Supernova Pictograph, Chaco Canyon

Supernova Pictograph, Chaco Canyon

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Lighthearted Travel

There is a rhythm to a road trip and we have found it. After ten days exploring, from Oregon into Idaho and Utah, the desert landscape is a new palette of red and burnt orange, dotted with pinyon and juniper. It is still early spring in the Four Corners Region of the American Southwest, and the cottonwoods along the riparian slopes are just beginning to be fringed in yellow. There is rabbit brush, yucca, sagebrush, wild petunia. From the open car window, I hear the calls of chickadees. Passing through the Vermillion Cliffs, into Bryce Canyon, Utah, at an elevation of 9,000 feet, the quaking aspen are turning golden now. We see the occasional bristlecone pine, ancient and parched with roots exposed like veins on the hands of an old woman.

After the crowds in Bryce, Arches National Park, and even at Mesa Verde, Colorado, where the Anasazi–often called Ancient Puebloans–built cities high into the walls of the canyons in places accessible only by ladders and footholds carved into rock face a thousand feet above the valley floor, we are hungry for more stillness.

When you want more stillness than the wind and the raven, you know you are ready for Chaco Canyon.

Coming from the north into northwestern New Mexico, the road into the canyon includes about eight miles of paved road and more than 13 miles of washboard gravel so rough that no buses or RVs can travel it. There are Navajo hogans along the way we are on tribal land. By 6:45 p.m., we find a campsite by good luck only–there are very few–and settle in on camp chairs to look at the sky.

Chaco Canyon’s night sky is well known. In May, 1998, the National Park Service dedicated the Chaco Observatory, helping to strengthen the connection of the modern world to the Chacoan people of centuries ago. The night sky, clear and brilliant, undefiled by any light pollution, helps explain how one of the world’s best known pictographs, the Supernova Pictograph, could be created by ancient peoples enthralled by the world they saw in the sky. Everything in Chaco, the great Kivas, the way the roads are designed, all take the heavens into account. No one knows for sure why the Chacoans died out, but one thing is known: they left ruins indicating that this was a significant crossroads of travel and commerce between the peoples of the region.

The next morning, we take the eight-mile hike, easy except for the river crossing, along Penasco Blanco and the Supernova Pictograph Trail. Along the trail we see petroglyphs, actual carvings into the rock walls, which are different from pictographs, basically paintings on the rock. It is a surprise to come to the actual pictograph, because it is about 20 feet up under a ledge, accented by pouch-shaped cliff swallow nests. How did the artist, or artists, do it?

The four symbols of the pictograph grouping are light red, made from an animal fat dye, something that wouldn’t fade over the centuries like plant dyes. There is a crescent moon, a star-like symbol, a concentric circle (the symbol for sun-watching), and a hand–a child-like, pure and remarkable hand with fingers spread wide. Scholars estimate that the paintings were created in 1054, concurrent with historical reports in China and India of a supernova explosion in Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus. For perspective, our own sun is too small to create a supernova. This would have been a monumental celestial event. I can only sit in awe of the minds of those who saw their sky transformed–maybe they thought the world was coming to an end–and created a picture on the rock as if to say: I was here and I saw this.

The Crab Nebula was an exploding star

The Crab Nebula is a cloud of gas and debris rushing outward from a great stellar explosion seen a thousand years ago by earthly skywatchers. The Hubble image above shows intricate filimentary structure in the expanding debris cloud. Color and contrast are enhanced to show detail. Image via NASA/ESA/J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University).

The Crab Nebula is so named because, as seen through a telescope with the human eye, it appears vaguely like a crab. In reality, it’s a vast, outwardly rushing cloud of gas and debris: the scattered fragments of a supernova, or exploding star. Earthly skywatchers saw a “guest” star in the constellation Taurus in July of 1054 A.D. Today, we know this was the supernova. The estimated distance to what’s left of this star – the Crab Nebula – is about 6,500 light-years. So the progenitor star must have blown up some 7,500 years ago.

Anasazi pictograph possibly depicting the Crab Nebula supernova in 1054 A.D. Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

History of the Crab Nebula. On July 4, in the year 1054 A.D., Chinese astronomers noticed a bright “guest” star near Tianguan, a star we now call Zeta Tauri in the constellation of the Taurus the Bull. Although the historical records are not precise, the bright new star likely outshone Venus, and for a while was the third-brightest object in the sky, after the sun and moon.

It shone in the daylight sky for several weeks, and was visible at night for nearly two years before fading from view.

It is likely that skywatchers of the Anasazi People in the American Southwest also viewed the bright new star in 1054. Historic research shows that a crescent moon was visible in the sky very near the new star on the morning of July 5, the day following the observations by the Chinese. The pictograph above, from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, is believed to depict the event. The multi-spiked star to the left represents the supernova near the crescent moon. The handprint above may signify the importance of the event, or may be the artist’s “signature.”

From June or July 1056, the object was not seen again until 1731, when an observation of the now quite faint nebulosity was recorded by English amateur astronomer John Bevis. However, the object was rediscovered by French comet-hunter Charles Messier in 1758, and it soon became the first object in his catalog of objects not to be confused with comets, now known as the Messier Catalog. Thus, the Crab Nebula is often referred to as M1.

In 1844, astronomer William Parsons, better known as the third Earl of Rosse, observed M1 through his large telescope in Ireland. He described it as having a shape resembling a crab, and since then M1 has been more commonly called the Crab Nebula.

However, it was not until the 20th century that the association with Chinese records of the 1054 “guest” star was discovered.

