puebloan site about 5 miles northeast of Winona (occupied 1100–1300 A.D.) near Flagstaff. This cist was about 18 inches square and about 10 inches below the ground. It was found about 180 feet east of a site consisting of two blocks of five to six rooms each. Pottery sherds and other artifacts identified the site as Sinaguan. The meteorite was originally egg-shaped and weighed 53 lbs. but when it was removed from the cist it fell apart because it was badly weathered.

With the Winona site only 26 miles from Meteor Crater, one might reasonably expect this meteorite to be a Canyon Diablo meteorite. After all, Winona is within the impact debris area. Surprisingly, it proved to be a totally unique type, a “primitive achondrite,” based on its mineralogy. It was the first meteorite of this type found in the world, so other meteorites of similar composition found later are classified as belonging to the Winonaite group. There are only 26 known meteorites within this group, with most found in Antarctica and northwest Africa. The only other Winonaite found in the United States was in west Texas.

The Sinagua would not have known the mineralogy of this object to recognize it as a meteorite. Perhaps they saw it fall from the sky as a “shooting star,” but we will never know for sure. What we can say is that this second meteorite associated with a Sinagua dwelling, placed in a similar subterranean structure, suggests a cultural recognition and reverence for these objects.

Ken Zoll is the executive director of the Verde Valley Archaeology Center in Camp Verde. His specialty is archaeoastronomy. He is currently working with Arizona State University’s Center for Meteorite Studies on the use of meteorites among ancient Native American cultures.

The NPS/USFS Interpretive Partnership is a unique agreement between the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service to provide interpretive ranger walks and talks in the Flagstaff area throughout the summer.

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