A Prospector Found This Rock And Prayed For Gold, But The Treasure Inside Was Even More Valuable

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It’s May 2015 and an Australian named David Hole is prospecting for gold not far from his home near the city of Maryborough in the state of Victoria. His detector indicates that there’s metal in the ground, and Hole heaves up a blackened rock that has a red hue. It looks promising, so the gold hunter takes it back with him. Maybe he’s struck rich.

Image: Museums Victoria/Rod Start

When he pulled it out of the soil that it was lying in, the first thing Hole noticed was how unusually heavy the rock was for its size. In fact, it turned out to weigh more than 35 pounds. Hole reckoned he’d found something really rare, but exactly what he was at a loss to say. One thing he did know, though, was that he’d found this rock in an area famed for its gold.

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Indeed, the district where Hole had been prospecting – or fossicking as they call it in Australia – was once the scene of a frantic gold rush. The region is still known as the Victorian Goldfields, and it was during the mid-19th century that people flocked there in the hope of finding nuggets of the previous yellow metal. Of course, gold fever gripped California at around the same time.

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The Australian version of the gold rush started in earnest with the discovery of the Mount Alexander goldfield. This was an alluvial prospect, which means that the gold was to be found in stream beds. And, boy, did those fossickers find it. The field produced some 4 million ounces of the precious metal, in fact, with the majority of that being plucked from the waters in the initial couple of years of the rush.

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In 1852 a consignment of gold shipped from the Victoria Goldfield docked in London, England. The cargo consisted of nearly 9 tons of gold. “This is California all over again but, it would appear, California on a larger scale,” The Times newspaper noted. Indeed, Victoria’s Bendigo field was the source of the majority of the planet’s gold in the second half of the 19th century

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Fossickers came across the White Hill goldfield, just a couple of miles from Maryborough – where David Hole found his mysterious rock – during 1854. Before that, the district had been used for livestock grazing, and it didn’t yet have the name of Maryborough. The farming area, established in the late 1830s, was owned by the Simson brothers, who gave it the title Simson’s Range.

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One day in the summer of 1854, while Hector Simson was out surveying his herd at White Hills he spotted a few men digging. The strangers confirmed that they were indeed gold hunters but claimed not to have had any great success in their fossicking there. Simson didn’t believe them, however – their excavations appeared too extensive for men who’d found barely anything.

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What’s more, word of Simson’s suspicions quickly got out, and the results were predictable. There were, of course, already hordes of prospectors in Victoria. Remember, gold had first been discovered in the state in 1851, not far from what would soon become the town of Maryborough.

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Perhaps inevitably, people descended on the district in their thousands. Some pushed handcarts, others arrived in horse-drawn buggies and a number came carrying nothing more than their swags, which is Australian slang for bedrolls. Most were youthful males, although there were entire families as well.

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In short order, a shanty town grew up where before there’d only been the Simsons’ remote outpost. It was barely a month, in fact, before crowds of fortune-hunters were hacking away at the ground around White Hills. At first, though, the new settlement was little more than a sprawling mass of tents.

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Moreover, the authorities soon stepped in to impose order on this rag-tag community. That was when the township received its name: Maryborough. A man called John Daly was appointed as commissioner, and he was accompanied by a police complement. Towards the end of 1854 Daly decided to call the place Maryborough, in honor of the Irish town where he was born.

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Soon the new settlement had all the trappings of a proper town. These included a bureau issuing mining permits, a police station and, inevitably, a jail. This was inevitable because the easy money of gold rushes attracted criminals of every stripe. When they weren’t rounding up thieves, the cops spent their days shutting down the settlement’s many illegal bars.

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Regulations governing life in Maryborough included detailed rules about the holding of permits to prospect, the precise measurements of a claim area and exhortations to behave correctly on the Sabbath. Conditions in Maryborough remained notably primitive, however. Indeed, the majority of the townsfolk still resided in tents equipped with a few pieces of crudely fashioned wooden furniture and little else.

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Nonetheless, just a few months after the goldfield had first been publicized, the population of Maryborough had swelled to somewhere in the region of 25,000. And by 1855 this number had more than doubled. Crime continued apace, however, with claim disputes sometimes resulting in mass brawls. Shady characters also stole from unwary prospectors in the ramshackle drinking dens.

