Is the Chaco Canyon Rock Art a Star Map Showing SN 1054?

Richard L. Dieterle

It has been suggested that Chaco Canyon (in New Mexico) contains a star map showing the famous supernova explosion in 1054 (SN 1054) of the star that became the Crab Nebula. This is actually very easy to refute. The left-most panel shows the rock art in question, with the rayed design, which looks like, and probably is, a picture of a star, and which ex hypothesi represents SN 1054. The crescent, naturally, is the moon in that phase of the month. The hand is unknown, but has been compared to the Hand Constellation of the upper plains, which is a representation of most of Orion.

The Chaco Canyon Rock Art
Sunrise, July 4, 1054
The Inverted Representation, Sunrise, July 5, 1054

The first and most conspicuous anomaly is the position of the moon. There is in fact no occurrence of the crescent moon with its horns pointing downward. In the second panel, the stars at sunrise, July 4, 1054, when the supernova was first seen as a conspicuous star, are superimposed over the rock art image and adjusted in size so that SN 1054 is positioned in the center of the stellar depiction, and the moon of that morning is placed over the painting of the crescent moon. This is effected using the astronomy program Starry Night Software, The first thing to note is that the depiction of the moon is grossly out of proportion to what a representation to scale ought to be. On a map, one would expect scale to be appreciated, although in partly digital maps, this is not always the case. As can be appreciated, any two depictions whatever can have a particular set of two celestial objects superimposed upon them. The question becomes, given an hypothesis about the identity of two of them, with a set of three such objects, can stars be superimposed upon all of them? In this case, we see that if the stellar painting and the lunar painting are given the values of the Crab Nebula and the moon respectively, the result is that the third object, the hand, contains no stars at all. Adjusting the position of the moon on its painting does no good at all, leaving us to conclude that if the hand represents an asterism, then the scene depicted at Chaco Canyon is not a map of the lay of the stars and moon during the supernova of 1054. If the hand represents the Orion constellation, as some have suggested, then the depiction may be inverted. The third panel shows this situation. In order to get the moon to the right side of the Crab Nebula in an inverted perspective, it is necessary to wait a day (to July 5, 1054) for the moon to pass by the nebula. In the inverted depiction, the nearest Orion star is Betelgeuse, but the core of Orion is off the map, and what's more, once again no stars fall within the hand. So this scheme does not work either. Therefore, this piece of rock art at Chaco Canyon is not a map showing the supernova of 1054 (now the Crab Nebula).

However, this does not preclude its being a star map. The next most likely candidate for the star painting is Morning Star (Venus). The left-most panel shows June 21, 1066, when Morning Star aligns with the radial image, the moon aligns with the crescent, and the Pleiades align with the hand.

June 21, 1066
June 20, 1066
June 8, 1154

In this case, we find that the hand corresponds with the Pleiades. This is not a common image for the Pleiades, although Cowan suggests, "To the Maricopa there is an unnamed star group (the Pleiades?) that represents a hand print." [1] The Maricopa live on the Gila River in southern Arizona, and so are not completely out of the picture. As with the moon, the hand too, however, is out of proportion. Yet it can be said that if the value assignments are accepted, that the Chaco Canyon rock art could be a map of the relative positions of the Morning Star, moon, and the Pleiades. It has also been suggested that the various white marks in the scene represent rabbit tracks. The rabbit is identified with the moon, so a set of tracks ought to represent the path of the moon. Under the present interpretation, the rabbit tracks might indeed represent at least roughly where the moon tends to "walk". The second panel shows where the moon came from the night before. Its trajectory, which I called the "low path", is consistent with the position of some of the rabbit tracks. The low path of the moon corresponds to the minor standstill of the moon, when the moon transits lower than the ecliptic. The ecliptic passes between the Pleiades and the Hyades, and the moon may enter the Hyades on its low path. Its high path represents the major standstill of the moon in its 18.6 year lunar precession. This follows 9.3 years after the minor standstill. In the major standstill, the moon transits higher than the ecliptic. On its high path (major standstill), it may pass slightly above the Pleiades. Its position on such a high path is shown in the third panel. This would explain the rabbit tracks found above the hand, perhaps not a proper map set out in spatial proportion, but a representation designed to show that the moon travels occasionally above the Pleiades.

Nevertheless, the point of making such a star map remains obscure, and the lack of more painted elements makes it altogether too easy to fit celestial objects into the scheme.


[1] Thaddeus M. Cowan, "Effigy Mounds and Stellar Representation: A Comparison of Old World and New World Alignment Schemes," in Archaeoastronomy in Pre-Columbian America, ed. Anthony F. Aveni (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975) 217-235 [221].