This story originally ran in the Northwest Florida Daily News three decades ago.
Experts have verified that a bowling ball-size hunk of metal unearthed near Grayton Beach is the third largest meteorite ever found in the southeastern United States.
The 24-pound meteorite is thought to have crashed to Earth at least 400 years ago. Two amateur treasure-hunters found it amid a smattering of Indian artifacts, suggesting that Gulf Coast tribesmen may have kept as a curio.
Harold Povenmire, a widely respected South Florida meteorite buff, and Dr. Glen Huss, director of the American Meteorite Lab in Denver, examined pieces of the object and concluded it is an "olivine hypersthene chondrite stony meteorite." Such meteorites are thought to be as old as the solar system, more than 4 billion years. The meteorite has been registered with the British Museum in London as the Grayton Beach Meteorite.
Phil Gibson of Dune Allen and Dr. John Green of Destin made the discovery Oct. 30 while pursuing their hobby of treasure-seeking.
Gibson said he and Green were using metal detectors to scan the undeveloped coastal area just west of Grayton Beach. They were in a depression between dunes, 575 feet from shore, when Gibson detected a large metal object 3 feet beneath the sand.
The two dug through layers of Indian pottery shards before uncovering the rust-colored lump.
Gibson, who has found numerous Indian, Spanish and pirate artifacts along the Gulf Coast, though the object was a conquistador's helmet or possibly a cannonball.
Although a single hammer blow usually breaks the crust off centuries-old Spanish armor, Gibson said his hammer "bounced back past my chin when I hit it."
That was the first clue that they had stumbled upon something odd.
They consulted with scientists in Pensacola who were baffled by the cumbersome object. The scientists suggested Gibson and Green mail a sample to Povenmire, who runs a meteorite tracking network in Melbourne.
A cigarette pack-size piece was sent off. Two days later Gibson received confirmation that the object was an extraordinarily old, hunk of out-of-this-world metal.
Povenmire traveled to Destin last week to verify the find, examine the site where it was unearthed and confer with Gibson, Green and three geology professors at the University of West Florida.
He also mailed part of his sample to Huss in Denver, who acknowledged it was a chondrite stony meteorite.
Huss said the dimpled chunk of nickel, iron, olivine and other minerals is a rare find for Florida because it is so well preserved. Salt water tends to erode highly metallic meteorites, he said, often reducing them to splotches of discolored sand over the course of a few hundred years.
The excellent condition of the Grayton Beach find has led experts to guess the meteorite crashed to Earth elsewhere, was recovered by Indians hundreds - or thousands - of years ago and left at the spot where Gibson and Green eventually found it.
Povenmire agrees with Huss on that point. Since the meteorite was found in a midden site - an ancient Indian trash heap - Povenmire thinks local Indians may have grown weary the curio and discarded it.
Although Gulf coast Indians often heated rocks and clay balls to cook with and warm their mud-and-reed huts in the winter, Povenmire said the Grayton Beach Meteorite shows no signs of heating other than by entry into Earth's atmosphere.
He estimated that 20-30 percent of the meteorite' mass disintegrated during its fiery descent.
Yulee Lazarus, curator of the Fort Walton Beach Indian Temple Mound Museum, said pottery shards and other Indian artifacts found in the Grayton Beach area are 400-4,000 years old.
Lazarus said she would have to examine shards from the depth at which the meteorite was found to determine how long it had been there.
Although there is no mention in local Indian mythology of objects falling from the sky, Lazarus said the oral history of Central and South Florida Indian cultures contains references to "people going to the heavens and sending things back down." As for Povenmire's theory that the meteorite was a trade item, Lazarus said local Indians had an active exchange with tribes as far north as the Great Lakes.
Copper and other metal objects from that region have been found among local midden sites, and Gulf Coast shells frequently are found among Great Lakes artifacts.
Povenmire, author of a book titled "Fireballs, Meteors and Meteorites," said the Grayton Beach Meteorite is the second largest ever found in Florida and the third largest recovered in the Southeast.
The largest meteorite found in the Southeast was a 92.4-pounder unearthed at Bonita Springs, Fla., in 1932. The second largest was a 64-pounder discovered in Ider, Ala., in 1957.
Gibson and Green say they hope to eventually place the meteorite on display in a museum, either a local one or a larger institution elsewhere.
They already have been approached by a collector who wanted to buy the meteorite, but the weekend treasure-hunters say they are reluctant to part with their once-in-a-lifetime find.