View larger. | The Crab Nebula is located among some of the brightest stars and easiest-to-identify constellations in the heavens. Best placed for evening observing from late fall through early spring, the Crab can be spotted very near the star Zeta Tauri. This chart courtesy of Stellarium.

How to see the Crab Nebula. This beautiful nebula is relatively easy to locate due to its location near a bevy of bright stars and recognizable constellations. Although it can be seen at some time of night all year except from roughly May through July when the sun appears too close, the best observing comes from late fall through early spring.

To find the Crab Nebula, first draw an imaginary line from bright Betelgeuse in Orion to Capella in Auriga. About halfway along that line you will find the star Beta Tauri (or Elnath) on the Taurus-Auriga border.

Having identified Beta Tauri, backtrack a little more than a third of the way back to Betelgeuse and you should find the fainter star Zeta Tauri easily. Scanning the area around Zeta Tauri should reveal a tiny, faint smudge. It is located about a degree from the star (that’s about twice the width of a full moon) more or less in the direction of Beta Tauri.

Binoculars and small telescopes are useful for finding the object and showing its roughly oblong shape, but are not powerful enough to show the filimentary structure or any of its internal detail.

Simulated view of Zeta Tauri and Crab Nebula in a 7-degree field of view. Chart based on a screen save from Stellarium.

The first eyepiece view, above, simulates a 7-degree field of view centered around Zeta Tauri, approximately what might be expected with a 7 X 50 pair of binoculars. Of course, the exact orientation and visibility will range widely depending on time of observation, sky conditions and so on. Scan around Zeta Tauri for the faint nebulosity.

Simulated view of Zeta Tauri and Crab Nebula with 3.5-degree field of view. Chart based on a screen save from Stellarium.

The second image, above, simulates an approximately 3.5-degree view, as might be expected with a small telescope or finder scope. To give you a clear idea of scale, two full moons would fit with room to spare in the space between Zeta Tauri and the Crab Nebula here.

Keep in mind that exact conditions will vary.

Science of the Crab Nebula. The Crab Nebula is the remnant of a massive star that self-destructed in an enormous supernova explosion. This is known as a Type II supernova, a typical result for stars at least eight times more massive than our sun. Astronomers have determined this through several types of evidence and reasoning including the following points.

First, the bright new or “guest” star seen by Asian astronomers and others in 1054, just as would be expected of an exploding star.

Second, the Crab Nebula has been located in the location indicated by ancient records as being where the “guest” star was seen.

Third, the Crab Nebula has been shown to be expanding outward, precisely as the debris cloud from a supernova would.

Fourth, spectroscopic analysis of the gases of the cloud is consistent with formation through a Type II supernova rather than other means.

Fifth, a pulsing neutron star, a typical product of Type II supernova explosions, has been found embedded in the cloud.

The lifetime of a massive star is complicated, especially near the end. Through its lifetime, its enormous mass provides enough gravity to contain the outward push of nuclear reactions in its core. This is called thermodynamic equilibrium.

However, near the end, there is not enough nuclear fuel to produce the outward pressure to hold back the crushing force of gravity. At a certain point, the star suddenly collapses violently, the inward force squeezing the core to unimaginable densities. Either a neutron star or a black hole can be formed. In this case, the electrons in the core were pressed into the protons, forming neutrons and squeezing the core into a tiny, dense and rapidly rotating ball of neutrons called a neutron star. Sometimes, as in this case, the neutron star can pulsate in radio waves, making it a “pulsar.”

While the core is squeezed into a neutron star, the outer portions of the star bounce off and spread into space, forming a great cloud of debris, complete with common ingredients such as hydrogen and helium, cosmic dust, and elements produced only in supernova explosions.

The center of the Crab Nebula is approximately RA: 5° 34′ 32″, dec: +22° 1′

Bottom line: How to locate the Crab Nebula, plus history and science surrounding this fascinating region of the night sky.


Casa Rinconada / Photo by Charles M. Sauer, Wikimedia Commons

Some parties have advanced the theory that at least 12 of the 14 principal Chacoan complexes were sited and aligned in coordination, and that each was oriented along axes that mirrored the passing of the Sun and Moon at visually pivotal times. The first great house known to evince fastidious proportioning and alignment was Casa Rinconada: the twinned “T”-shaped portals of its 10-metre (33 ft) radius great kiva were north-south collinear, and axes joining opposing windows passed within 10 centimetres (4 in) of its center. [1] The great houses of Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl were found by the “Solstice Project” and the U.S. National Geodetic Survey to be sited along a precisely east-west line, an axis that captures the passage of the equinox sun. The lines perpendicularly bisecting their principal walls are aligned north-south, implying a possible intent to mirror the equinox midday. Pueblo Alto and Tsin Kletsin are also north-south aligned. These two axes form an inverted cross when viewed from above its northbound reach is extended another 35 miles (56 km) past Pueblo Alto by the ramrod-straight Great North Road, a pilgrimage route that modern-day Pueblo Indians believe to be an allusion to myths surrounding their arrival from the distant north. [2]

Pueblo Pintado, an outlying Chacoan great house. / Photo by HJPD, Wikimedia Commons

Two shared-latitude but diametrically opposed complexes, Pueblo Pintado and Kin Bineola, are located some 15 miles (24 km) from the core buildings of the central canyon. Each lies on a path from the central canyon that is collinear with the passage and setting of the full mid-winter “minimum moon”, which recurs every 18.6 years. [6] Two other complexes that are less distant from Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida and Peñasco Blanco, share an axis collinear with the passage of the full “maximum moon”. The terms “minimum” and “maximum” refer to the azimuthal extreme points in the lunar excursion cycle, or the swings in direction relative to true north that the setting full moon exhibits. It takes roughly 9.25 years for the rising or setting full moon nearest to winter solstice to proceed from its maximum azimuthal north, or “maximum extremum”, to its southernmost azimuth, known as “minimum extremum”. [2]

