“Researchers capture first ‘image’ of a dark matter web that connects galaxies. Dark matter filaments bridge the space between galaxies in this false colour map. The locations of bright galaxies are shown by the white regions and the presence of a dark matter filament bridging the galaxies is shown in red.”

Flecks of Extraterrestrial Dust, All Over the Roof
by William J. Broad  /  March 10, 2017

“His book, “In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micro-Meteorites and Their Terrestrial Imposters,” due out in August, details the secret of his extraordinarily successful hunts. Its 150 pages and 1,500 photomicrographs, or photos taken through a microscope, tell how Mr. Larsen taught himself to distinguish cosmic dust from the minuscule contaminants that arise from roads, shingles, factories, roof tiles, construction sites, home insulation and holiday fireworks. As his book puts it, “To pick out one extraterrestrial particle among billions of others requires knowledge both about what to look for and what to disregard.”

The diminutive flecks to which Mr. Larsen, 58, has devoted himself represent the smallest parts of a cosmic downpour that has lashed the Earth for billions of years. Careful observers of the night sky are familiar with shooting stars — speeding bits of extraterrestrial rock that plunge through the Earth’s atmosphere, often burning up completely. The biggest can strike the ground, some forcefully enough to dig craters. In 2013, a relatively small rock exploded over the Russian city Chelyabinsk, releasing a shock wave that injured hundreds of people, mainly as windows shattered into flying glass.

But all that represents a tiny fraction of the downpour. Scientists say most of the cosmic material is remarkably small — barely the width of a human hair. Known as micrometeorites, they rain down on the planet more or less continuously but have proved remarkably hard to find. Some bits are so small and lightweight that they drift down to the Earth’s surface without melting. The dust consists of tiny remnants from the solar system’s birth, including debris from comets and from ages of smashups among planets and the big rocks known as asteroids. While most of the particles are interplanetary in nature, some contain grains of matter from outside the solar system, or true stardust. Their diversity makes them excellent windows on the cosmos.

These examples of space dust found on Earth are collected in a new book, “In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micro-Meteorites and Their Terrestrial Imposters,” and were found on buildings, parking lots, sidewalks and park benches.”

Scientists have found micrometeorites mainly in the Antarctic, remote deserts and other places far from civilization’s haze. Starting in the 1940s and 1950s, investigators tried to find them in urban areas but eventually gave up because of the riot of human contaminants. Significantly, it turns out that specialists trying to establish the cosmic origins of the tiny specks have tended to examine their chemical signatures rather than their overall appearance. That left a large opening for Mr. Larsen. Matthew J. Genge, one of the Geology paper’s four authors and a senior lecturer in earth and planetary science at Imperial College, London, used an electron microprobe at the Natural History Museum in London to determine the chemical makeup of Mr. Larsen’s finds and confirm their cosmic origin.

In an interview, he said that, over all, the grains that survive the atmospheric plunge and land on the Earth’s surface add up to more than 4,000 tons annually, or more than 10 tons a day. “He’s done a valuable thing in classifying the contaminants,” Dr. Genge said of Mr. Larsen’s work. “It has wide-reaching implications.” Donald E. Brownlee, an astronomer at the University of Washington who helped establish the field, called Mr. Larsen a true citizen scientist whose work will aid the global hunt for the tiny specks. “Your car is covered with cosmic dust,” Dr. Brownlee said. “We inhale this stuff. We eat it every time we eat lettuce. But normally, it’s incredibly difficult to find.”

“Jon Larsen looking for micrometeorites on a roof. He was an enthusiastic rock collector as a child in Norway but became a professional musician. His quest for space dust began in 2009.”

Mr. Larsen came to what he calls Project Stardust as a jazz guitarist in Norway, perhaps known best as the founder of Hot Club de Norvège, a string quartet. His group helped spur the global revival of gypsy jazz. As Mr. Larsen tells the story, he was an enthusiastic rock collector as a child but did so well as a musician that he set aside his early scientific ambitions. Then, in 2009, at a country house outside Oslo, he was cleaning an outdoor table when a bright speck caught his eye. “It was blinking in the sunlight,” he recalled. He touched the fleck. “It was angular in some way, kind of metallic but so small — a tiny dot.”

Intrigued, Mr. Larsen suspected it was a cosmic visitor and began to look for more. He collected dust samples from Oslo and cities around the globe, moonlighting as a scientist while vacationing or touring with his jazz group. He took samples from roads, roofs, parking lots and industrial areas Put indelicately, he collected hundreds of pounds of dreck — sludge from drains, gutters and downspouts, the dregs of civilization that most people try to avoid. “Still, I didn’t find a single micrometeorite,” he recalled. “It was very frustrating.” Mr. Larsen then changed tactics. Rather than looking exclusively for cosmic dust, he taught himself how to classify the dozens of different kinds of earthly contaminants, starting a process of elimination that slowly narrowed the candidates and raised the chances that some tiny fraction of the urban debris might turn out to belong to the cosmos. The breakthrough came two years ago. In London, Dr. Genge studied one of the gathered particles — from Norway, not Timbuktu — and confirmed that it was indeed a traveler from outer space. Mr. Larsen quickly identified hundreds more. “Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere,” he said.

In the Geology paper, the scientific team reports the discovery of about 500 micrometeorites — collected mainly from roof gutters in Norway — and tells of the detailed analysis of 48 of the extraterrestrial specks. The team includes two of Dr. Genge’s students, Martin D. Suttle of Imperial College and Matthias Van Ginneken of the Université Libre in Brussels. The team described the cosmic dust as the youngest collected to date, because gutters tend to get cleaned fairly regularly. Also, urban surfaces are recent arrivals in the global landscape compared to polar ice and ancient deserts.