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In the midst of the squalid conditions and crime at Maryborough, there were still some extraordinary finds in those White Hill goldfields. At a spot called Blackman’s Lead, a nugget of in excess of 1,000 ounces was discovered in 1855. The next year, fossickers working at the same location uncovered a nugget of more than 230 ounces. And in 1858 a 537-ounce lump of gold was unearthed.

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But even those huge nuggets were dwarfed by another one known as the “Welcome Stranger.” It was uncovered in 1869 by two English fossickers named Richard Oates and John Deason at a place called Moliagul, some 20 or so miles from Maryborough. The lucky duo found it buried just a few inches underground, and it’s still the biggest alluvial chunk of gold in history. It weighed in at an astonishing 2,300 ounces and had to be split up simply to fit on the scales.

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The first flush of the gold rush soon petered out, however, so by 1857 Maryborough’s population had shrunk to a little over 10,000. The railroad arrived in 1874 and the splendid train station built in 1890 still graces the town today. In fact, on his 1895 tour of Australia, Mark Twain visited the town and, according to the Culture Victoria website, said of the station, “Why, you can put the whole population of Maryborough into it, and give them a sofa apiece, and have room for more.”

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All the area’s goldmines had been shuttered by the end of 1918, although that wasn’t quite the end of gold fossicking. Individuals such as David Hole still went out into the old goldfields hoping to find nuggets of the precious yellow metal that had been overlooked by the 19th-century prospectors. Today, of course, men like Hole are armed with metal detectors, a technology undreamt of 170 years ago.

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As we’ve seen, in the summer of 2015 Hole’s detector started beeping as he swept the ground in a forest near his home, just over a mile from Maryborough. That was when he found the rock we previously described. Because it was so heavy, Hole suspected that there might well be a nugget of gold hidden in the unyielding stone. However, it turned out that unyielding was exactly the right word to describe this lump of stone.

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The rock weighed just over 37 pounds and its dimensions were around 15 inches long by 6 inches across and 6 inches deep. Once he had it home, Hole’s next move was to try to split the object to reveal what he hoped would be gold inside. He tried to cut into it with a rock saw. That didn’t work, however. Neither did a drill, which simply managed to make some insignificant surface dents.

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Hole then doused the rock in acid. But again, the lump of stone didn’t give an inch. He attempted to cut into it with an angle grinder, which resulted in nothing more than some shallow grooves. Increasingly frustrated, he even took a sledge hammer to it. He pounded the rock with all his might. The sledgehammer just bounced off it, however. Hole eventually gave up on the task and forgot about the rock for a while.

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A few years later, still baffled by this mysterious and frustrating object, Hole decided to take it to Museums Victoria in Melbourne in 2018. Perhaps staff there could make something of it. So, he thrust the object in a backpack and took off to the city. There, it came into the hands of two experts: Dermot Henry and Bill Birch. Their view was that this strange lump of rock might not have originated from Earth.

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Perhaps it was a meteorite. It was a long shot, though. Indeed, lots of hopeful local residents show up at the museum with lumps of stone that they suspect are meteorites. Henry has inspected thousands of rocks brought in by the public over the 37 years he’s worked at the museum. But very, very few have actually turned out to originate from outer space.

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Australia’s 10 Daily website quoted a quip from Henry in July 2019. “I’ve looked at a lot of rocks that people think are meteorites. And as we often have to say, they’re meteor-wrongs,” he laughed. In fact, of all those thousands of rocks that Henry has looked over, just two have actually been meteorites. And David Hole’s stone was the second one.

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Indeed, Henry and Birch had a hunch that Hole’s stone might be the real thing as soon as they saw it. Speaking to the The Sydney Morning Herald in July 2019, Henry said, “It had this sculpted, dimpled look to it. That’s formed when [meteorites] come through the atmosphere. They are melting on the outside, and the atmosphere sculpts them.”

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Birch told The Herald that he’d felt sure it was a meteorite the moment he lifted the object. “If you saw a rock on Earth like this, and you picked it up, it shouldn’t be that heavy,” he said. The two scientists needed more proof than just their hunches, of course. Now it was their turn to try to break into this incredibly hard piece of stone so that they could analyze it properly.

