I would guarantee that most of you have never heard of the small town of Winchcombe in the north Cotswolds of England, yet it lies only nine miles from prettier Broadway, another small town, long a haunt of tourists, especially American ones. Before Winchcombe or Broadway even existed, the area must have been relatively well populated, for only a mile or two outside Winchcombe lies Belas Knap (Beacon Hill), a huge Neolithic, long-barrow burial site dated to about 3,000 BCE. Before the Romans arrived some time after 48 CE and stamped their own mark on the area, Winchcombe was a focus for various tribes of Britons. The Romans established a major presence throughout the region when they did come, though not in Winchcombe itself. After their civilization waned, two or three centuries later, there came the Anglo-Saxons. Under their influence, the town regained its primacy as an important center of Mercia (approximately the English Midlands) and had the right to mint its own coins. Around 800 CE, a Mercian king, Coenwulf, established an important monastery in Winchcombe, which became an abbey. Only the fine, twelfth-century St Peter’s Church now survives on the site, as the abbey was destroyed under King Henry VIII’s order of 1536 for dissolution of the monasteries.
Aside from the cars, delivery vans and large transport vehicles that fill and frequently jam the narrow main street in its “rush hour,” Winchcombe is a sleepy little town, less picturesque than many of the picture-postcard Cotswold villages that surround it, but certainly more historic. Today, its main attractions are twofold, the first being Sudeley Castle on the edge of town, which is certainly a draw for tourists. The castle’s own history dates back to 1442 CE, and it played an important part in the English Civil War of 1642-1651 CE, when it was the headquarters of the Royalist cavalry for a time. Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, spent her last years there and is buried in the chapel.
Winchcombe’s second attraction, now lodged in the tiny museum at the center of town, is much more recent in origin. As a child, were you afraid of things that “go bump in the night?” As an adult, if you wake up to an unusual noise, you might think, Ah, it’s the heating coming on, maybe a casement window blowing shut, or your car being stolen. You wouldn’t usually think, Ah, that’ll be a meteorite landing in the yard. Nevertheless, that happened to one Winchcombe family. Shortly before 10 pm on February 28, 2020, a bright, yellow-green fireball scorched across the skies of southwest England, and around a thousand people reported it. The next morning, the Wilcock family of Winchcombe woke up to find that a small pile of dark rocks and dust had appeared on their driveway. They first thought it to be barbecue charcoal someone had dumped, as it certainly looked like that. Then they saw the morning news. The dark blot turned out to be the first meteorite to be tracked and found in England for 30 years. Having the presence of mind to use gloves, the Wilcocks collected the dust and black pieces of rock and put them into sealed bags, and by this simple act made an important contribution to the science of interplanetary cosmology.
The family reported their find and two days later, the rocks were examined by an expert and identified as part of a meteorite. They were hastily taken to the Natural History Museum of London. The find was deemed especially important because there had only been a relatively short time between the impact and the rocks being bagged, limiting the time that the compounds in the rock could be affected by the earth’s atmosphere and climate. For days after, when the news spread, search parties were set up and lines of excited scientists and volunteers combed adjacent fields looking for bits of dark rock. Unfortunately, lots of things in the fields around Winchcombe look dark and shiny, particularly sheep poop, and there are sheep everywhere in the Cotswolds! However, more pieces of the meteorite were found, including the largest piece, to a total of about 21 ounces.
The excitement the Winchcombe meteorite caused in scientific circles was because of its early capture within hours of it landing and consequent near pristine original composition. As it happened, 16 dedicated meteor cameras had recorded the fall and established its atmospheric path. Worldwide, only four other meteorites of its kind have been recovered that also enabled their orbit and origin to be conclusively established. It represents the freshest sample of cosmic material ever recorded and is therefore uniquely valuable as evidence of the kind of compounds that formed in the early universe. The meteorite is of a type known as a carbonaceous chondrite, and likely came originally from the outer reaches of the solar system via the inner asteroid belt. It has also been proved that it arrived on earth only a short time after it was ejected from its parent primitive asteroid, possibly by a stray impact or collision, adding to its importance. The results of the many sophisticated tests to which samples have been subjected have conclusively profiled its chemical composition and have provided further evidence for the theory that such volatile-rich carbonaceous asteroids played an important role in the origin of Earth’s water and, quite possibly, life itself.
You may have recently heard or read a lot about NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission. The probe snatched a sample directly from the surface of asteroid Bennu, which is presently coursing its way through the solar system at 63,000 mph, give or take, and returned it to Earth. It was launched in 2016 and completed its “land-grab,” 200 million miles from Earth, in 2020. Its successful return in September this year created much excitement in the scientific community concerned with the origin and evolution of our universe, whose interests lie in the few ounces of dusty black material the returning probe contained. Complex sophisticated tests on the Bennu sample are still in progress, but a so-called ‘Quick Look’ has confirmed that it contains “carbonates and more complex organics.” To the lay observer, this sounds remarkably like the composition of the Winchcombe meteorite. The seven-year Osiris-Rex mission to Bennu is said to have cost about a billion dollars and returned 9 ounces of material. By contrast, the cosmos gifted Winchcombe 21 ounces of apparently similar material, free of charge!
© David Cuin 2023