The Meteoric Mystery of The Magical Islamic Stone: Experts Seek Help in Deciphering Inscription
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)
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.”
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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)
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 ٱلْأَسْوَد, al-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