“Varieties of space dust, barely the width of a human hair. These photomicrographs were made with a special camera setup that magnifies the dust grains nearly 3,000 times”

In his travels, Mr. Larsen recently visited with Michael E. Zolensky, an extraterrestrial materials scientist in Houston at the Johnson Space Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They not only talked shop but also went up to the roof of the large building that houses rocks from the Apollo moon program. “It was pretty cool,” Dr. Zolensky said. “The curation building is now a collector of cosmic dust.”

In an interview, Mr. Larsen described his method — sorting through the contaminants in a process of elimination — as “something that anybody can do. It could and should become part of teachings in schools, an aspect of citizen science.” Dr. Brownlee of the University of Washington agreed. He said that, while many schools try to find cosmic dust particles in programs meant to make science classes more inviting and accessible, few if any succeed. “It could help a lot,” he said of Mr. Larsen’s method. “For education, it’s pretty cool.” Dr. Genge of Imperial College said Mr. Larsen’s techniques, if adopted widely, might also open a new lens on the cosmos.

The gravitational pull of the planets, he noted, appear to tug on the dust clouds of the solar system and slowly change their orbits. He said a wave of new terrestrial finds could help scientists better map the clouds, raising more questions for science about the structure of the universe. “I consider my microscope a telescope,” Dr. Genge said. “It can give you a pretty big picture.”

Yale-led team puts dark matter on the map
“A 3-D visualization of reconstructed dark matter clump distributions in a distant galaxy cluster, obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope Frontier Fields data. The unseen matter in this map is comprised of a smooth heap of dark matter on which clumps form.”

Team puts dark matter on the map  /  March 1, 2017

“A Yale-led team has produced one of the highest-resolution maps of dark matter ever created, offering a detailed case for the existence of cold dark matter—sluggish particles that comprise the bulk of matter in the universe. The dark matter map is derived from Hubble Space Telescope Frontier Fields data of a trio of galaxy clusters that act as cosmic magnifying glasses to peer into older, more distant parts of the universe, a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.

Yale astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan led an international team of researchers that analyzed the Hubble images. “With the data of these three lensing clusters we have successfully mapped the granularity of dark matter within the clusters in exquisite detail,” Natarajan said. “We have mapped all of the clumps of dark matter that the data permit us to detect, and have produced the most detailed topological map of the dark matter landscape to date.” Scientists believe dark matter—theorized, unseen particles that neither reflect nor absorb light, but are able to exert gravity—may comprise 80% of the matter in the universe. Dark matter may explain the very nature of how galaxies form and how the universe is structured. Experiments at Yale and elsewhere are attempting to identify the dark matter particle; the leading candidates include axions and neutralinos.

“While we now have a precise cosmic inventory for the amount of dark matter and how it is distributed in the universe, the particle itself remains elusive,” Natarajan said. Dark matter particles are thought to provide the unseen mass that is responsible for gravitational lensing, by bending light from distant galaxies. This light bending produces systematic distortions in the shapes of galaxies viewed through the lens. Natarajan’s group decoded the distortions to create the new dark matter map.

Significantly, the map closely matches computer simulations of dark matter theoretically predicted by the cold dark matter model; cold dark matter moves slowly compared to the speed of light, while hot dark matter moves faster. This agreement with the standard model is notable given that all of the evidence for dark matter thus far is indirect.”

Saturn’s Weirdest Moon Is Full of Electric Sand
by Rae Paoletta   /  3/29/17

“A new study from Georgia Tech, published on March 27th in Nature Geoscience, sought to shed light on the massive and mysterious sand dunes engulfing Titan. Through laboratory experiments, the researchers found that under Titan-like atmospheric conditions, sand grains collide and become electrically charged, clumping together and remaining clumped for an incredibly long time. While wind-blown sand on Earth can also become electrically charged, the electrostatic forces are typically ephemeral and much weaker. The team compared the adhesive quality of the sand on Titan to packing peanuts and cats. “If you grabbed piles of grains and built a sand castle on Titan, it would perhaps stay together for weeks due to their electrostatic properties,” Josef Dufek, the Georgia Tech professor who co-led the study, said in a statement. “Any spacecraft that lands in regions of granular material on Titan is going to have a tough time staying clean. Think of putting a cat in a box of packing peanuts.”

To reach this conclusion, the team created a modified pressure vessel and inserted naphthalene and biphenyl grains—hydrocarbon compounds similar in composition to what the sand is probably like on Titan. On Earth, naphthalene and biphenyl are considered toxic and are used moth balls and citrus fruit wrappings, respectively.  The team then added Titan-like “wind” by rotating the tube for 20 minutes in pure nitrogen environment, since that’s what the moon’s atmosphere is almost entirely composed of. Overwhelmingly, the sand stuck together, which doesn’t happen on Earth unless you add water to the mix. Speaking of Earth, our sand is mostly silica-based, and didn’t have the same sticky quality when the researchers used it to repeat their experiments.

“Radar imaging from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows dunes stretching across the Shangri-La Sand Sea of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Research suggests the dunes’ shape and orientation are influenced by powerful electrostatic charges.”

