The Supernova pictographPosted: January 22, 2020 Filed under: art history, New Mexico Leave a comment
Regular readers of this website will know I’ve expressed some reservations about whether the Peñasco Blanco pictograph actually depicts a supernova from the year 1054 AD. It’s an exciting theory. For background, here’s what Timothy Pauketat has to say about it in his excellent book on Cahokia:
On that morning, recorded by a Chinese astrologer as July 4, a brilliant new luminary appeared in the sky. It was a “guest star,” a supernova, a visitor in the constellation Taurus, visible today with a high-powered telescope as the Crab Nebula. One of only fifty supernovas ever recorded – only three in our own Milky Way galaxy* – this nuclear detonation was the last gasp of a dying star. The inaudible explosion discharged a billion times more energy than the small star had previously emitted, and that morning a brilliant beacon – four times brighter than Venus – appeared in the daylight adjacent to a crescent moon…
Whatever i might have meant to the native peoples, a New Mexican Mimbres valley potter commemorated the celestial event by painting a pot with a star ad the foot of a crescent-shaped rabbit, a representation of the rabbit many indigenous North Americans believed resided in the moon. Ancient rock art in Arizona also appears to illustrate the supernova, as do petrogylphs in Missouri, which show the moon and supernova astride rabbit tracks. And in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a map of the night sky in July 1054 was painted on the sandstone cliffs above a palatial-sized, multi-story Great House called Peñasco Blanco, under construction at about the same time in the middle of the eleventh century. The pictograph shows the exploding star next to a crescent moon and a human hand, the later possibly representing a group of stars still known among Plains Indians today as the Hand constellation. Also in Chaco Canyon, construction began around this time on a massive new kiva, an underground ceremonial building, now called Casa Rinconada, just south of the largest Great House, Pueblo Bonito.
There was a “big bang” culturally in North America around 1000 AD, and it is interesting that around that same time, there were two supernovas, bright new stars in the sky.
Recently I had the opportunity to have a look at the so-called Supernova Pictograph in its location in Chaco Canyon, New Mex. Seeing it myself provoked some thought.
One observation is that there’s a huge amount of rock art in Chaco Canyon. I consider myself kind of a petroglyph enthusiast, but even for a passionate fan, there’s a lot. You’ll actually get pretty bored of looking at petroglyphs. Much of the rock art in the canyon is striking and weird.
Some of it feels pretty crude and amateur, or could be attributed to later visitors.
But the Super-Nova / Peñasco Blanco pictograph really stands out, both in vividness and in the drama of its location.
It’s almost upside down. Was it painted Sistine Chapel style?
The pictoglyph is on what I guess? could be a very old trail, that leads up from Chaco Wash to a mesa where the Peñasco Blanco “great house” sits. The Peñasco Blanco site is huge:
It was three stories tall and had 300 rooms. Construction had begun by the 900s, so before the appearance of the supernovas of the 1000s.
The structure was laid out with some thought to north-south alignment, as most Chaco sites seem to have been. To me it does suggest something like an astronomical theater:
On the day I was there I was the only person around, which is a spooky feeling.
The site reminded me of Irish monastic sites from the same era:
Certainly whoever was hanging around Peñasco Blanco was interested in the sky.
The park service is not shy about identifying this pictoglyph as depicting a super-nova:
Note the sign, bottom right. But I’m just not sure the evidence is there.
Krupp’s investigations have ultimately caused him to dismiss all of the connections between Southwest cave paintings and the Crab supernova. “I am certain that star-crescent combos have absolutely nothing to do with the 1054 A.D. event,” he said. While some may indeed be celestial symbols, “their meaning varies with culture and time.”
from a 2014 Scientific American piece, “‘Supernova’ Cave Art Myth Debunked,” by Clara Moskowitz.
On the other hand:
from a 1979 paper, “The 1054 Supernova and Native American Rock Art,” by Brandt, J. C. & Williamson, R. A. in the Journal for the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy Supplement, Vol. 10, p.S1
There’s no way to reliably date a work like this. Chaco Canyon was occupied or had at least semi-frequent visitors around 1054 AD, and these visitors were absolutely interested in sky events. The dating of the pictograph is usually attributed to nearby pottery shards. You can still find ancient pottery lying around all over the place.
One thing is clear: if these people had a message they wanted to leave for us from one thousand plus years ago, it is “hand – crescent – star.”
A day before visiting this site I had lunch with a friend of mine who works on shooting lasers at rocks on Mars to determine their chemical makeup. We’re still OBSESSED with the sky!