A thousand-year-old Buddhist statue taken from Tibet in 1938 by an SS team seeking the roots of Adolph Hitler's Aryan doctrine was carved from a meteorite, scientists reported.
In a paper published on Wednesday, German and Austrian researchers recount an extraordinary tale where archaeology, the Third Reich and cosmic treasure are intertwined like an Indiana Jones film.
Called the "Iron Man" because of the high content of iron in its rock, the 24cm-high statue was brought to Germany by an expedition led by Ernst Schäfer, a zoologist and ethnologist.
Backed by SS chief Heinrich Himmler and heading a team whose members are all believed to have been SS, Schäfer roamed Tibet in 1938-39 to search for the origins of Aryanism, the notion of racial superiority that underpinned Nazism.
Weighing 10.6kg, the statue features the deity Vaisravana seated, with his right palm outstretched and pointing downwards. Chemical analysis shows that the rock from which it was carved came from a meteorite. The rock survived a long trip through the solar system and the destructive friction with the atmosphere when it collided with earth. It is a particularly rare kind of meteorite called an ataxite, which has iron and a high content of nickel, according to the study, published in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science.
"The statue was chiselled from … a fragment of the Chinga iron meteorite, which crashed into the border areas between Mongolia and Siberia about 15,000 years ago," said investigator Elmar Buchner of Stuttgart University.
The exact dating of the carving cannot be established accurately, but its style links it to the pre-Buddhist Bon culture of the 11th century. Vaisravana was the Buddhist god-king of the North, also known as Jambhala in Tibet.
How Schäfer came across the statue is unclear, but the big appeal is likely to have been a large swastika, symbolising good fortune in Buddhism, carved on its chest. Once the statue arrived in Munich, it became part of a private collection and only became available for study following an auction in 2009.
Other meteorites have become incorporated into religious worship. Some argue the holy Black Stone in the Kaaba in Mecca is a meteorite.
"The Iron Man statue is the only known illustration of a human figure to be carved into a meteorite," said Buchner. "Its origins alone may value it at US$20,000. But if our estimation of its age is correct, and it is nearly a thousand years old, it could be invaluable."