George P.A. Healy (G.P.A. Healy)

Healy was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the eldest of five children of an Irish captain in the merchant marine. Having been left fatherless at a young age, Healy helped to support his mother. At sixteen years of age he began drawing, and at developed an ambition to be an artist. Jane Stuart, daughter of Gilbert Stuart, aided him, loaning him a Guido’s “Ecce Homo”, which he copied in color and sold to a country priest. Later, she introduced him to Thomas Sully, by whose advice Healy profited, and gratefully repaid Sully in the days of the latter’s adversity.

so far as I know no relation, there are plenty of Healys and Helys from here to Australia.

He painted Tyler

He’s got a few that have appeared in the White House, like this one, The Peacemakers.

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Author Biography

E. C. Krupp, Griffith Observatory

E C Krupp is an astronomer and has been Director of Griffith Observatory, in Los Angeles, since 1974. He led the recent $93-million Observatory renovation and expansion. He is the prizewinning author of five books, including Echoes of the Ancient Skies: The Astronomy of Lost Civilizations (Dover Publications, 2003) and Skywatchers, Shaman & Kings: Astronomy and the Archaeology of Power (Wiley, 1999) dozens of research papers, and hundreds of articles on cultural dimensions of astronomy. He has visited nearly 2000 ancient and prehistoric sites around the world.

It’s said that the Supernova Pictograph on Penasco Blanco trail might represent the supernova, that created the Crab Nebula. The pictograph would be hard to spot without a sign. It’s directly above you on a small rock ledge. A star, &hellip Continue reading &rarr

This past weekend I got to do two things I’ve been wanting to do for a long time now: try night sky photography and return to Chaco Canyon. Driving through the night and staying awake the next day was rough &hellip Continue reading &rarr

THE WRITING ON THE WALL The Southwest: Mysterious and beautiful, the ancient petroglyphs and pictographs etched on canyons throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada speak to the eye and the soul.

In the shade of a canyon wall, etched into the rock, is the unmistakable figure of a pronghorn antelope, frozen in time. A lizard, eternally crawling up the wall. And a hunter, arrow notched into his bow, forever ready to let it fly but never quite letting go. The centuries-old rock-art drawings across the Southwest are more than just prehistoric graffiti, archaeologists believe: They tell us stories and reveal the religious beliefs, history, fears and triumphs of the people who incised them. Pecked in stone, these images intrigue, fascinate and often mystify us.

Many of the petroglyphs and pictographs spattered on sheltered canyon walls throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada are easily accessible to the traveler with a fondness for history spiced with mystery. Petroglyphs, the more common rock art found in this part of the country, are pictures scratched or chipped into rock. They stand out in red, gray or white stone covered with a naturally occurring dark patina that's often called "desert varnish." Pictograph is the broader term for all rock art, and more specifically for painted images, says Sabra Moore, an artist and author of "Petroglyphs: Ancient Language/Sacred Art." Moore traveled all over the Southwest to view the most significant rock-art sites for her book.

Rock art may be too dismissive a term, says Will Morris, a site interpreter at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. "It's art, but it's not really art as we think of it today. It isn't just there for decoration," he says.

Most archaeologists believe the purpose of rock art was not decorative, but informative (marking trails, showing where to find water, or as calendars), religious (honoring sacred spots, offering prayers) and territorial (no trespassing).

Most of the petroglyphs throughout the Southwest were done by ancestral Pueblo people (formerly called Anasazi) and other Southwestern tribal groups in northern Colorado, they were done by the prehistoric Fremont people.

"They're all over the place, and you can walk right past them without seeing them," says Meg Van Ness, an archaeologist with the Colorado Historical Society. "It depends on the time of day, and how the light hits them. They can appear or disappear."

Common images on Southwestern petroglyphs include animals, from snakes and lizards to bighorn sheep and deer.

The most common figure found from Mesa Verde to southern Arizona is Kokopelli, sometimes playing a flute, sometimes humpbacked as if carrying a pack. Most anthropologists think he represents the traveling trader, says Tammy Stone, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Denver and author of a new book, "The Prehistory of Colorado and Adjacent Areas."

Stone says there are marked similarities among the petroglyphs of the Southwest, and marked differences with those found farther north, which differ in style and subject matter. The northern Fremont petroglyphs tend to be realistic the Southwestern images include more abstract shapes, with some mythical and anthropomorphic figures.

But all tend to convey the culture of the times. Some are decidedly connected to specific events -- few scientists doubt that the huge sunburst in Chaco Canyon represents anything but the supernova (a rare, extremely bright star activity easily seen from Earth) that happened in 1054, Moore says in her book. Snakes, found all over this arid land, represent where to find water, says Moore. Horned snakes are water gods. Birds flying into the sky, often into clouds, may represent prayers for rain. Moore doesn't think the images represent writing. "That's an assumption made by a literate culture about a nonliterate one," she says. Although they are not writing, they are intended as communication. Some petroglyphs are undoubtedly of a sacred nature.

One only has to view the goofy grin on the face of Kokopelli in Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico to know that, says Van Ness. "You just know they were having some fun there," she says. When viewing rock art, don't just look at the drawings themselves, Moore suggests. "Go with open eyes and take time to see where they are . and ask, what is this image trying to tell me about this place? The site is part of the art, part of the meaning."

