The Solar Eclipse and Archaeology

On August 21, 2017 there will be a total eclipse of the sun by the moon. Something that is getting a lot of hype as the date draws closer. It will no doubt be an interesting if not spectacular event where I live as long as the clouds stay away. I promise to post some people photos here like a good anthropologist/archaeologist, but I can’t promise any direct photos of the eclipse itself. I just don’t have the right equipment.

But, as an archaeologist, I started wondering what evidence we have in the archaeological record for eclipses in antiquity. They’re simple enough to compute backward in time, so we know that they did occur and when. But what about material evidence? Obviously an eclipse leaves no trace of itself behind. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. But thousands of years ago, a total eclipse of the sun had to be significant enough to record. Perhaps in artistic representations.

Here’s what I found:

Lakota Indian Winter Count

Photo courtesy of Greene and Thornton (2007); Lakota winter count with a black sun and two stars that probably represent the total eclipse of 8/7/1869.

In their book, The Year the Stars Fell: Lakota Winter Counts at the Smithsonian (2007), Greene and Thornton [1] describe the solar eclipse of August 7, 1869–just a little over 148 years ago. This was also just after the American Civil War, and the line of totality ran right through Lakota territory in the Dakotas. The Lone Dog winter count on a buffalo hide shows a black sun with two red stars that many believe represent this eclipse. Since the winter count on this hide was dated to the 1869-70 winter, it doesn’t seem to be a stretch that the Lakota artist would include the most significant astronomical event of that year in his or her winter count. Many would say that American Indian mythology which

Close up of the probable 8/7/1869 eclipse

speaks of a monster or lizard swallowing the sun is a well-established icon of the solar eclipse, but–as Greene and Thorton point out–the Lakota of that period were in consistent contact with white settlers and had ample opportunity to learn the true nature of an eclipse. They cite Dr. Washington Matthews who relayed that officers, men, and women around his post educated the Lakota on the upcoming event and how it occurs.

The duration of totality in the Dakota Territory near Fort Rice was nearly 2 minutes.

New Mexico to Big Bend Texas

New Mexico license plate with the Zuni Sun Symbol

Another possible contender for an eclipse represented in Native American art is seen by thousands of people every day. The license plate for New Mexico features a glyph that looks surprisingly like the coronal disc of the Sun as seen from behind the Moon. The Zia Indians use this symbol on all sorts of objects like pottery, blankets, etc. It was adopted by New Mexico for their license plate in 1927 and for the state flag in 1929. But not without some controversy since the Zia see this as a very sacred symbol. They apparently would like to be asked first before governments and businesses plaster it all over their things.

Granted, this symbol by itself isn’t a very convincing representation of an eclipse. And that

Sun Disk at Myers Spring where there is an historic period rock art panel

doesn’t seem to be part of the modern Zia narrative. But there are some very similar rock art elements that might fit the bill. The sun symbol painted on a cliff in Dryden, Texas (in Big Bend country) looks very similar to the Zia sun symbol with four long rays emanating from the four directions (N, S, E, W), but it also has smaller rays, very reminiscent of the coronal disc during an eclipse. Known as the Myers Spring rock art panel, the sun symbol is part of a larger panel done during the post-contact period.

Was this of an eclipse? Very difficult to know for certain.

Chaco Canyon

The full panel at Chaco Canyon with the eclipse (?) near the lower center. Photo courtesy of Colorado University Boulder.

So let’s look at a more likely candidate. Just a few days ago, Colorado University’s Boulder Today, an online news source for CU, ran a story about a petroglyph at Chaco Canyon that might be a portrayal of an eclipse. Carved in rock by early Pueblo people, the image looks a bit like an octopus with “tangled protrusions looping off the edges.” The symbol has a circular center and loopy protrusions that could be an illustration of the coronal atmosphere of the sun during an eclipse.

Folks at the CU Boulder astrophysical and planetary sciences department believe this petroglyph represents a solar eclipse that occurred on July 11, 1097–just over 900 years ago! One of the “tangled loop” elements of the glyph is thought to represent a coronal mass ejection (CME). The date of the

Close up of the eclipse and the possible CME at the top

eclipse (assuming this is an illustration of one) that occurred around the peak of the Pueblo people that created the art was in July 1097 and it turned out that tree ring data revealed that carbon-14 dropped significantly that year consistent with increased sun spot activity.

J. McKim Malville and Jose Vaquero published a paper on this in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry in 2014.

Gila Bend, Arizona

Could the jagged outer ring represent the Sun’s corona? Rock art and eclipse photos by Frank Zullo.

Frank Zullo, a freelance professional photographer in Arizona [2] happened upon a petroglyph along the Lower Gila river near Gila Bend, AZ. The glyph was of two concentric circles and a jaggedly circular third ring–looking very much like a annular solar eclipse. In an annular eclipse, the Moon is further away from the Earth, so it doesn’t quite cover the full disc of the Sun. This seems to be very effectively represented by the two, inner circles. The jaggedly circular ring on the outside is equally effective at mimicking the Sun’s coronal atmosphere. Zullo narrowed the eclipse (assuming that’s what this represents and not a flower) down to one that probably occurred on March 7, 1076 CE. This one, however, was a total eclipse, not an annular one so perhaps the two concentric rings are simply the moon before the sun with the jagged ring representing the corona.

Eclipses are also found in some very early historical documents as shown below

A fragment of the 34093 shelf at the British Museum containing the description of the solar eclipse of September 26, 322.


A stone from the IXth century at the museum of Xi’an containing the description of the total eclipse of the Sun occurring on July 17, 709.


The Theoricae Novae Planetarum by Georg Peurbach,(Paris, 1543!) printed an illustration of how an eclipse works, which I thought was worth including here.


Johannes Regiomontanus: Calendar Printed in Venice by Erhard Ratdolt, 9 August 1482!

And here’s the full rock art panel near Gila Bend, AZ that was shot by Frank Zullo. What a wonderful panel and thanks, Frank for letting me share it here!

Rock art panel near Gila Bend, AZ. Photo by Frank Zullo and used with permission.

Have any rock art or epigraphy that shows or speaks to solar or lunar eclipses? Share in the comments either here or at our Facebook page (facebook/ArchaeologyReview)

References and notes:

  1. Greene, Candace and Russell Thornton (2007). The Year the Stars Fell: Lakota Winter Counts at the Smithsonian. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, NE
  2. Frank Zullo
About Carl Feagans 396 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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