“These non-silicate, granular materials can hold their electrostatic charges for days, weeks, or months at a time under low-gravity conditions,” study co-author George McDonald, said in a statement. The new study offers the latest indication that although Titan looks astonishingly similar to Earth—it’s the only other world in the solar system with surface oceans, for one—many of the processes shaping its surface are truly alien. “Titan’s extreme physical environment requires scientists to think differently about what we’ve learned of Earth’s granular dynamics,” Dufek said. “Landforms are influenced by forces that aren’t intuitive to us because those forces aren’t so important on Earth. Titan is a strange, electrostatically sticky world.”




“The mother goddess—identified by the Greeks as Cybele—took the form of an unshaped stone of black meteoric iron. This aniconic stone was removed to Rome in 204 BC.”

Fully-formed building blocks of DNA have been found in meteorites, suggesting an extraterrestrial origin for some of the chemicals deemed necessary for organic life
by Pete Spotts  /  August 12, 2011

“A team of scientists led by NASA’s Michael Callahan appears to have added some critical components to the list of space-borne building blocks raining onto Earth’s surface: a class of chemicals called nucleobases. Nucleobases combine to carry the genetic information found in DNA molecules, the molecules that orchestrate an organism’s form and functions. In results reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team analyzed the chemical makeup of a dozen carbon-rich meteorites plucked from different locations in Antarctica and Australia.

They not only found nucleobases widely found in organisms on Earth, compounds such as adenine and guanine, two of the four bases found in DNA. They also found related compounds, which the team dubbed “nucleobase analogues,” that aren’t found on Earth and in effect are new to science. Over the years, scientists have found amino acids, which are needed to form proteins, with unambiguous space-based origins. And meteorites have carried the chemicals necessary to make cell walls.

Even nucleobases have been detected in meteorites before, notes Dr. Callahan. But scientists have had a hard time convincing themselves and others that the nucleobases came from space. They could represent contamination a space rock picked up after it landed. “We do see biological nucleobases in ice and soil samples” collected from the places where the meteorites were found, he says. “That’s only natural.” But, he adds, the mix and distribution of the nucleobases typically found in ice and soil are far different that those found in the meteorites the team analyzed. And those new-to-science compounds are definitely not earth contamination. “We don’t see any nucleobase analogues whatsoever” in the ice and soil, he says. Many biologically important molecules form from water, hydrogen cyanide, and ammonia – all substances that are abundant in the clouds of dust and gas that collapse to form stars and planets.

As an additional test, the team conducted simple experiments in the lab in which they mixed ammonia, hydrogen cyanide, and water and ended up with the same variety of nucleobases and nucleobase analogues they found in meteorites. They concluded that some of the key components of DNA may have been delivered to Earth ready-made by chemical reactions that took place on asteroids or comets as the solar system evolved. And if it can happen in our solar system, Callahan suggests, under the right conditions these building blocks can find their way to hospitable planets elsewhere.”

“NASA Hubble Space Telescope image shows a head-on collision between two asteroids traveling about three miles per second. The collision created a meteorite that was found to contain amino acids.”

New Technique Used to Search Space Dust for Life’s Ingredients
by Bill Steigerwald   /  Goddard Space Flight Center  /  Feb 04, 2014

“While the origin of life remains mysterious, scientists are finding more and more evidence that material created in space and delivered to Earth by comet and meteor impacts could have given a boost to the start of life. Some meteorites supply molecules that can be used as building blocks to make certain kinds of larger molecules that are critical for life. Researchers have analyzed carbon-rich meteorites (carbonaceous chondrites) and found amino acids, which are used to make proteins. Proteins are among the most important molecules in life, used to make structures like hair and skin, and to speed up or regulate chemical reactions. They have also found components used to make DNA, the molecule that carries the instructions for how to build and regulate a living organism, as well as other biologically important molecules like nitrogen heterocycles, sugar-related organic compounds, and compounds found in modern metabolism.

However, these carbon-rich meteorites are relatively rare, comprising less than five percent of recovered meteorites, and meteorites make up just a portion of the extraterrestrial material that comes to Earth. Also, the building-block molecules found in them usually have been at low concentrations, typically parts-per-million or parts-per-billion. This raises the question of how significant their supply of raw material was. However, Earth constantly receives other extraterrestrial material – mostly in the form of dust from comets and asteroids. “Despite their small size, these interplanetary dust particles may have provided higher quantities and a steadier supply of extraterrestrial organic material to early Earth,” said Michael Callahan of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Unfortunately, there have been limited studies examining their organic composition, especially with regards to biologically relevant molecules that may have been important for the origin of life, due to the miniscule size of these samples.”

A rover hunts for meteorites at Elephant Moraine in Antarctica, the source of one of the 12 meteorites the team studied.”

Callahan and his team at Goddard’s Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory have recently applied advanced technology to inspect extremely small meteorite samples for the components of life. “We found amino acids in a 360 microgram sample of the Murchison meteorite,” said Callahan. “This sample size is 1,000 times smaller than the typical sample size used.” A microgram is one-millionth of a gram; 360 micrograms is about the weight of a few eyebrow hairs. 28.35 grams equal an ounce. “Our study was for proof-of-concept,” adds Callahan. “Murchison is a well-studied meteorite. We got the same results looking at a very small fragment as we did a much larger fragment from the same meteorite. These techniques will allow us to investigate other small-scale extraterrestrial materials such as micrometeorites, interplanetary dust particles, and cometary particles in future studies.” Callahan is lead author of a paper on this research available online in the Journal of Chromatography A.