Visitors often ask park rangers and site interpreters who among the ancient tribes created the petroglyphs. Guesses range from holy men to common folk to storytellers.

And then there's the theory espoused by a ranger at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. She was pretty sure, from the graphic sexuality and from the location, that they were done by teen-age boys who got bored while standing lookout. "She's probably right!" Van Ness says, laughing.

There are various theories as to how the images were etched or painted in some of the places they've been found, such as high up on cliff walls. Perhaps the artists dangled by rope from the cliffs above perhaps they used crude ladders. What seems amazing is that some of this art has remained in its pristine state after 1,000 years or more. The dry climate and inhospitable land have helped protect many sites, Stone says.

"Where they are very accessible, they also have been vandalized," she adds. Some people just can't resist adding their own graffiti to the mix. Petroglyphs all over the Southwest have been defaced, spray-painted, chalked over and shot at. Stewards of these artifacts liken defacing a petroglyph to slashing art in a museum.

Moore thinks it's more than just an impulse to destroy. "Places where [you find] drawings are often places of power. The ancients believed that if you added your drawing, you gained power, too. Although modern graffiti defiles the site, maybe there's some impulse going on there we don't understand. We all have this impulse to leave something that says, 'I was here.' "

Rock art can be found in many public (and some private) places throughout the Southwest. Here are some accessible sites you can drive to, or park and then hike to easily.

Petroglyphs and pictographs are scattered all over the dramatic rocky landscape of southern Utah. They're found in the canyons that line Lake Powell, in Arches, Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef national parks, as well as in Fremont Indian and Goblin Valley state parks, and on the Uintah and Ouray Ute Nation lands near Duchesne. And, if you're into river running, along the walls of Desolation Canyon south of Ouray.

Capitol Reef National Park: Located in southwestern Utah. Petroglyphs don't get much more accessible than the ones lining Utah Highway 24 about a mile east of the visitor center here. There are quite a few large petroglyphs that can be easily viewed from the road, but you aren't allowed to get close or touch them. Admission to the park is $4 a vehicle. Call 435-425-3791.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park: Located in southern Utah and northern Arizona. If you look beyond the spectacular rock formations, you'll also find some interesting rock art. Ask your guide (visitors are encouraged not to explore alone) to show you the painted handprints and other rock art, some of it pretty well hidden. Call 435-727-3287. n Within Monument Valley is Mystery Valley. Puebloan people lived here up until about 600 years ago and left behind a number of pictographs -- hand prints, human figures, antelope and bighorn sheep. The only way to visit the valley is with a Navajo guide, which can be arranged at Goulding's Trading Post. Call 435-727-3231.

Petroglyph National Monument: One of the largest examples of rock art in the Southwest lies on the edge of the city of Albuquerque and features an estimated 10,000-15,000 figures along the wall and on the rocks of the 17-mile canyon. The gray and white drawings on black rock faces were created from 800 to 3,000 years ago and include human and animal figures and numerous abstract symbols, the meanings of which are still being debated. Any local visitor's guide will direct you to the monument, in Boca Negra Canyon. The parking lot is at 4735 Unser Blvd. N.W. Admission is free and a visitor's center offers brochures and information. Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. A small parking fee is charged. Call 505-899-0205.

Bandelier National Monument: Located in northern New Mexico. Along with the fascinating ruins of the Pueblo culture are other remnants of their work in the Long House Ruin. Petroglyphs and pictographs are sheltered, and thus protected, by the sheer cliffs rising above the site. No pets allowed open daylight hours only. Admission is $10 a vehicle. Call 505-672-3861, Ext. 517.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park: Located northwest of Grants. At remote Chaco, the best petroglyphs require a day hike, but some can be viewed near the main loop road that runs through the site. It's best to take a guided tour to orient you to the canyon and its treasures. The visitor center is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (6 p.m. in summer). Admission is $8 a vehicle. No food or gas are available in the park, so have a full tank of gas and bring a picnic lunch. Water is available. Call 505-786-7014 for a recording.

Comanche National Grasslands: South and west of Springfield and east of Trinidad, in the middle of seemingly nowhere. But the grasslands boast several wonderful petroglyph sites. n Vogel Canyon in the northern half of the grasslands, is just off Colorado 109, south of U.S. Highway 50. Take the turnoff in La Junta and watch for the signs. From the parking lot, hike about half a mile on a groomed trail, then follow a cairn-marked trail to a canyon wall filled with rock carvings. Call 719-384-2181. n Picture Canyon, in the southern part of the grasslands, has fewer but quite interesting petroglyphs, including one that looks remarkably like a spaceman! Also look for a spotted woman, and speculate what it might signify. Estimates place this art at about A.D. 0-500, likely done by Plains Indians camping here for the winter. n The rock art also is a short and easy hike from the parking lot. To get a map to the various sites in the grasslands, stop at the Colorado Division of Wildlife ranger station in Springfield. Call 719-523-6591 for Picture Canyon information. n Hicklin Springs Petroglyphs at John Martin Reservoir in Bent County (also southeastern Colorado) also are worth a side trip. What one guidebook calls "a staggering sequence of petroglyphs" represents both prehistoric artists and more recent ones (1870-1900). Hundreds of figures are both typical of those found elsewhere in the Southwest and specific to the region.

