The tale of a falling star
By Steve Ayers, Staff Reporter
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
CAMP VERDE - George Dawson was no stranger to hard work.
A seasoned construction hand, he traveled extensively throughout
Central America and the American southwest, moving mountains for money
and, when time allowed, doing some digging on his own for both fun and
In the spring of 1927, Dawson found himself between jobs. A Phoenix
resident, he loaded his truck with supplies and tools of his trade,
and headed north, hoping the fertile ground of the Verde Valley would
surrender its ancient treasures.
Pothunters like Dawson knew the valley to be a steady source of income
for anyone willing to turn over a few stones.
For this trip he chose a uniquely constructed ruin located on a
windswept, five-acre mesa above West Clear Creek.
With a view of the entire valley, the outline of its crumbled walls
looked more like a stockade than a home, a nearly square perimeter of
rooms surrounding a common courtyard.
Latter-day archaeologists believe the pueblo was built by people of
the Salado culture, indigenous to the Salt River Valley, instead of
the native Sinagua whose former homes make up the bulk of the Verde's
A very good day
One day while searching through rubble in the northeast corner of one
room, Dawson spied a familiar structure -- one that led him to believe
it was going to be a good day -- a very good day.
The flat slab of sandstone at his feet, he knew to be the cover of a
burial cyst, just the right size to contain the body of a child, along
with whatever treasures the family had packed along for the afterlife.
Dawson slid the cover back and began clearing the accumulated dirt and
debris. Eighteen inches down he uncovered a layer of feathers. As he
gently scraped away he realized in was a blanket of feathers, wrapped
about the cherished treasure.
An hour or so later, having cleared out all but the feather blanket
and its contents, he reached in and gently lifted the bundle.
It pulled back.
A second more forceful tug and Dawson realized it was not the
lightweight body of the child he had expected.
With great difficulty, he wrestled the object from its grave, pulled
back the delicate feather blanket and found himself gazing at a
two-foot long, one-foot wide, five-inch thick, 135-pound, oddly-shaped
hunk of rusting rock.
Dawson had an idea of what he was looking at, but it was not until
several months later, after it was tested, that he knew for sure. The
object so delicately wrapped and reverently placed in the stone cyst
was a nickel-iron meteorite, or what meteorite collectors call simply,
The second journey
To date, know one knows how it got there.
We do know that Dawson sold it in 1939 to one of the preeminent
meteorite researchers and collectors of his day, Harold Harlow
Nininger, who dubbed it the Camp Verde Meteorite. Convention dictated
it be named for the closest post office or geological feature.
We also know that in 1959 Nininger sold the meteorite, along with more
than 700 others, to Arizona State University, where it is currently
housed in the school's meteorite collection at ASU's Center for
What significance the object held to the architecturally unique souls
who once lived on Wingfield Mesa, we will likely never know.
Archaeologists have uncovered feather blankets, and several
meteorites, in archaeological digs. Dawson is the only one to have
found both of them together.
A year after Dawson's find, two pothunters discovered another
meteorite in a stone cyst, or at least 40 to 50 pounds of fragments
thereof, in a ruin east of Flagstaff. It became known as the Winona
Meteorite and is now on display at the museum of Northern Arizona.
Other meteors have been located in ancient ruins of the Americas, as
well as around the world, ranging in size from the three ounce
Pojoaque meteorite, found in an ancient pottery bowl near Santa Fe,
N.M., to the 3,407-pound Casas Grandes iron discovered in an Inca ruin
near Chihuahua, Mexico.
As Peter Pilles, archaeologist for the Coconino National Forest, has
observed, when archaeologists are uncertain about an object's use or
importance, they give it religious significance.
But in the case of the Camp Verde meteorite, with its feather
wrappings and the fact it was stored in the same manner as human
remains, there can be little doubt it was held in reverence.
Lawrence Garvie, director of meteorite collection at ASU, is a
scientist both by nature and by training. But even he can't help but
speculate on the meteorite's unusual shape and significance.
"It looks to me more like a child than a leaf or an arrowhead, as some
have described it. It has a distinctive head and shoulders, and a very
pronounced backbone that appears to have been rubbed smooth by human
touch. And when struck it has a beautiful ringing sound," Garvie says.
For scientists like Garvie, and the Center for Meteorites Studies
founder and former director, Carleton Moore, the meteorite also poses
some real world questions, not the least of which is where did it fall
and how did it end up in the ruins of an ancient pueblo.
About 50,000 years ago, a 150-foot diameter, 300,000-ton, iron and
nickel meteorite crashed into Canyon Diablo outside of modern-day
Winslow, creating Meteor Crater. The impact vaporized at least half
and scattered the remaining pieces across a wide area of the Colorado
"The interesting thing about Camp Verde is that it does not look like
the other Canyon Diablo irons," Moore says. "Its chemistry, however,
is identical. So the only conclusion we can make is that it is a piece
of Canyon Diablo.
"But I have always had my doubts. The other great puzzle is also how
did it get so far from Meteor Crater. The nomadic people who lived in
Arizona didn't lug these sorts of things around."
Garvie and Moore both believe it is possible the Camp Verde meteorite
was a fragment that separated from the main mass of the Canyon Diablo
meteorite as it broke apart in the atmosphere, landing farther south.
Fact or fiction
As for the fate of the feather blanket, it was parceled out and lost.
According to a correspondence from Dawson to Nininger, he (Dawson)
gave away pieces of the blanket to collectors over the years.
It would seem possible that the entire story of the Camp Verde
meteorite is pure fiction, dreamt up by Dawson to make an otherwise
common iron meteorite more valuable, were it not for statements in a
narrative Nininger later wrote.
Nininger notes he never heard the story of the meteorite's discovery
until he came to Phoenix to make the purchase. There is also the fact
that he bought it for what he described as no more than "the price
usually paid for Canyon Diablo irons ($0.50 per pound)."
Lastly, in April 1940, at Nininger's request, Dawson brought him to
Camp Verde to see the pueblo and search for feathers or the remains of
"We hunted the long line of obscure ruins until he reached the
crumbled walls of a small room, in the corner of which was a slight
depression and several flat stones protruding from the drifted dust
"Digging out the filling of dust and weeds failed to reveal a shred of
the feather cloth wrapping, but this was hardly surprising...We
gathered the flat stones and made several trips down the steep slope
to the car and back again," Nininger states.
The ancient owners of the Camp Verde meteorite may or may not have
lugged it around in their travels, but Nininger did. For seven years
following its purchase, he continued to search the planet for what had
fallen from the heavens.
Then in 1946, he quit the road and established the American Meteorite
Museum on Route 66 near Meteor Crater, where it went on public
In 1953, after America abandoned Route 66, Nininger moved his
collection to Sedona, where it was put on display in the Verde Valley
for the first time in nearly 800 years.
Today the Camp Verde meteorite rests prominently on a table with two
dozen other irons, many of which came with the Nininger collection, in
the center of a room containing hundreds of other meteorites from
across the world and, ultimately, beyond.
H. H. NININGER
METEOR CRATER RIM