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A supernova story in clay.

A supernova story in clay

The Mimbres people, who lived in southwestern New Mexico about 1,000 years ago, are famous for their exquisite pottery, and particularly for the vividly patterned, shallow bowls they used mainly to cover the faces of deceased tribe members who were buried beneath the floors of their adobe houses. A careful study of bowl patterns now reveals that the Mimbres people also made astronomical observations, following the movements of the moon and apparently recording the 11th-century A.D. supernova that created the Crab nebula. According to astronomer R. Robert Robbins and student Russell B. Westmoreland of the University of Texas at Austin, a Mimbres artifact now described as the "supernova bowl" is the most certain record of that supernova yest discovered outside of China and Japan.

Robins and Westmoreland examined about 800 bowls from the Mimbres village of Galaz. Many of these white, earthenware bowls sport geometric designs and fanciful figures painted in black on their inside surfaces. The researchers repeatedly encountered stylized representations of a rabbit -- a common symbol or the moon among many indigenous cultures in the Southwest and in Central America. Other markings on the bowls appear to correspond to the number of days it takes the moon to complete a single orbit around the Earth relative to the stars, and the number of days it takes the moon to go through all its phases. The supernova bowl features a rabbit clutching a circular object from which 23 rays emerge.

The Mimbres would have first seen the supernova on the morning of July 5, 1054 A.D., with the waning crescent moon rising in the east, followed by the supernova, which would have been five or six times brighter than Venus at its brightest. The bowl's curled rabbit representing the dark areas visible on the lunar surface, and the supernova image are positioned so that the relative orientations of the lunar crescent and the supernova corresponds to the astronomical observations made that morning. Asian records indicating the supernova was bright enough to be seen during daylight hours for 23 days offer a possible explanation for the 23 rays emanating from the Mimbres supernova image.

"The bowl provides us with the best-supported historical record from the Western Hemisphere of the supernova that created the Crab nebula, and it goes far in telling us about the sophistication of a group of southwestern Indians," Robbins says. The fact that all the bowls of astronomical significance came from just two locations in the village suggests that astronomy held a special status among the tribe, perhaps signifying that someone held the rank of official astronomer or calendar priest.
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Title Annotation:astronomical record left by New Mexico Indians
Author:Peterson, Ivars
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 23, 1990
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