Earlier this year we were presented with a swastika-emblazoned statue, apparently 1,000 years old, that had been carved out of a meteorite and looted from Tibet by the Nazi ethnologist Ernst Schäfer in the late 1930s. The story and chemical analysis appeared in an article from the Meteoritical Society’s publication “Meteorics and Planetary Science”.
Of course fallen meteorites have been interpreted as divine messages by many ancient cultures since prehistoric times, and they were often used to carve works of art. In Tibet, meteoritic iron (regionally referred to as namchag meaning “sky iron” in Tibetan language) used to be carved, but that tradition died out a long time ago, and only ancient artifacts are known. However, figurative sculptures of gods carved from meteorites are unknown. This sculpture made of a meteorite (approximately 10.6 kg in weight and approximately 24 × 13 × 10 cm in size, was thought to be unique in both religious art and meteorite science. Known as the “Iron Man,” the seated figure is wears a large “swastika” on his midsection. It was thought the statue might portray the Buddhist “diety” Vaiśravana and originated in the Bon culture of the eleventh century. The swastika, in this case backward facing, holds a number of religious meanings in Hindu and Buddhist culture (see our earlier blog).
The narrative was, however, just a little too good to be true. There were a few slight catches. According to two experts who have since given their verdict on the mysterious Iron Man, it may have been a European fake. It was probably made in the 20th century, and it may well not have been looted by the Nazis. The bit about the meteorite, though, still stands.
According to Buddhism specialist Achim Bayer, the statue bears 13 features which are easily identifiable by experts as “pseudo-Tibetan” .
These include the 24cm-high statue’s shoes, trousers and hand positioning, as well as the fact that the Buddha has a full beard rather than the “rather thin” facial hair usually given to a deity in Tibetan and Mongolian art. In his report, Bayer says he believes the statue to be a European counterfeit made sometime between 1910 and 1970.
It had been claimed that, having been brought back by the Nazi ethnologist Ernst Schäfer from Tibet in 1938, the “Iron Man” remained in a private collection in Munich until 2007. But the German historian Isrun Engelhardt, who has studied Schäfer’s trip to Tibet in depth, has cast doubt on this suggestion, questioning the statue’s absence on the date, place and list of items brought back.
Buchner, the author of the original article, stresses that his team was only looking into what the statue was made of – a rare form of iron with a high content of nickel – not where it had come from. While they felt able to say the material most likely came from the Chinga meteorite, which crashed to earth 15,000 years ago, the researchers admitted that “the ethnological and art historical details … as well as the time of sculpturing, currently remain speculative”.