Canyon Pintado and Dragon Trail: The Rangely Museum Society, with help from Colorado Northwestern Community College, offers self-guided petroglyph tours here. Representing both the Fremont (A.D. 650-1150) and the Ute (A.D. 1200 to 1880) cultures, they include figures of buffalo, sheep and deer. Tour maps also are available at the Rangely Museum just outside of town. Call 970-675-2612 or 970-675-8476. The petroglyphs at Canyon Pintado are particularly accessible. To get to the canyon, leave Interstate 70 west and take Colorado 139 north over Douglas Pass. The Kokopelli site is right off the highway, marked with a sign. This area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and access is free.

Sandrocks Nature Trail and Petroglyphs: Located near Craig in northwestern Colorado. Carvings in the soft sandstone include hands, paws, lightning, various animals (especially horses), believed done by ancestral Puebloans to Shoshone people over a span of centuries. Call 970-824-5689 for a brochure.

Dinosaur National Monument: Located in northwestern Colorado. Overlapping the Utah border, it contains a number of petroglyph sites. The most accessible are the two sites along Cub Creek Road. You'll get a map when you enter the monument or you can pick one up at the bookstore. Admission is $10 per vehicle. Call 970-374-3000 or 435-789-2115 for general information on the monument.

Mesa Verde National Park: Located in southwestern Colorado. Known more for its ancestral Puebloan ruins than for petroglyphs, it also has a 30- by 10-meter petroglyph panel you shouldn't miss on the way to the well-preserved Spruce Tree House site. This is a moderately strenuous hike taken by few and well worth the exertion. Admission is $10 a vehicle. Call 970-529-4465.

Valley of Fire State Park: Located an hour's drive from Las Vegas. Take a side trip off the main road to Atlatl Rock. Park and climb the metal staircase to view the red petroglyphs etched high into the rock. Ancestral Pueblo Indians lived there from about 300 B.C. to A.D. 1150. The park is open all day, but the petroglyphs face east and are best viewed in the morning light. One can only wonder -- how did they get all the way up there to draw on the rock? Also check out the Petroglyph Canyon Trail, the trailhead being just north of the visitor center. Park and walk the sandy but level half-mile trail through a twisted canyon wallpapered with rock art. Best views are probably midday, when the sun is directly overhead. Admission: $5 per car. Call 702-397-2088.

Rock Art Canyon Ranch: Located near Winslow, Ariz., these are some of the best -- and best preserved -- petroglyphs in the country. It's on private land owned by the Baird family, but you can stop at the ranch, get a cowboy guide and be taken down into Chevelon Canyon. Once down there, you'll find a lovely stream, wildlife, more greenery than you'll see for miles on either side of the spot, and some of the best-preserved pre-Columbian rock art around. The tours are available year-round, except Sundays, but don't try to find the ranch without writing or calling in advance for detailed directions on how to get there. Contact: Brantley Baird, Box 224, Joseph City, Ariz. 86032-9999 or call 520-288-3260.

Painted Desert Wilderness and Petrified Forest National Park: Located north of Interstate 40 and east of Holbrook. Don't miss the famous Newspaper Rock. Look for it on the map you get when you enter the park. It is thought this Puebloan wall of petroglyphs served not only as a record of the past, but as a calendar for those ancient people. And though you can't get close to Newspaper Rock any more, you can see it from the hiking trails at Puerco Pueblo. Admission to the area is $10 a vehicle. Open year-round. Call 520-524-6228.

Though much of it has survived centuries, rock art is very fragile. One reason it has survived so long is that few people have had access to it. Today, overt vandalism includes spray painting and shooting at petroglyphs, but there also are less obvious ways to damage the work.

When you visit: n Don't touch it. Oils from your hands and the constant wear of being touched will deface the drawing. n If you want to record it, photograph it (indirect light and cloudy days offer best results). Don't do rubbings and don't chalk the outline. Both damage the work. n Don't add your own contribution to the site. The art that's there has a meaning and may be sacred to some people. n If you see someone defacing rock art, ask them to stop or report it to a ranger. If no ranger is nearby, get a description of the vandals and the license plate number and make of their car, then report that.

The Supernova of 1054 – My Shot of the Day – March 5, 2014

There really isn’t any elevation change but the four miles to get to the “ Supernova of 1054 ” petroglyph takes you across an open valley bottom of soft sand held in place by rather hard-done-by Four-wing saltbush, sagebrush and cactus. There is some tough grasses out there too, but not much. I say “kind of” because when the wind picks up that sand and dust won’t grip onto anything very well and it swirls into the air in some pretty impressive, if localized, sandstorms.

To the right is a 100-foot tall sandstone cliff laid down in the Late Cretaceous when the valley was in a shallow area of a great inland sea. The sandstone is pocked with ammonites and ancient shrimp burrows and even shark teeth. It’s also painted and carved in wild ancient petroglyphs of animals and beings that no longer exist – or never did.

In the winter the hike is bitter cold. In the summer it’s ridiculously hot. In the spring the wind howls and you’ll rarely see anyone else out there. Two weeks ago when I went back to the Supernova of 1054 petroglyph for the first time in several years, I was all alone. Me…and the wind.

The point is that, by the time you get down the valley, across the dry wash and up under the shade of the sandstone cliff topped with Penasco Blanco you feel like you’ve gone on some extended, rough and satisfying expedition into the middle of nowhere.

And there, tucked up underneath the cliff about five meters up and among a city of swallow nests hangs the petroglyph that MIGHT represent the Supernova of 1054.

Supernova of 1054

Around Midsummer in the year 1054 AD a star located out near Zeta Tauri exploded. Well, actually, it must have

On the way to the supernova

exploded thousands of years before that date but it was on July 4th of that year that the light from the blow out made it the 6,500 light years to our section of the universe. The people on Earth could first see the bright spot in the sky that was the pulsar and nebula formed from the material blasted out of the exploding star. This supernova is classified as SN1054.

