TALLINN - It's kind of an unwritten rule in Estonia - if you want to see something weird, go to the islands. Chalk it up to geographic isolation or the celebrated beer brewing traditions of some islanders, but it's on these outlying patches of land that the nation keeps all the assorted bits that don't fit anywhere else - emu farms, mysterious clusters of stones, allegedly haunted manor houses and villages that appear stuck in time.
One of the most famous of these curiosities is the Kaali meteor crater site on Estonia's largest island, Saaremaa, 18km from its capital Kuressaare.
Now resembling a small, round lake, the main crater was formed sometime between 7,500 and 4,000 years ago when a 20-80 ton iron meteorite slammed into the Earth, carving out a hole 110m across. Pieces also broke off the meteor as it entered the atmosphere, spraying the land like a shotgun blast and creating eight smaller craters nearby.
By itself this cluster of meteorite craters is already interesting enough to attract thousands of curious visitors each summer, but let's remember that this is an Estonian island phenomenon, so the X-Files factor gets cranked up a few notches. To the site's resume we can also add pagan worship, ritual animal sacrifice, appearances in the Finnish national epic, the possible origin of Jaanipaev traditions and connections to a former Estonian president.
With a track record like this, it's no wonder the site's popularity as a tourist destination shows no sign of waning. On June 17, a brand new, 9 million kroon (575,000 euro) visitor center was inaugurated in Kaali to help provide for the hoards of visitors who flock here during the high season.
Tuuli Partel, Project Leader of the non-profit organization that runs the center, isn't surprised that she and other employees in Kaali find themselves working 12 to 16-hour shifts.
"Scientists say that this is the most attractive crater in Eurasia. Here you can see the main crater and little craters all together, and see how the meteorite came down," she said.
Apart from its museum of meteoritics and limestone, the 700 square-meter wood and dolomite facility features a souvenir shop, a food shop, a 60-person conference hall, a 10-room guesthouse and that most vital of Estonian creature comforts: wireless internet access.
Despite all this public attention, the new high-tech facility and nearly a century of intense scientific scrutiny, there are many secrets that Kaali still isn't giving up, and it's those unknowns that make this place truly mysterious.
Scientists are fairly sure they know how this story began: a meteor initially weighing some 400 - 10,000 tons sped in from the northeast moving 15 - 45 kilometers per second and entered the Earth's atmosphere at a 45-degree angle. After turning into a fireball and losing most of its mass, the meteor broke apart about 5 - 10 kilometers from the surface, then hit Saaremaa with a force that has been compared to that of a small atomic blast.
What they still can't tell us is when this all happened. The evidence, at least for now, points in two different directions.
"We usually give two dates - '4,000 years' and 'older'," said Reet Tiirmaa, a geologist with Tallinn Technological University who specializes in meteors.
"The age of the sediments of the lake in the main crater tell us that the [impact] was almost 4,000 years ago. But now we've studied the peat of the [nearby] swamp and in one layer we found very small impact spheres from the explosion. This layer was 7,500 years old, which says that the impact was 7,500 years ago," she said.
Research continues, but the age contradiction shows no sign of being resolved. Scientists from France, Poland and Hungary have brought in more advanced testing equipment, but they're having the same problems, according to Tiirmaa.
Nor is this the first headache that Kaali has caused for investigators. In 1927, the site's pioneer researcher, Ivan Reinwald, found evidence that the craters were meteoric in origin, but it took him an entire decade to find the first fragments of the actual meteor to prove it.
While geologists are working on the question of when the meteor hit, archaeologists are trying to interpret the oddities they've dug up at the site. Excavations begun in the 1970s have uncovered many interesting things: remains of a 470 meter wall that surrounded the crater during the early iron age (600 BC to AD 100), evidence of a fortified settlement inhabited from the 5th to 7th century BC, a small hoard of silver jewelry from the 3rd to 5th centuries AD, and piles of domestic animal bones, some dating to as late as the 17th century.
The wall, the silver and the bones have led to speculation that centuries after the catastrophic explosion took place, the crater took on the role of a pagan worship site. The practice of sacrificing animals to ensure a good harvest was known to have continued on Saaremaa well into Christian times, despite condemnation from the church.
The local geographical labels add fuel to this pagan worship argument. Lake Kaali, the small lake formed by the crater, is said to have been originally called "Holy Lake" in Estonian, and the nearby forest is still called Puhamets, which means "Sacred Forest." It's, therefore, no stretch of logic to assume that Kaali was a place of spiritual significance, whether or not it was connected with ancient tales of a fireball in the sky.
Stuff of legend
It was precisely this kind of connection to ancient tales that interested Lennart Meri. Long before he became president of Estonia (1992 - 2000), the ethnographer found what he considered to be echoes of the Kaali meteorite event in the Baltic region's oral folk tradition, in particular, the Finnish national epic, Kalevala.
"Rune 47" contains numerous accounts of the child of the sun falling from the sky that could easily double as poetic accounts of a large meteor impact. "Downward quick the red-ball rushes, / Shoots across the arch of heaven, / Hisses through the startled cloudlets, / Flashes through the troubled welkin, / Through nine starry vaults of etherâ€¦," goes one such passage.
In his book "Hobevalge" (Silver White, 1976), Meri not only puts forth the theory that the Kaali impact appears in the Kalevala but also suggests that the Baltic Jaanipaev (Midsummer) bonfire traditions are a reenactment of the event.
Other, more far-fetched theories have cropped up connecting just about every European national epic to the event. Speculation even goes so far as to suggest that the Golden Fleece of the Argonauts was actually in Lake Kaali, pointing out that 3,000 years ago the land on Saaremaa was 10 meters lower, hence it would have been possible to navigate a ship here from the Black Sea.
It's unlikely that any of these theories will ever be proven one way or the other. Still, it's amusing to think that as we sit around our bonfires each June grilling shashlyk and drinking beer that we might actually be worshiping an ancient hunk of space rock.
That particular pleasure will have to wait another year. In the meantime, visitors can drop by the Kaali Visitor Center every day from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.. Admission to the museum costs 25 kroons (1.60 euros). Visiting the crater itself, and speculating on its impact on ancient Baltic culture, is absolutely free.