Traces of Impact

George Cuvier wrote in 1826 that a traveller through regions of abundant vegetation, prospering population, and dense cities ‘is not inclined to believe […] that the surface of the globe has been overthrown by revolutions and catastrophes’. However, Cuvier’s own approach to studying the earth allowed him to comprehend ‘the extent and grandeur of those events of ages past’. Cuvier was a proponent of catastrophism, an early geological belief that earth has been and still is shaped by sudden, catastrophic events. Although later in the century this theory was mostly replaced by the uniformitarianism proposed by George Lyell (who argues that the earth evolved gradually according to constant laws), catastrophism never really died out. And it is easy to see why: there are deep marks in the earth, big holes which spell catastrophe. The craters that we see are signs of destruction, from outer-space objects, or, more recently, from bombs. Catastrophism may not be the only way the surface of the earth changes, but huge-scale geological catastrophes are visible in huge holes we can see and walk into.

The most famous such catastrophe on a geological scale is the ‘impact event’ that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The impact left not only a hole in the biosphere of the earth, but an immense crater in its surface. The so-called Chicxulub crater, named after the Mexican town near its centre, is now under other geological strata, but its immensity can still be seen on gravitational maps of the Yucatan Peninsula. This is not the biggest hole caused by an impact on the earth. The Vredefort crater in South Africa is estimated to have initially been as large as 300 kilometres in diameter. This is only an estimate because craters are not static, but dynamic and always changing. A crater is not only a big hole in the earth, but a perpetually happening geological event. Due to their size, the craters’ walls move and collapse, creating peaks in their centre and multiple rings. They vary thus from smooth, bowl-shaped holes to intricate terraced places.

Vredefort Crater, Free State, South Africa

What holes always do is provide space, a space that humans are also always quick and eager to fill. The Kaali crater in Estonia, for instance, was sacred in ancient and medieval times, its impact being visible in Finnish mythology. From spiritual connections, and through the disenchantment of nature, we get, however, to private ownership. The redundantly named Meteor Crater in Arizona is also known as Barringer Crater, after Daniel Barringer, the first to propose its impact origin. It shares its name with that of the Barringer Crater Company, through which the geologist’s family now owns the crater and collects visiting fees. The artist Hanna Mattes, however, has chosen to engage with meteor craters more creatively. Drawing on the idea that objects from outer space might carry life, she brings together photographs of craters with hand-edited ones of outer-space minerals from natural history museums. Through her art she explores the dual aspect of the meteorites’ interactions with the earth: destruction and beautiful creation.

Mattes Steine 8
Steine 5 by Hanna Mattes (source:

Beautiful as well is the crater-ridden surface of the moon. With no atmosphere to protect it and little geological activity, lunar craters are myriad and mostly intact. The holes that mark the face of the moon are iconic of the way we think of it. In 2014, NASA organised a contest named ‘The Moon as Art’, in which voters decided which of the photographs taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter got to be the cover image of the project. Most images, including the five with the highest votes, were of craters or crater formations. Beyond just their beauty, however, lunar craters have many things to say about us. Bettina Forget, an artist from Montreal, noticed how, out of the 1,605 named craters on the moon, only 29 bear the names of women, such as those of astronauts Judith Resnik and Valentina Tereshkova, of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, or of the ancient mathematician Hypatia. More than 350, on the other hand, are named after men. The holes in the moon show a hole in our society – the lack of women in what Forget calls ‘the power structure’ of science. Her project is to highlight these ‘Women with Impact’ by producing drawings of the female craters on the moon. The École des Mines de Paris philosopher Anne-Françoise Schmid, on the other hand, uses craters on the moon to close a hole: that between science and art. She discusses a painting of Lodovico Cardi (Cigoli) (1559-1613) depicting the Madonna in a lunar crater to argue for an epistemology which unites them both.

Cigoli’s Immaculate Conception, in the Paoline Chapel, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome (source

Craters, like any other holes, can be filled. Some nineteenth-century geologists would have filled them with stories about how the world changes, yet they can host anything, from towns to art to statements about society. Be it on the earth or on the moon, craters are scars, and, as all scars, every crater tells a story.

(Andrei Belibou, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)


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