The light in the sky was so bright it could be seen even in the middle of the day for nearly a month. Some researchers speculate that the “star” created by the supernova of 1054 was six to ten times brighter than Venus. This new star in the ancient sky lasted for nearly three years before it began to fade out. Because it was so bright and easy to see, the event was recorded by Chinese, Arab, Japanese, European and quite possibly Native American observers. Quite possibly – probably – the people at Chaco.

Moon, Hand and Star

The panel has three symbols: a large star, a crescent moon, and a handprint. Along the bottom of the cliff are three concentric circles (or maybe it is the sun) painted in a now-faded yellow on red background. About a foot in diameter, the circles have what might be red flames trailing off to the right but it is hard to see and even harder to photograph.

The reason some researchers think that this petroglyph describes the supernova of 1054 is not only fascinating but actually quite convincing. See, the moon makes a regular 18.5-year transit back and forth across the sky and so every 18.5 years the moon and the Earth are more or less in the same relationship as they were in July of 1054. It just so happens that on that date when the moon and the Earth are back in that same position, the moon faces the Crab Nebula just as it does in the photo of the rock art up top.

Computer models and simulations of the moon’s orbit in early July 1054:

“….have shown that the moon was waning, just entering first quarter. These calculations also indicate that at dawn on 5 July 1054 in the American Southwest, the moon was within 3 degrees of the supernova, and its crescent oriented as on the pictograph (provided the pictograph is viewed looking up with one’s back to the cliff, as the authors of the pictograph most likely did). With the apparent width of the moon being about half a degree, this pictograph comes basically as close as it possibly could to being a true scale rendition of the 1054 supernova seen in conjunction with the waning moon.”

Correlation is not conclusion mind you but I for one find it pretty compelling.

There are two other possible ancient paintings of the Supernova of 1054 in Arizona. In both, the moon is a crescent, just as it is in the Chaco painting, next to a circle that might represent a star. Finally, a Mimbres ceramic bowl from southwestern New Mexico is also thought to show the supernova.

The question has to be asked: Could this petroglyph represent something entirely different? Could this petroglyph actually represent the 1006 supernova also recorded by Chinese astronomers or possibly the 1066 passing of Halley’s Comet that was seen all over the world? Several researchers who doubt that the petroglyph in Chaco represents the Supernova of 1054 ask why, if they recorded that event didn’t they record other spectacular astronomical events.

The easy answer to that is that we may just not have found them yet.

Remember, 1054 was at the time that the city (and empire) that was Chaco was at its height. Chaco was an important and possibly rather powerful Mesoamerican urban center of which the palaces remain for us to visit today. Scarlet and Military macaws squawked at Pueblo Bonito and the elites sipped at ceremonial chocolate.

The population was relatively high and specialists made detailed astronomical observations. They didn’t miss much and they surely didnt miss the Supernova of 1054.

Dark Sky

There is nothing quite like nights in Chaco. As soon as the sun goes down the air goes frigid. Nights are chilly, even in the summer. But the spread of stars over the unlit and remote canyon is something spectacular and rarely seen by most modern people. Because of this gift, Chaco is designated as an International Dark Sky Park to preserve that experience of truly dark night sky:

“The park’s natural nighttime darkness, commitment to reducing light pollution, and ongoing public outreach have led to its certification as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Chaco is the fourth unit in the National Park System to earn this distinction. By receiving this designation at the Gold-tier level, Chaco rates as one of the best places in the country to experience and enjoy natural darkness.”

Laying in my sleeping bags at night with only my face peeking out, the Milky Way spread out from horizon to horizon and everything in the universe seemed like it was right there in front of me.

Earthline: The American West

Essence: Chaco Canyon is distinctive for its superbly crafted magnificent structures and sheer number of great kivas and great houses. Pueblo Bonito is the largest prehistoric structure on the Colorado Plateau. Chacoan culture was a triumphant crowning of human achievement and a vibrant society that lasted over 300 years. The subject of in-depth archaeological scrutiny, mysteries remain. This essay describes two short tours: Pueblo Bonito to Chetro Ketl via the Petroglyph Trail and Casa Rinconada. Two backcountry hikes follow: the Pueblo Alto Loop and the trail to Peñasco Blanco via the Supernova Panel.
Travel: From Durango, travel south on U.S. Route 550 for 82 miles. Just south of mile marker 113 there is a brown sign for Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Turn west on paved San Juan County Road 7900. Turn right onto San Juan CR 7950, 5.1 miles from the highway. Pavement ends at 8.1 miles. The gravel road is wide and swift. However, at 16.8 miles, county maintenance ends and the dirt road is vulnerable to deep ruts. It would be problematic or impassible if wet. Turn back at a wash crossing at 17.5 miles if water is flowing more than a few inches. Upon entering the park at 21.2 miles, the road is paved. 4WD recommended but when the road is dry, 2WD with good clearance should suffice. Allow 2:15 from Durango. There is no fuel available in the park.
Entrance Fees Information
Gallo Campground: This is a National Park Service campground. There are 48 sites and two group sites which may be reserved, a good idea during busy months. Picnic table, fire ring, tent pad, and restrooms with non-potable water. Drinking water is available at the visitor center. Restrooms are closed in winter when porta pottys are available. Plenty of morning sun but no shade throughout the day. Food and ice are not available in the park. Chaco was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2013. Spend the night in true dark and see the Milky Way and vast regions of space shot with stars.
Time: Plan to spend the entire day in the park.
Difficulty: Visitors are asked to remain on trails navigation easy no exposure
Trail Guide: The informative Backcountry Trail Guide with maps is available for purchase at the visitor center.
Latest Date Hiked: June 2, 2017
Quote: Something colossal happened here, an astounding feat of organization for a semi-nomadic people who had never before built anything near this scale. After Chaco fell into decay, there was never a place on the Colorado Plateau with so much concentrated religious wealth.
Craig Childs, House of Rain.

