During my recent archival work at the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen, I was having a conversation about my research with museum’s curator and senior researcher Martin Appelt. As our conversation drew to a close, Martin paused and then asked me if I wanted to watch a meteorite being removed from the museum’s courtyard. Slightly confused, but keen to take a break from the seemingly endless photographing of archival materials, I gladly agreed.
As we made our way down the steps to the courtyard, the reasons why Martin had suggested this brief excursion became clear. He explained that the meteorite in question was in fact the Savik meteorite that had been taken from the Avanersuaq region of Northern Greenland by the Arctic explorer and ethnographer Knud Rasmussen in 1925.
Removal of the ‘Savik’ meteorite from the Nationalmuseet.
The meteorite normally resides in the Statens Naturhistoriske Museum [The State Natural History Museum] (SNM) at the University of Copenhagen, but due to renovation works being carried out there, it had temporarily been placed in the courtyard of the Nationalmuseet. Now that these works had been completed, the meteorite was due to be returned to its original location. As can probably be inferred from the image above, this was no easy task and required a great deal of planning and careful manoeuvring.
Curious to know how the SNM was going to present the meteorite to its audiences, I asked Martin if there would be any labels or signage explaining its historical significance once it had been returned. Martin sighed, shook his head, and explained that only the chemical makeup of the meteorite and its travels across the cosmos were considered to be of significance at this institution. The meteorite is therefore once again on display in geological section of the museum, but is devoid entirely of the historical processes through which it arrived there.
This lack of historical context is certainly problematic. There is in fact a great deal that this large shard of metal can tell us about the history of the Arctic, and especially the history of colonial relations in the North. The very fact that a meteorite from a former Danish colony now resides in the nation’s capital should indicate immediately that there are a number of complex imperial legacies attached to it.
‘Anighito’ meteorite embedded in the Greenlandic landscape.
The Savik meteorite was in fact once part of a larger block of iron known as the Innaanganeq or ‘Cape York’ meteorite that fell to earth approximately 1,000-10,000 years ago. Upon impact, this substantial celestial body broke up into several fragments which were in turn scattered across the North-western Greenland landscape.
Importantly, these fragments have had an incredibly significant role to play in human life across the Arctic. For centuries, Inuit chipped away at the iron blocks in order to create various tools and utensils. Vast distances were travelled in order to secure this useful and robust material, and the various products made from it were in turn traded between communities across the circumpolar North. The meteorites were thus of substantial practical and spiritual significance to the Inuit and permitted a range of other practices, such as hunting and the crafting of clothes, to be carried out effectively.
It was in 1894 when the fragments of the Innaanganeq meteorite first came to the attention of non-indigenous travellers in the Arctic. While travelling in Northern Greenland, the American explorer Robert Peary asked the Inughuit of Avanersuaq how they were able to construct their tools made of iron. Two Inuit named Panikpah and Tallekoteah took Peary to what was termed ‘the iron mountain’ and showed him three of the large meteoric fragments.
A year later, Peary asked his wife Josephine to charter a ship to collect him from Greenland, so he could begin extracting two of the meteorites. Translating their indigenous names, he labelled them ‘The Woman’ and ‘The Dog.’ Peary eventually managed transport both fragments to the USA and presented them as gifts to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York where they now reside.
‘Ahnighito’ being loaded onto the Hope.
Peary then returned to Greenland in 1897 to collect the third and largest of the meteorites, naming this one ‘Ahnighito’. As shown in the image above, Peary extracted the large block of iron and loaded it onto his ship using a series of sleds, rails and pulleys. This fragment was also transported to the AMNH where it is now displayed alongside the others.
As noted above, some years later the Savik meteorite that I saw in Copenhagen was then extracted from Greenland by Knud Rasmussen. In 1913, while Rasmussen was in the process of establishing the Thule Station trading post in Avanersuaq, an Inuk named Qidlugtok explained he had discovered another fragment of the Innaanganeq meteorite. Keen to study the shard in more detail, following the end of the First World War, the Danish Government funded two expeditions to retrieve Savik and it was eventually transported to Copenhagen in 1925 where it was added to the collections of the University’s Geological Museum.
‘Savik’ arriving at Copenhagen Docks.
The Arktisk Institut in Copenhagen holds a letter from Robert Peary in which he wrote to Rasmussen congratulating him on finding the fourth meteorite. It reads:
“Am glad you located the Ahnighito meteorite, and hope you may not have as difficult a time securing it as I had with the ‘Ahnighito.’ The location of this mass of which the natives told me, was one of my items of unfinished business in the north.”
– Letter from Robert Peary to Knud Rasmussen, 6th June 1914.
Although pleased that the fourth meteorite had at last been found, it seems Peary was disappointed he had not been able to extract it himself and complete his ‘Cape York’ collection.
Several other fragments from the Innaanganeq meteorite have since been found over the years in Greenland, and these have also been extracted transported to the Danish capital. The Agpalilik meteor for example, which was removed in 1983, sits proudly at the entrance courtyard to the SNM, welcoming visitors to the museum.
But why does the extraction and transportation of these various iron fragments matter?
The point is that the extraction of these meteorites is emblematic of the ways in which explorers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries viewed the landscapes they encountered (and indeed the people inhabiting them) during their travels. Enmeshed within the colonial apparatus that facilitated and supported their expeditions, both Peary and Rasmussen viewed the fragments as important scientific curiosities that required collection and removal to the imperial metropoles. They gave little thought to the moral implications of doing so, despite fact that both men were familiar with the customs and practices of the Inughuit and were thus acutely aware of the practical and spiritual significance that was attached to the meteorites.
‘The Woman’ on display at the American Museum of Natural History, New York.
The fact that these fragments continue to be displayed in museums without the full historical context through which they arrived there thus demonstrates the problematic ways in which Arctic colonial legacies continue to be marginalised or obscured within European and North American understandings of the region. Visitors to the Copenhagen’s SNM will continue to learn about the chemical and astronomical significance of the Savik meteorite, but will be told little about the indigenous peoples who once relied upon it as a vital natural resource. They will also miss an important opportunity to learn more about the problematic actions of the explorers who removed it and the enduring colonial legacies that these expeditions were to have for Greenland and beyond.
While museums around the world are beginning to grapple with their colonial legacies in more open, reflexive and engaging ways, it seems that there is still a long way to go before the troubling histories of colonial scientific and collecting practices in the Arctic are discussed fully within these important sites of knowledge (re)production.