Science in Art

Supernova depicted in Kashmir rock art

Print edition : February 02, 2018

A team of Indian scientists studying ancient rock art discovered in present-day Kashmir has stumbled upon what it believes could be the first-ever depiction of a supernova, an exploding supergiant star.

The carving on a stone slab measuring 48 cm by 27 cm was discovered many decades ago in Burzahom—a settlement that dates back to circa 4100 BCE—in the Kashmir valley.

The carving depicts what at first glance appear to be hunters and animals beneath a sky with not one but two bright sun-like objects. Now, the researchers led by Mayank Vahia, an astrophysicist with the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, have reinterpreted the depiction to argue that one of the bright objects shown in the carving could be a supernova.

“There is clear indication that the two celestial objects drawn are very bright. One of the objects is either the sun or a bright moon and the second object is relatively close to the first. They cannot be the sun and the moon since, with such proximity to the sun, the moon would be in a partial phase around the new and hence not very bright,” the scientists argue in a paper that appeared in Indian Journal of History of Science.

Suspecting that one of the bright objects depicted could be a supernova and knowing that the active period of the site was dated between 5000 BCE and 1500 BCE, the scientists looked for the records of young supernova remnants with estimated ages between 2,000 and 10,000 years and supernovae of known distance. Fitting the bill was a supernova called HB9, a celestial event that could have taken place in 4600 BCE.

More interestingly, when the scientists plotted the sky chart of the time and the rock drawing (petroglyph) on each other, they found that the objects in the chart coincided very well with objects in the sky close to where HB9 exploded. This led them to the assumption that the carving may not be a depiction of a hunting scene but perhaps a representation of nearby constellations, in effect making it one of the earliest star charts.

T.V. Jayan