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!
See if you can guess the name of this feature
Watching this mesa melt away
Why take pictures of Monument Valley? Someone’s taken better pictures of it. Why take pictures on vacation at all? To show someone else how incredible it is? In a way I felt dumb driving around, stopping, taking pictures. The park is really geared towards taking pictures, even steering you to particular viewpoints (“John Ford’s Point” for example). You become part of a parade of people taking pictures. It gets to feel kinda silly. Aren’t I taking myself out of the moment of experience when I snap away? Couldn’t there be some more meaningful or meditative way to experience this?
When you see something staggering, there’s a need to engage somehow, to do something to mark the occasion, and I guess taking pictures can be an act of acknowledgement.
The act of taking the pictures, too, framing them and composing them, can help you focus on what it is, exactly, that’s giving you the emotion. Hemingway:
Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exact it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you that emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion, what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had. Thatʼs a five finger exercise.
Similarly, while the landscapes that I have photographed in Yosemite are recognized by most people and, of course, the subject is an important part of the pictures, they are not “realistic.” Instead, they are an imprint of my visualization. All of my pictures are optically very accurate–I use pretty good lenses–but they are quite unrealistic in terms of values. A more realistic simple snapshot captures the image but misses everything else. I want a picture to reflect not only the forms but what I had seen and felt at the moment of exposure.
Looking at my photos later maybe what I was chasing was how the fallen snow revealed the depths of the landscape. Where snow had fallen, where it had stayed, where it was melting. And the way the shadows moved, making a movie out of time, light, place.
Snow, water, mud, sand, rock. Different degrees of permanent but all of it in a process of melting away.
Monument Valley is so epic it feels “timeless” but you are watching temporary freak abnormalities wash and erode back to dust.
Spontaneous Helytimes Travel Prize to The View Hotel, a Navajo-owned property with a one of the best in all planet Earth location. Look at how the building is set into the landscape.
(Note to readers with mild to severe alcohol dependency: there is no alcohol served at the hotel.)
WARNING in three photos there will be a photo of a dead horse
Thom Cole in the Santa Fe New Mexican reports one. Governor Susanna Martinez was given a necklace that ended up at the state museum. Who owns it?
As long as it’s not connected to any act by that official.
A stressful New Year’s Eve:
I made the mistake of looking directly at the sunset in Santa Fe, which is intense. It really did look like the New Mexico state flag:
LAWN ON THE ROOF IS ONE OF SEVERAL UNUSUAL ASPECTS OF THIS EXPERIMENTAL HOUSE BUILT NEAR TAOS, NEW MEXICO, USING EMPTY STEEL BEER AND SOFT DRINK CANS
says the National Archive.
Michael Reynolds would make bricks out of cans.
“More cans dude?”
Getting the cans seems like the fun part.
Here’s a 2014 Business Insider article by Christina Sterbenz about him.