Analyzing such tiny samples is extremely challenging. “Extracting much less meteorite powder translates into having much lower amino acid concentration for analyses,” said Callahan. “Therefore we need the most sensitive techniques available. Also, since meteorite samples can be highly complex, techniques that are highly specific for these compounds are necessary too.” The team used a nanoflow liquid chromatography instrument to sort the molecules in the meteorite sample, then applied nanoelectrospray ionization to give the molecules an electric charge and deliver them to a high-resolution mass spectrometer instrument, which identified the molecules based on their mass. “We are pioneering the application of these techniques for the study of meteoritic organics,” said Callahan. “These techniques can be highly finicky, so just getting results was the first challenge. I’m particularly interested in analyzing cometary particles from the Stardust mission,” adds Callahan. “It’s one of the reasons why I came to NASA. When I first saw a photo of the aerogel used to capture particles for the Stardust mission, I was hooked.”

“Back in the lab the scientists pulverized the carbon-rich rocks and poured them into vials for analysis with a spectrometer.”

“This technology will also be extremely useful to search for amino acids and other potential chemical biosignatures in samples returned from Mars and eventually plume materials from the outer planet icy moons Enceladus and Europa,” said Daniel Glavin of the Astrobiology lab at Goddard, a co-author on the paper. This technology and the laboratory techniques that the Goddard lab develops to apply it to analyze meteorites will be valuable for future sample-return missions since the amount of sample likely will be limited. “Missions involving the collection of extraterrestrial material for sample return to Earth usually collect only a very small amount and the samples themselves can be extremely small as well,” said Callahan. “The traditional techniques used to study these materials usually involve inorganic or elemental composition. Targeting biologically relevant molecules in these samples is not routine yet. We are not there either, but we are getting there.”


Meteorite impacts thousands of years ago may have helped to inspire ancient religion
by Jo Marchant  /  29 May 2013

“The 5,000-year-old iron bead might not look like much, but it hides a spectacular past: researchers have found that an ancient Egyptian trinket is made from a meteorite. The result, published on 20 May in Meteoritics & Planetary Science1, explains how ancient Egyptians obtained iron millennia before the earliest evidence of iron smelting in the region, solving an enduring mystery. It also hints that they regarded meteorites highly as they began to develop their religion. “The sky was very important to the ancient Egyptians,” says Joyce Tyldesley, an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, UK, and a co-author of the paper. “Something that falls from the sky is going to be considered as a gift from the gods.”

The tube-shaped bead is one of nine found in 1911 in a cemetery at Gerzeh, around 70 kilometres south of Cairo. The cache dates from about 3,300 bc, making the beads the oldest known iron artifacts from Egypt. A study in 1928 found that the iron in the beads had a high nickel content — a signature of iron meteorites — and led to the suggestion that it was of celestial origin2. But scholars argued in the 1980s that accidental early smelting could have led to nickel-enriched iron3, and a more recent analysis of oxidized material on the surface of the beads showed low nickel content4.

To settle the argument, Diane Johnson, a meteorite scientist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, and her colleagues used scanning electron microscopy and computed tomography to analyze one of the beads, which they borrowed from the Manchester Museum. The researchers were not able to cut the precious artifact open, but they found areas where the weathered surface had fallen away, providing what Johnson describes as “little windows” to the preserved metal beneath. Microscopy showed that the nickel content of this original metal was high — as much as 30% — suggesting that it did indeed come from a meteorite.

“The Gerzeh bead (top) has nickel-rich areas, coloured blue on a virtual model (bottom), that indicate a meteoritic origin.”

Backing up this result, the team observed that the metal had a distinctive crystalline structure called a Widmanstätten pattern. This structure is found only in iron meteorites that cooled extremely slowly inside their parent asteroids as the Solar System was forming. Using tomography, the researchers built up a three-dimensional model of the bead’s internal structure, revealing that the ancient Egyptians had made it by hammering a fragment of iron from the meteorite into a thin plate, then bending it into a tube.

The first evidence for iron smelting in ancient Egypt appears in the archaeological record in the sixth century bc. Only a handful of iron artifacts have been discovered in the region from before then: all come from high-status graves such as that of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. “Iron was very strongly associated with royalty and power,” says Johnson. Objects made of such divine material were believed to guarantee their deceased owner priority passage into the afterlife.

Campbell Price, a curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum who was not a member of the study team, emphasizes that nothing is known for certain about the Egyptians’ religious beliefs before the advent of writing. But he points out that later on, during the time of the pharaohs, the gods were believed to have bones made of iron. He speculates that meteorites may have inspired this belief, the celestial rocks being interpreted as the physical remains of gods falling to Earth. Johnson says that she would love to check whether other early Egyptian iron artifacts are of meteoritic origin — if she can get permission to study them.”

Pilgrims jostle for a chance to kiss the Black Stone at Mecca


  • “The ancient Greeks held meteorites as objects of veneration. A stone held a place of honor at Apollo’s temple at Delphi–one of the most important sites of Greek religion. “The myth surrounding its location at Delphi was that Saturn (Cronos) had devoured four sons that Cybele (Rhea) had borne him, but when Zeus was born she gave him a stone in lieu of Zeus, which he proceeded to swallow. After Saturn’s dethronement, he disgorged the stone, and either he or Zeus threw it from heaven to a place that was considered the center of the Earth. Later, the site became Apollo’s temple, but the stone or omphalos remained.” (from Burke at pp 219-220).
  • A keeper of a “conical black stone” in Roman times was named Emperor in 218 AD. As Emperor Elagabalus, he insisted that the stone be an object of public worship. Perhaps it is indicative of ill omen, that he soon murdered.
  • Many other Greek and Roman temples enshrined rocks that had reportedly fallen from heaven.
  • The wall of the Ka’ba, the holiest shrine of Islam at Mecca contains a black stone that has been reported to be of meteoritic origin. The stone which measures 16 by 20 cm and is held together by a silver band. Legend has it that the angel Gabriel gave the stone to the patriarch Abraham who built it into his house. The stone passed to the prophet Mohammed who built it into the wall of the Ka’ba. The black stone is not an object of worship, but is a venerated relict. Students of the matter now believe that the black stone is not meteoric, but may be impact glass, perhaps from the meteor crater at Wabar, about 100 km from Mecca.
  • Meteorites have been found at Indian graves in the United States–including at the Hopewell Mounds–in situations suggesting that they were worshipped.
  • Many other instances of meteorite worship have been noted from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.”

