Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

The Meteoric Mystery of The Magical Islamic Stone: Experts Seek Help in Deciphering Inscription

The Meteoric Mystery of The Magical Islamic Stone: Experts Seek Help in Deciphering Inscription

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

This weekend, history experts across London are attempting to solve the astronomical mystery surrounding an ancient carved “meteorite” found in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) by a 19th century English explorer.

Sir Richard Francis Burton was a man of many parts, recognized as a geographer, translator, writer, soldier, cartographer, spy, poet, fencer and diplomat, most famous for his explorations in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Burton held an extraordinary knowledge of cultures and languages and according to Mary Lovell’s in 1998 book A Rage to Live he spoke 29 European, Asian and African languages and translated both Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1864 (public domain)

Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1864 (public domain)

Burton’s Bizarre Ball

Staff at the V&A and the Natural History Museum in London are analyzing a highly peculiar artifact which once belonged to the explorer Burton and was held by the borough of Richmond for 60 years before Mark De Novellis, curator of Richmond’s art collection set out to decipher the curious marks on the objects surface. According to an article in The Independent, when Burton first discovered the stone he claimed it was “a meteorite” and his wife Isabel, who later sold his findings following his death in 1890 listed the stone as such. Now, more than 120 years after the artifact was pulled from the earth the Natural History Museum confirmed it was in fact “terrestrial and likely a type of quartz.”

Expert Appeals for Help to Translate Mystery Message

Specialists at the V&A have identified the stone’s inscription as Kufic, an angular, slow-moving, dignified script used on coins, tombstones and buildings. With a rhythmic and strongly horizontal composition of letters and words this language was named after the city of Kufa in central Iraq and is one of the oldest calligraphic form of Arabic. Because the first copies of the Quran were written in Kufic script, De Novellis knew that “the stone’s origins are between the 7th and 12th century.”

The stone’s Kufic inscription matches that of a similar talisman currently housed in the V&A and De Novellis believes the artifact was “probably a talisman worn in the medieval Middle East.” “I’ve got a feeling that when we get this translated it will be of a mystical or spiritual nature,” Mr De Novellis added.

De Novellis is now appealing to the public for help decoding the mystery message.

Handwritten Qur'an in Kufic script, from Iran, dating to the later 11th century AD (public domain)

Handwritten Qur'an in Kufic script, from Iran, dating to the later 11th century AD (public domain)

Was Mystery Ball Part of Burton’s Muslim Disguise?

In 1853, disguised as a Muslim, Burton famously went to Mecca and visited the Kaaba, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia where he caught a glimpse of the sacred Black Stone (Arabic:  ٱلْحَجَرُ ٱلْأَسْوَدal-Ḥajaru al-Aswad.) The Black Stone is a rock, often described as a meteorite, which is set into the eastern corner of the Kaaba. According to traditions it was sent as a guide for Adam and Eve to build an altar and is believed to have been set intact into the Kaaba's wall by the prophet Muhammad in 605 AD, five years before his first revelation.

“The engraved stone might have been part of his costume and persona, as something he wore round his neck,” explains Mr De Novellis. According to a World News article it was not Burton that first proposed the stone was a “Meteorite” but “Ernst Florens Chladni in 1794” and Mr De Novellis believes that Burton “would have wanted to discover or possess one,” adding that the idea of it being a meteorite “just appealed to Burton’s imagination and I think he had that sort of mindset where any stone that is sacred or mystical is potentially extra-terrestrial so he interprets that as being a meteorite.”

Mr De Novellis also suggests that because Burton was “renowned for self-mythologising” and “carefully crafting his image as a daring, risk-taking linguist and anthropologist,” he may have had an eye on his future legacy. Burton “wanted to be a legend,” and he was “extremely media savvy for his day and wanted to present himself in a certain way in his numerous popular publications.”

I will leave it to you, the reader, to conclude as to whether Burton was a flakey myth-maker, an innocent misinformed fantasist or maybe, just maybe, ‘full of it.’ Whatever the case, Burton’s ball, still holds a few secrets of its own.

By Ashley Cowie



Ugh, typos. That'll teach me not to double check before hitting send.

If it is supposed to be Kufic, or another relative of Arabic than it is upside down, Arabic is written with mostly short letters sitting just above the line, with some tall letters and some that dip below the line. Actually in this sense it is not that different from English. This would make sense, as our writing system and theirs share a common ancestor. The Devanagari script has a different origin. As for why it looks different than the calligraphy in the photo of Kufic, it may be from a different era, be done less professionally, or be formed differently because of the difficulty of writing on stone. It actually reminded me a bit of ancient Phonecian, but when I turned it upside down (on my phone) I could see the resemblance to a script like Arabic, Syriac, etc. I'm in the process of trying to learn these scripts, which is how I can see the resblance.

If you think it is printed upside down because you expect the writing to be placed on top of the line, then not necessarily as some scripts are written with the text hanging down from the line. An example is devanagari used for Sanskrit and derivative languages. When I first looked, I must say it looked like an Indic script to me, but the article plumps for Kufic. Well, I am certainly no expert on that subject but to my eyes the stone's script looks nothing like the example of Kufic shown

Am I the only one who noticed the stone was photographed upside down?

muhamad had nothing to do with this ball. Likely just set in place by that flood.vafter the people were taken away by it ! This lost/forgotten, it's a mystery to later centuries. Burton failed in his attempt, knowing that thus he wanted to be remembered, he only managed to tie his name to this thing. When translated it will not reveal who wrote it but only what the author said on it. Likely more, discovered by someone who saw it fall from sky, found it, it cooled then they wrote their inscription.
Figure it out !


ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

Next article