Pueblo Bonito is an immense D-shaped great house located at the center of the Chacoan world. It was constructed in stages over 300 years and is located at the juncture of Chaco Wash and the South Gap. (THW, photo)

History of the Park
In a remote canyon in northwestern New Mexico, at the center of the San Juan Basin, lies the remains of a complex agrarian society. Transitioning from a loose aggregation of Basketmaker communities, building began along Chaco Wash on a monumental scale in the mid-800's. By 1175, the great houses of Chaco Canyon were deserted. Architectural marvels and vast treasure lay buried under silt and sand, undisturbed for seven centuries.

In 1849, a column of soldiers in a United States Army expedition from Santa Fe happened upon Pueblo Pintado. Moving westward, each successive cluster of ruins was more remarkable. In 1896, the Hyde Expedition led by Richard Wetherill excavated 190 rooms and kivas at Pueblo Bonito. Railcar loads of artifacts were shipped to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act to protect prehistoric sites on public lands. A year later, Chaco Canyon was designated Chaco Canyon National Monument. In 1980 it was named Chaco Culture National Historical Park. In 1987, Chaco was designated a World Heritage Site.

More archaeological research has been conducted at Chaco than any other location in North America. And yet, of the estimated 3,600 archaeological sites within the park boundary, only a small percentage have been excavated. The greater Chacoan community covered roughly 60,000 square miles.

Public architecture at Chaco is unique for its massive scale and perfection wrought by stone masons. There are twelve great houses within the park. Pueblo Bonito is the largest prehistoric structure on the Colorado Plateau. It is a five story, superbly crafted, terraced great house with over 650 rooms and 35 kivas in a half-circle geometric tucked against the south-facing sandstone walls of Chaco Canyon.

Despite all the scrutiny at Chaco, deep mysteries remain. One on-going controversy is population size and class structure. Research by Chacoan authority, Dr. Stephen Lekson, Professor of Anthropology, University of Colorado Boulder, suggests that about 2,000 people lived in Chaco Canyon. The archaeological evidence is unambiguous: the class structure, common for the era, was that of nobles wielding power over commoners.

Fewer than five percent of the population, 50 to 100 nobles, inhabited Pueblo Bonito. Great houses were ceremonial buildings, monuments, temples, and trading centers housing astronomers, priests, master masons, and warriors. Nobles were clearly influenced by Mesoamerica but DNA studies show they were local people. Commoners lived in nearby unit pueblos with five rooms and one kiva.

Another perplexing enigma is the purpose and extent of road networks that linked the great houses in the canyon to outlying communities. One hundred fifty miles of road have been indisputably documented and another 300 miles of roadway are still visible. Roads radiated from Chaco in all directions. The Great North Road leaves from Pueblo Alto and heads 50 miles toward the San Juan River. It was engineered to aim straight north without deviation, requiring ramps and stairways carved into bedrock.

Archaeologists question whether the 30-foot wide roads were meant for transportation and trade networks or formal processions. 250,000 timbers were needed to construct over-engineered great house ceilings. Trees were harvested from forests 60 miles away, hoisted and hauled in procession. Studies indicate that most of the timbers came from the Chuska Mountains to the west and from the southern Zuni Mountains. Less than ten percent were hauled from the San Juan Mountains.

Roads supported Chaco's bulk economy. Seashells, chert, and obsidian were imported as well as live macaws from 500 miles away in Guatemala and copper bells from Mexico. Cacao and vast quantities of turquoise were carried from faraway lands. Pottery was fired at the wood source and supplemental corn was grown where water was plentiful. Porters could carry supplies for 250 kilometers before it became counterproductive.

During 300 years of habitation in a desiccated landscape irrigation canals and catchment dams captured sufficient water to grow corn, squash, and beans. At least one 25-year drought occurred. By the late 1100's the Chacoan people had mostly dispersed. While Chaco's influence is clear at Aztec Ruins, Mesa Verde National Park, and the Bluff Great House, those who migrated south created vibrant societies that live on today.

It is believed that the high level of civilization and refinement created at Chaco was the work of indigenous ancestors of present day Puebloans. There is a clear line between earlier societies and modern villages such as Zuni where people reinvented themselves, doing away with the repressive class structure.

Lingering mysteries abound and persist at Chaco, adding to its allure. The creation of wondrous structures speak to traits within us that yearn for excellence in beauty, purpose, and execution.

Pueblo Bonito, Petroglyph Trail, and Chetro Ketl
Chaco Loop Road is one-lane, one-way. Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl share a parking lot. The trail through Bonito is 0.6 mile long. Pick up an interpretive guide at the visitor center.

Pueblo Bonito means "pretty village" in Spanish. The great house was constructed in stages from 850 to 1150. It was the epicenter of the Chacoan world one archaeologist dubbed the great house and immediate surroundings "downtown Chaco."

Masonry techniques were unique for the time and evolved over the centuries. While different masonry styles are represented at Bonito, they are typically core and veneer as seen below at the southeast corner.

Casa Rinconada
The trail through Casa Rinconada and nearby sites is 1.2 miles long but the great kiva is just a few steps from the parking area. Casa Rinconada is the largest excavated great kiva in Chaco Canyon. It was constructed on a hill within a community of small villages. The kiva accommodated hundreds of people for ceremonial purposes.