The Worship of Meteorites, by Professor Hubert A. Newton 

The Black Stone : Omphalos of the Goddess
by Bob Trubshaw / 14 February 1993

“Long-suffering readers of Mercian Mysteries will know of my obsession with ‘omphali’ – the sacred centres which each civilisation seems to create or adopt. Many of these involve stones – the Lia F il (Stone of Destiny) at Tara or the various ‘king stones’ (such as Kingston upon Thames) where medieval English kings were crowned. Our monarchs still sit on, or at least above, the Stone of Scone for their coronation. But some of these sacred stones have special interest – they are (or are said to be) black. Such Black Stones also tend to have the legend that they have fallen from the stars. Clearly, meteorites the size of these large boulders would explode into tiny fragments on impact, and also leave a substantial crater. The literal truth is not important; rather the symbolism of such stones being a link between this world and the heavens is an integral aspect of the Cosmic Axis which is invoked by all sacred centres.

Perhaps the best-known Black Stone, and now by far the most revered, is the Ka’bah at Mecca. Ka’bah means ‘cube’ and this describes the shape of the black stone structure on a marble base which stands in the centre court of the Great Mosque, Masjidul Haram, at the centre of Mecca. It stands about 50 feet high by about 35 feet wide. Set into the eastern corner is the sacred stone, covered by an elaborately embroidered black drape. As any non-moslem in the temple would be slain on sight, and photography is generally prohibited, this stone is shrouded is mystery. However, Rufus Camphausen has succeeded in tracking down three accounts of the pilgrimage to Mecca, two of which do contain photographs [1-3]. What these reveal is a polished black stone of which less than two feet is visible, set in a large, solid silver mount. The whole resembles – quite deliberately, for reasons which will emerge – the vulva of the goddess. That moslems now refer to it as the Hand of Allah does not diminish the urge for all those who complete the pilgrimage to Mecca to touch or kiss this sacred object.

The Black Stone has long since been broken and the silver band holds together the fragments. Tradition holds that it was a meteorite and the stone was white in colour when it first landed and then blackened. The faithful attribute this change in colour to the belief that the stone absorbs the sins of the pilgrims, but it is consistent with known meteorites which are white at first but oxidise over a period of time. ‘A principal sacred object in Arabian religion was the stone. . . . Such stones were thought to be the residence of a god hence the term applied to them by Byzantine Christian writers of the fifth and sixth centuries: ‘baetyl’, from bet’el, ‘the house of god’.’ [4] ‘In north Arabian temples the image of the deity sometimes stood in the open air or could be sheltered in a qubbah, a vaulted niche. . . . Not to be confused with the qubbah is the word ka’bah, for a cube-shaped walled structure which . . . served as a shelter for the sacred stones.’ [5]

Camphausen, in his article [6], reveals that the misogynic moslem religion has its origins in goddess worship. Allah is a revamped version of the ancient goddess Al’Lat, and it was her shrine which has continued – little changed – as the Ka’bah. The known history of Mohammed reveals that he was born around 570 CE into a tribe of the Quraysh, who not only worshipped the goddess Q’re but were the sworn guardians of her shrine. By 622 Mohammed was preaching the ways of his god, Allah, and was driven out by his own tribe as a result.

The triple goddess
Pre-islamic worship of the goddess seems to be primarily associated with Al’Lat, which simply means ‘goddess’. She is a triple goddess, similar to the Greek lunar deity Kore/Demeter/Hecate. Each aspect of this trinity corresponds to a phase of the moon. In the same way Al’Lat has three names known to the initiate: Q’re, the crescent moon or the maiden; Al’Uzza, literally ‘the strong one’ who is the full moon and the mother aspect; then Al’Menat, the waning but wise goddess of fate, prophecy and divination. Islamic tradition continue to recognise these three but labels them ‘daughters of Allah’.

According to Edward Rice [7] Al’Uzza was especially worshipped at the Ka’bah where she was served by seven priestesses. Her worshippers circled the holy stone seven times – once for each of the ancient seven planets – and did so in total nudity. Near the Ka’bah is the ever-flowing well, Zamzam, which cools the throats of the countless millions of pilgrims. In an oasis of always-flowing water, the Black Stone in its mount became an unmatched image of the goddess as giver of life. Only in the Indian continent do such physical symbols for the male and female generative powers – the lingam and yoni – continue to be worshipped with their original fervour.

It is easy to imagine that in pre-moslem times the goddess’s temple at Mecca was pre-eminent – whether to celebrate life, ask protection, pray for offspring. Legend tells how Abraham, unable to produce children by his wife Sarah, came here to make love to his slave Hagar. Later, when Hagar came back to give birth, she could find no water and Abraham created the holy well of Zamzam to save the life of his first son.

