Really! – Did the artist have a Tardis?

Those who read the occasional bursts of autobiographical information that appear here on the blog might be aware that I went to university at the tender age of eighteen as an archaeology student. I actually dropped out after one year but continued to work as a professional field archaeologist (that’s a digger to you mate) for several years. Given that I was already interested in the history of astronomy in those days and would eventually abandon archaeology for it, it would seem logical that I would be interested in archaeoastronomy, in particular because I studied under Richard Atkinson who together with Stuart Piggott carried out the first extensive, modern excavation of Stonehenge, the world’s most famous archaeoastronomical monument, in the 1950s. In fact my father also worked on that excavation. This assumption would be correct with reservations. There has been some excellent work in archaeoastronomy but unfortunately there has also been a large amount of highly dubious speculation on the topic.

In my opinion an example of the latter appeared in articles in The Guardian and on the Hyperallergic website a couple of days ago. The Guardian article was entitled, Two suns? No, it’s a supernova drawn 6,000 years ago, say scientists. This article tells us:

For decades, stone carvings unearthed in the Himalayan territory of Kashmir were thought to depict a hunting scene. But the presence of two celestial objects in the drawings has piqued the interest of a group of Indian astronomers.


Source: The Guardian

They have proposed another theory. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of History of Science, the Kashmir rock drawings may be the oldest depiction of a supernova, the final explosion of a dying star, ever discovered.

 “Our first argument was, there cannot be two suns,” Vahia said. “We thought it must have been an object that appeared and attracted the attention of the artists.”

 They settled on Supernova HB9, a star that exploded around 4,600BC.

Rewinding the map of the sky back that far revealed more clues.

Viewed from Kashmir, the supernova would have occurred somewhere near the Orion constellation. “Which is known as the scene of a hunter,” said Vahia.

“The supernova also went off just above the constellation of Taurus, the bull, which is also seen in the drawing,” Vahia added.


Source: The Guardian

So to summarise a group of astrophysicists decide that the rock drawing depicts a supernova from around 4,600 BCE that was visible in the sky in the area of the constellations Orion the hunter and Taurus the bull, which according to the researchers are also depicted in the drawing. It is by the latter claim that my bullshit detectors went off at full volume. I will explain.

The chosen supernova occurred in 4600 BCE, now I’m not an expert on prehistoric Indian asterisms, I don’t even know anybody who is, but I do know something about the Babylonian and ancient Greek ones. Taurus is indeed one of the oldest known asterisms but the earliest known mention of a bull asterism is in the Sumerian record, the Heaven’s Bull, in the third millennium BCE, that’s a couple of thousand years after the chosen supernova. Even worse it is not known whether the Sumerian asterism is the same one as the later Babylonian/Greek asterism Taurus. With Orion we have even more problems. The Sumerian asterism involving the stars of Orion was a sheep. For the ancient Egyptians the stars depicted their god Osiris. It was first the Greeks who created the asterism Orion although some mythologists see Orion as a representation of the Sumerian King Gilgamesh, who also fought a bull. This is of course highly speculative.

So we have astrophysicists identifying a rock drawing in India that is dated to the fifth millennium BCE with the constellations of Orion fighting Taurus, asterisms which don’t appear to have been identified till several thousand years later. Excuse me if I am somewhat sceptical about this identification. Just as a minor point I don’t think that the animal in the drawing actually looks like a bull, more like a stag in my opinion.






Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Really! – Did the artist have a Tardis?

  1. And if you were trying to depict a particularly significant hunt you might want to find a way of recording the passage of time. Two suns could do that very well although even then the meaning could be ambiguous from our perspective. Perhaps a few hours passed from sunrise or maybe two days?

  2. Ha. I wondered pretty well the same thing. Sadly it looks from the original paper ( that it is all completely hand-wavy.
    This looks to me like Indian Nationalism: they want to have the first report of a supernova rather than those pesky Chinese.

  3. Jacob Kanev

    That error is so glaring, I wonder how it got past the Guardian’s editor.
    That said, the whole thing is actually an interesting thought if you read it differently:
    (1) Suppose the Himalayan artists really depicted a supernova in that image (which is speculative).
    (2) Lets also suppose the people living there at the time grouped asterisms into constellations and gave them names (other folks throughout the history did the same thing, so this is a bit more plausible).
    (3) Lets suppose the image depicts a part of the sky (also very speculative).
    Then the supernova would help us locate the scene in the sky, and the animals would show us what the Himalayan constellations where called. Two highly speculative guesses and a more plausible one still lead to a very speculative conclusion, but the thought is interesting. The asterism that’s called Taurus today is the thing that looks most like a stag’s antlers between the place of the supernova and the path of the sun.

    • Jacob Kanev

      Actually, reading the original paper (thank you William Connolley for the link), the authors say more or less the same thing. They never say the constellation is a bull, they assume it is a stag. So the error was made by the Guardian author.

  4. Jacob Kanev

    Good point. The authors claim to have used some sky plotting software, having set the date back to the time of the supernova. I haven’t checked whether their chart (which does show the asterism) is a picture of the sky on that date, or whether they just pasted the drawing onto a star chart showing today’s sky.

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