A 900-year-old bowl made by the Mimbres Indians of southwestern New Mexico was said last week to provide the first unambiguous evidence that a massive star explosion, or supernova, witnessed 900 years ago by astronomers in China and Japan was also seen in the New World.
Painting on the bowl depicts a sunburst, believed to represent the explosion that created the giant glowing cloud of gas and dust known as the Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus, still a powerful source of X-ray emissions.
Old Chinese and Japanese records have enabled astronomers to determine exactly when the supernova happened. Archaeologists had previously found etchings on rock walls in the Southwest depicting a bright star next to a crescent moon -- the image that would have been seen -- but their age could not be specified.
"The bowl provides us with the best supported historic record from the Western Hemisphere of the supernova . . . and it also goes far in telling us about the sophistication of a group of southwestern Indians," said R. Robert Robbins, an astronomy professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Painting on the Mimbres bowl, made between 1000 and 1150 A.D. and found in southwestern New Mexico in the mid-1930s, depicts a 23-pointed sunburst -- representing, scientists believe, the 23 days the explosion was visible. The star is positioned near a "moon" in the form of a black-painted rabbit curled into a crescent shape. Robbins noted many Southwest Indian cultures use the rabbit to symbolize the moon. Computer analysis indicates the depiction coincides with the positions of the supernova and crescent moon early on July 5, 1054, the date the explosion burst into view.