When Mohammed wanted to surplant Al’Lut with Allah, this was the one Temple he must conquer. Although Mohammed did conquer the Ka’bah, little else changed. The faithful still circle the Holy of Holies seven times (although, I hasten to add, now fully clothed). The priests of the sacred shrine are still known as Beni Shaybah or ‘Sons of the Old Woman’ –Shaybah being, of course, the famous Queen Sheeba of Solomon’s times. Sheeba appears under the guise of Lilith in the Near East and as Hagar (‘the Egyptian’) in the Hebrew mythology of the Old Testament. So, rewriting the legend given above, Abraham begot his son, Ishmael – the ancestor of all Arab peoples – by the goddess on the Black Stone of the Ka’bah.

While we are tracing names, Q’re (or Qure), the maiden aspect of Al’Lut, seems certain to be the origin of the Greek Kore. Camphausen suggests that the holy Koran (qur’an in Arabic) is the ‘Word of Qure’. Even moslems admit that the work existed before the time of Mohammed. Legend said it was copied form a divine prototype that appeared in heaven at the beginning of time, or the Mother of the Book [8].Al’Uzza, the mother aspect of Al’Lut, may give us the pre-dynastic Egyptian snake goddess Ua Zit, who develops into Isis.

Returning to the geomantic significance of the Ka’bah, Professor Hawkins has argued that it is exceedingly accurately aligned on two heavenly phenomena. These are the cycles of the moon and the rising of Canopus, the brightest star after Sirius. In a thirteenth-century Arabic manuscript by Mohammed ibn Abi Bakr Al Farisi it is stated that the alignment is set up for the setting crescent moon – an ancient symbol of the virgin-goddess which still appears in the national flags of many islamic nations. In some flags – Algeria, Mauritania, Tunisia and Turkey – the crescent is accompanied by a star, perhaps representing Canopus.

The Egyptian city known as Canopus seems also have been a goddess temple, as the Greek historian Strabo (63BCE-21CE) considered the place to be notorious for wild sexual activities. Such references typically refer to temples where sacred ‘prostitution’ or ritual promiscuity were part of the worship; invariably sacred objects depicting the genitals of either god and/or goddess were venerated. Such sacred promiscuity continued to be part of the Pilgrimage to Mecca, at least for some moslems. The Shi’ites from Persia were allowed to form temporary ‘marriages’ for the period of the pilgrimage. Any children born as a result were regarded as divine or as saints – a custom with worldwide parallels (English surnames such as Goodman, Jackson or Robinson perhaps derive from similar sacred unions with god in the form of Green Men characters such as Jack o’the Green or Robin Greenwood; I would also suggest that the original sense of ‘godparent’ and ‘godchild’ has similar origins.)

Deities of other cultures known to have been associated with stones include Aphrodite at Paphos, Cybele at Pessinus and later Rome, Astarte at Byblos and the famous Artemis/Diana of Ephesus. The latter’s most ancient sculpture was, it is said, carved from a black meteorite. The earliest form of Cybele’s name may have been Kubaba or Kumbaba which suggests Humbaba, who was the guardian of the forest in the Epic of Gilgamesh (the world’s oldest recorded myth from Assyria of c.2500BCE and, as scholars reveal more of the text, increasingly the source of most of the major mythological themes of later civilisations [9]) [10]. The origin of Kubaba may have been kube or kubameaning (guess what) – ‘cube’. The earliest reference we have to a goddess worshipped as a cube-shaped stone is from neolithic Anatolia [11]. Alternatively, ‘Kubaba’ may mean a hollow vessel or cave – which would still be a supreme image of the goddess. The ideograms for Kubaba in the Hittite alphabet are a lozenge or cube, a double-headed axe, a dove, a vase and a door or gate – all images of the goddess in neolithic Europe.

The stone associated with Cybele’s worship was, originally, probably at Pessinus but perhaps at Pergamum or on Mount Ida. What is certain is that in 204 BCE it was taken to Rome, where Cybele became ‘Mother’ to the Romans. The ecstatic rites of her worship were alien to the Roman temperament, but nevertheless animated the streets of their city during the annual procession of the goddess’s statue. Alongside Isis, Cybele retained prominence in the heart of the Empire until the fifth century CE; the stone was then lost. Her cult prospered throughout the Empire and it is said that every town or village remained true to the worship of Cybele [12].

Black stone at Paphos (8k)
“Aniconic black stone once venerated at the Temple of Aphrodite, near Paphos, Cyprus.”

The home of Aphrodite was at Paphos on Cyprus. Various Classical writers describe the rituals which went on her in her honour – these seem to include the practice which is now known by the disdainful term of ‘sacred prostitution’. In any event, the tapering black stone which was the object of veneration at this Temple still survives, even if it now placed inside the site museum [13]. Also on Cyprus is another highly venerated islamic site – the third most important after Mecca and Medina – the Hala Sultan Tekke. This, too, has a black rock, said to have fallen as a meteorite as part of the tritholon over the shrine. The shrine is to a woman – the aunt and foster mother of Prophet Mohammed [14]. Could this, like Mecca, have been originally a goddess shrine? Unfortunately no other clues are forthcoming. Another site stated to have a Black Stone was at Petra, but I have been unable to discover where this was or who was worshipped there – could any readers who know please write in!

To add a little local flavour, numerous standing stones in the British Isles are reputed to have fallen from the stars. The now-lost Star Stone marked the meeting of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire; an also-vanished stone at Grimston, Leicestershire, was also said to have such an origin. However, whether or not such stones were ever associated with goddess worship we will never know.