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Fortunately, Birch and Henry knew where to get the right equipment to do this. They approached a commercial specialist named Crystal World of Melbourne. Staff there then used a specialist diamond saw to cut into the rock, which meant that the scientists could finally examine its interior. And what they found proved beyond doubt that this rock was a meteorite.

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To be precise, in scientific terms the rock is “an H5 ordinary chondrite meteorite,” as a press release from Museums Victoria described it. The word chondrite indicates that the meteorite has chondrules within in it, which are minuscule crystals. They were created by intense heat impacting on dust floating in space shortly after our Solar System was formed.

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The scientists believe that the meteorite probably formed in the asteroid field that’s found between the orbits of the planets Jupiter and Mars. And they’ve even been able to put an age to this extraordinary lump of stone. It’s believed to be a jaw-dropping 4.6 billion years old. And the scientists themselves aren’t immune from the amazement that this great age brings.

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“When you consider all the events this chunk of rock has experienced since its formation 4.6 billion years ago, it’s really mind-boggling that we get the opportunity to hold it and study it today,” Birch pointed out in the Museums Victoria release. “How good is that?” So, even methodical scientists can experience wonder.

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Indeed, an ancient object like this contains a great deal of information that’s highly useful to science. “Meteorites provide the cheapest form of space exploration,” Birch explained. “They transport us back in time, providing clues to the age, formation and chemistry of our Solar System (including the Earth).”

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“Some provide a glimpse at the deep interior of our planet,” Birch continued. “In some meteorites, there is ‘stardust’ even older than our Solar System, which shows us how stars form and evolve to create elements of the periodic table. Other rare meteorites contain organic molecules such as amino acids; the building blocks of life.”

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Hole’s rock has quickly become known as the Maryborough meteorite. But what happened to create this lump of rock all those billions of years ago? Well, the likely explanation is that in the early days of the Solar System chunks of chondrite rock were orbiting our young Sun.

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The force of gravity would have gradually forced these objects together, and in some cases the result would have eventually been planet formation. Indeed, that’s the story of how our own planet came about 4.5 billion years ago. But other pieces of chondrite remained swirling free, creating the asteroid belt that circles between Jupiter and Mars today.

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Every so often, though, rocks in the asteroid belt will collide, an explosive event that leaves fragments of stone flying through space. Some of those subsequently make their way to Earth as meteorites. They then plunge through the planet’s atmosphere before landing on the surface. And in the case of the Maryborough meteorite, the landing spot was in the Australian outback.

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Of course, one obvious question about the Maryborough meteorite is: how long has it been on Earth? In other words, just when did it fall from the skies? Even for the most eminent experts such as Birch and Henry, though, that’s tricky to answer. Their best estimate, based on carbon 14 analysis, is that it probably landed near Maryborough sometime between the 10th and 19th centuries.

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However, there are some clues that suggest the meteorite may have landed even more recently. A slew of newspaper reports over the years from 1889 to 1951 have described eye-witness accounts of meteorites landing around Maryborough. In 1889, for example, The Herald reported: “A strange aerial phenomenon was witnessed a few evenings since by a number of local residents, who observed a meteor of exceptional magnitude and brilliance shooting over the town in a westerly direction.”

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Another report from Maryborough was written up in The Age in 1898. “An intensely bright meteor fell here this morning shortly after 2 o’clock,” the article read. “It filled the sky with a most dazzling light for fully a couple of seconds.” Then, in 1901 the same newspaper reported, “A meteor of great brilliance was seen last night, after 9 o’clock, in the northern sky.”

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Altogether, Birch and Henry tracked down eight articles about people witnessing meteorite strikes around Maryborough over a 62-year period. There’s no way of knowing if one of those, perhaps even the most recent one from 1951, was Hole’s meteorite plummeting towards Earth, where it lay for years waiting to be found by him. But it might be so.

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David Hole told The Sydney Morning Herald that he was planning to go and see the Maryborough meteorite on display at its new home at Melbourne Museum. “It was just pot luck, mate,” he said of his find. “A billion to one – bigger, a trillion to one. Got more chance of being struck by lightning twice.”

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