The kiva's diameter is 64 feet. Thirty-four niches are tucked into the inner wall above the masonry bench. Casa Rinconada is aligned with solar, lunar, and cardinal points. The northern entryway is aligned precisely with true north. Dr. Lekson claims that cardinal directions are obsessively embedded in Chacoan architecture. As interest in archaeoastronomy gains traction, people come to Casa Rinconada at the Summer Solstice to watch first light enter a window and cast a rectangle of light inside a niche. While archaeoastronomers are not sure whether this particular alignment is a true solstice marker, other astronomical alignments in Chaco have been verified. (THW, photo)

Pueblo Alto Loop Trail
This trail begins from the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot at elevation 6,120 feet. It is a six mile stem-and-loop with 400 feet of elevation gain. The hike will consume between two-and-a-half and four hours. Highlights include two Chacoan passageways, Pueblo Bonito Overlook, Pueblo Alto Complex, and the Jackson Stairway.

From the parking lot head northwest toward Kin Kletso on a dirt road that parallels Chaco Wash and the canyon cliffs. The valley floor is thick with big sagebrush, four-wing saltbush, greasewood, and blackbrush. Cottonwoods edge the arroyo.

At 0.3 mile, the Alto Trail splits off to the right passing by Kin Kletso, "yellow house" in Navajo. According to the information placard at the site the great house was built over a ten year period in the early 12th century just before construction at Chaco ended. The masonry style is McElmo characterized by the use of larger, softer, and lighter sandstone slabs.

At 1.8 miles, take the left branch to visit New Alto. It is a two story great house with rooms arranged symmetrically around a central kiva. The site has been stabilized but not excavated. Walk around the structure and then take a cut-across trail to Pueblo Alto just 0.2 mile afar.

Pueblo Alto, elevation 6,440 feet, is the literal highpoint of the hike. It is the largest structure in the complex and the only one that has been excavated. However, it remains mostly buried. As with Bonito, fewer than five percent of the rooms show evidence of habitation.

Pueblo Alto was the first great house built on the Great North Road. At an opening in the north wall, several roads radiate to northern outliers including Salmon Ruins on the San Juan River and Aztec Ruins on the Animas River. It is curious that Chaco wasn't built in Aztec, New Mexico to begin with. The great house at Aztec was the single biggest construction project done in a decade at the height of Chacoan power, post 1125. Aztec maintained the same class structure of nobles and commoners and fell into rapid decline shortly after completion. Earl Morris fully reconstructed the great kiva at Aztec between 1916 and 1922.

The hilltop site has a full-circle view of the endless horizon. The Jemez Mountains are east Mt. Taylor is south the Chuska Mountains are west Huerfano Mesa, the San Juan Mountains and La Plata Mountains may be seen in the north. The Puebloans communicated great distances using signal fires. A fire box was found at Pueblo Alto. A repeater signal sent the message from Huerfano Mesa to Chimney Rock and from there to Mesa Verde. Blocky McElmo style is shown in this masonry detail.

Peñasco Blanco Trail
This trail begins from the Pueblo del Arroyo parking lot. It is a 7.8 mile out-and-back with 300 feet of elevation gain. Total hiking time is three to five hours. Highlights include a high concentration of rock art, the Supernova Panel, and the western gate of Chaco Canyon, Peñasco Blanco.

The track is shared with the Pueblo Alto Trail to Kin Kletso and then carries on to Casa Chiquita at one mile. The compact great house was built on a rise. A square room block surrounds an elevated kiva.

The trail continues down Chaco Wash as an historic Navajo wagon road once did, shuttling goods between Wetherill's Pueblo Bonito Trading Post and points west.

Keep a keen eye out for petroglyphs on random boulders at the base of the Cliff House Sandstone. Chaco Canyon has the most Basketmaker sites found anywhere, dating from the 6th century. The sites are contiguous in the canyon and so is their rock art.

The 0.3 mile Petroglyph Trail begins at 1.5 miles. It runs along the cliff adjacent to the main trail. Here you will find the largest concentration of petroglyphs and inscriptions in Chaco Canyon: Puebloan, Navajo, and cowboy engravings. The initial 15 foot panel features geometrics which some attribute to the shaman's inner eye. The panel shown below is 35 feet above the canyon floor. The three elements are a bighorn sheep, an anthropomorph, and a katsina (supernatural being) mask. Off image-right are faint but exceedingly beautiful designs beside sandal tracks going up the wall.

Rejoin the main trail and walk on the floodplain. After crossing Chaco Wash at elevation 6,060 feet, the trail abuts the cliff directly below Peñasco Blanco. The Supernova Panel is located here, three miles from the trailhead on the ceiling of a small overhang. The red pictograph depicts a star, crescent moon, and human hand.

On July 5, 1054, Chinese astronomers recorded the rare explosion of a supernova in the constellation of Taurus. The Crab Nebula is the supernova remnant. It was as bright as the full moon, visible mid-day for a month. This occurred when the great houses of Chaco were at the height of power. On that morning the horns of the waning crescent moon pointed west. The middle finger of the hand points to where the supernova rose.

On the vertical wall in the image below is a pecked and painted solid sphere with two concentric circles. Red paint flows out to the right. Halley's Comet passed Chaco twelve years after the supernova in 1066. Notice the swallow nests attached to the wall.

Watch the video: Supernova Pictograph, Chaco Culture NPS, Aura Aurealis, R. Carlos Nakai