It would take far too long to discuss to what extent the cult of the goddess’s Black Stone may have been perpetrated as Solomon’s bride in the Song of Songs, who is ‘black but beautiful’ or to come to terms with the black images of Demeter, Artemis and Isis who have their direct continuation in the Black Virgins of Europe – patrons of the troubadours, the gnostics and the alchemists, as well as the present Pope. Those who wish to follow such ideas would do well to read The Myth of the Goddess [15] which, in a sober but inspirational manner, re-evaluates how the feminine deity has remained with us throughout history.”

[Further information on these topics appears in a follow-up article by Alby Stone Goddess of the Black StoneNearly twenty years after this essay was written Robert Wenning published a paper called ‘The Betyls of Petra‘ in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research Vol.324 (2001), S.79–95. Grateful thanks to Agata Pasieczna for drawing my attention to Wenning’s work.]


[1] Richard Burton, A personal narrative of a pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, London 1856.
[2] Hussein Yoshio Hirashima, The road to holy Mecca, Kodansha (Japan), 1972.
[3] Anon., Pilgrimage to Mecca, Sud-Editions (Tunis) 1978 and East-West Publications (London) 1980.
[4] Encyclopedia Brittanica.
[5] ibid.
[6] Rufus C. Camphausen, ‘The Ka’bah at Mecca’, Bres (Holland) No.139, 1989. My thanks to Rufus for bringing this article to my attention; this article of mine is in large part a synopsis of his longer work. See also ‘From behind a veil’, Flora Green, in The cauldron No.61 (reprinted from The Merrymount messenger Winter 1991).
[7] E. Rice, Easter definitions, Doubleday, 1978 (cited in Camphausen).
[8] Barbara G. Walker, The crone, Harper & Row, 1985 (cited in Camphausen).
[9] See Robert Temple’s recent translation He who saw everything, Rider, 1991.
[10] Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The myth of the goddess, Penguin, 1991.
[11] Maarten J. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, trans. A.M.H. Lemmers, Thames and Hudson, 1977 (cited in Baring and Cashford, op. cit.).
[12] ibid.
[13] ‘Aphrodite’s island’, Penny Drayton, Wood & water, Vol.2, No.41, Jan 1993.
[14] ibid.
[15] Baring and Cashford, op. cit.


by Arpan Bhattacharya / February 3, 2017

“Archaeologist Sarah Parcak is allowing anyone in the world with an internet connection to participate in discovering new archaeological sites, and protect vulnerable archeological sites from looting. Using the $1 million she got from winning the TED Prize as well as support from the National Geographic Society and DigitalGlobe, she recently launched GlobalXplorer. The organization seeks to engage people from all backgrounds in finding and preserving archaeological sites through the use of satellite images. The methods in question have, according to GlobalXplorer’s website, already produced impressive results. It notes:

So far, Dr. Parcak’s techniques have helped locate 17 potential pyramids, in addition to 3,100 potential forgotten settlements and 1,000 potential lost tombs in Egypt — and she’s also made significant discoveries in the Viking world and Roman Empire. With the help of citizen scientists across the globe, she hopes to uncover much, much more… So far, Sarah’s methods have proved over 90% successful in producing significant discoveries.

Parcak’s vision uses modern satellite technologies to scan the world for archeologically promising data. With the power of crowds, there are sure to be many fascinating finds at staggeringly fast rates.

Currently, the organization is working primarily in Peru, whose rich historical sites have been plundered by many looters. One way GlobalXplorer prevents looting is by allowing users to note which regions seem vulnerable. Archaeologists can vet the cites that illicit high rates of concern. Then, collaborating with the Peruvian government, the organization is able to help protect those areas. This is a welcome solution to a centuries-old problem. The Guardian noted back in 2011, for example, how conquistadores and contemporaries alike had reduced the grand remains of the Moche civilization of northern Peru to a “lunar landscape” and one of the largest pyramids in pre-Columbus Latin America to “an eroded, plundered shell.”

Some archeologists have criticized Parcak’s vision, arguing that her method of crowdsourcing the analysis of satellite images may actually work to encourage looting – by inadvertently pointing them to where the loot is. However, such concerns are moot, according to Kristina Killgrove’s article on the program for Forbes. She describes the robust system through which GlobalXplorer protects against mistakenly informing looters:

The millions of little satellite tiles are displayed to users randomly. The user cannot pan out, navigate around, or see additional nearby tiles. There are no location references or coordinates shown to the user of the platform either. Rather, the unique tile ID is matched with location information after a GlobalXplorer user tags it. The data are then sent to Parcak and her team for further analysis. In this way, users are collecting data without compromising sensitive information about potential archaeological sites.

Although GlobalXplorer uses the wisdom of crowds, it also conceals information to protect against being exploited.

The approach of allowing virtually anyone to contribute information while simultaneously implementing measures to regulate them is an approach shared by arguably the largest information crowdsourcing project: Wikipedia. Wikipedia famously allows anyone to edit any entry while also subjecting every change to the scrutiny of administrators, who vet arguments submitted by readers both for and against the edits. Thus, like GlobalXplorer, Wikipedia has implemented rigorous procedures to allowing users to contribute whatever they like while also minimizing undesirable outcomes of unchecked freedom.

In addition to GlobalXplorer, there are several other examples of researchers using the wisdom of crowds to make discoveries. Phylo, for example, is a game developed at McGill University. It loosely resembles Tetris and exploits humans’ abilities for pattern-recognition to help decode genetic diseases. And Foldit made headlines after just three weeks of its release in 2011 for revealing insights into the structure of an enzyme related to AIDS.”

“A satellite image of Dashur, Egypt before processing (left) and after (right)”

by Liz Stinson / 02.16.16

“Technological advancements notwithstanding, space archaeology still requires a lot of human involvement. Algorithms might be able to detect variations in Earth’s surface, but they’re not quite good enough to discern what those patterns mean. For that, you need humans. But humans are slow. Parcak can scan 500 square feet of satellite imagery in about five minutes—but a larger dataset can take her team a week or more to scrutinize. What’s more, not every interesting surface feature heralds a discovery; sometimes a dead zone is just a dead zone. “Any success you see is tottering on the edge of a gigantic mound of shit,” she says. Meaning, like most scientific pursuits, much of her work is a systematized version of trial and error. It’s also a major time investment—but Parcak thinks the payoff could be huge. She estimates that humans have uncovered fewer than one one-thousandth of one percent of the archaeological sites along the Nile River delta alone. Imagine the discoveries yet to be made in the rest of the world. “Archaeology is a slow and laborious process,” she says. “That needs to end.”

Parcak wants to expedite discovery, and how she plans to do that is directly connected to her TED Prize wish. She intends to create a crowdsourced citizen science game that allows anyone to search for archaeological sites on satellite images. She’s essentially farming out the most tedious of tasks: looking for discrepancies in images. “It’s basically like using people as parallel processors,” White says.

Infrared satellite imagery of Aster, Egypt

The platform is still in development, but here’s the gist: People log on, and they’re dealt a card showing a chunk of land, likely 165×165 feet in size. This piece of land will be scrubbed of its location and map data, to keep would-be looters at bay. (“We’re treating archaeological site data like patient data,” Parcak says. “We’re protecting it.”) The game will present players with a decision tree, guiding them with questions about what they’re seeing. It might say something like: “What do you see in this image? Do you see vegetation? Do you see a modern structure? Something else?” Then, even more fine-grained: “Is it a circle? A square? Oh, is it a looting pit?” Parcak plans to provide examples of what a looting pit or tomb or pyramid might look like on the card that they’re looking at. Each card the player is dealt will look different, based on the processing techniques that have been used. If enough people say they saw the same thing, Parcak and her team will file it away as a potential excavation site. They’re still determining how many people have to agree before it becomes useful data. If and when a site is found, Parcak says she’ll only share the data with fellow archaeologists if they promise to take the people who helped them (you and me) into the field through things like Skype, Snapchat, or Periscope.

The game Parcak envisions is in the same vein as Fold ItEyeWire, and Galaxy Zoo, three games that have crowdsourced discoveries surrounding protein folding, neuron structure, and galaxy classification, respectively. They’ve even led to scientific publications in august journals like Nature.

“Satellite image of the archaeological site of Tanis, after processing.”

Gamifying her work is Parcak’s latest and most ambitious attempt to boost public interest in archaeology—a field whose place in the public consciousness ranks several orders of magnitude below, say, pop stars. She’s already been tirelessly media trained. Parcak recalls the first time she had to go on camera to talk about her science. She’d just mapped Tanis in Egypt, and the BBC was doing a documentary on it. They put her through a two-day media training bootcamp where she was, in her words, “broken down.” “They were like, ‘You really think you’re good at this? Go head. Explain your science to me,’” she recalls. “And I tried, and I realized that my grandmother wouldn’t understand what I was saying.”

The media hoopla seems trivial next to actual discovery, but Parcak believes communicating her science to the world is no less important than the discoveries. “The scale of the significance of your work? The S-shape curve goes up like this,” she says, swooping her hand toward the ceiling.

Now that she needs the public’s help, it’s even more important that they not just understand but care about what she’s doing. Parcak is well suited for the job. She’s an archaeological evangelist who’s not afraid to play into the tropes of the field in order to popularize it. When I ask her if the term space archaeologist is actually accurate, she says she’s been called out on it before. “So instead I tried: ‘I’m a mid-troposphere, multi-spectral, high-resolution, ancient landscape imagery analyst,’” she says. “And the room just fell asleep. I don’t care anymore. I’m a space archaeologist, yes I’m a landscape archaeologist, yes I’m an Egyptologist, yes I’m an anthropologist. We all have all these hats.” But her mission is bigger than her job title. “I want to get the world excited about archaeology,” she says.

“Satellite images of South Abusir, Egypt. The image on the left was acquired in 2009. Looting holes can be seen in the image on the right, which was acquired in 2011.”

As we finish lunch, Parcak walks me through a rough version of her game. She explains how she recently learned the terms UX and UI, and tells me that she and her partners are trying to make the platform as intuitive as possible to players of all ages. Just watch, she says, “it’s probably going to be, like, a grandmother from Fresno who’s our super-genius finder.” She doesn’t expect everyone who plays the game to become a full-blown archaeologist, but she does hope it will boost the visibility of her field, and draw attention to the increased threat posed by looting. It’s estimated that terrorist groups have made more than $300 million off of looting antiquities in the wake of the Arab Spring. With looting on the rise throughout the Middle East, Parcak says public interest is more important than ever.

“Satellite images by DigitalGlobe/Google Earth, photo of looting pit by Sarah H. Parcak”

Parcak believes that archaeology is the key to understanding not just our past, but our future. Studying ancient cultures is about more than uncovering objects—it’s about gaining a clearer picture of the way humans have lived, and learning lessons from our past so we don’t repeat them in the future. “I would argue that, with all this obsession we have with going to outer space—a colony on Mars!—we should stop for a second, take a deep breath, and think about all the times we’ve tried to colonize places throughout history and how that’s never gone well.”