Saturday, February 9, 2013


Total solar eclipse, 1999. Wikipedia.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun. This is a spectacular sight, even to our modern society which understands the scientific reason for such an occurrence. It was surely even more impressive to our ancient ancestors who did not have our understanding of it. This is another of the subjects that I cannot imagine would not have been commemorated in rock art somewhere, but I personally know of no such proven examples (although I suspect some examples - explained below).

        Solar Eclipse of  Aug. 7, 1869, portrayed by Lone Dog (left) and
The Swan (right). From Greene and Thornton,
The Year The Stars Fell, Smithsonian, 2007.

There are examples of Native American images of total eclipses that may allow us to speculate what a total eclipse might look like in rock art. These consist of a number of examples from Lakota Winter Counts portraying the total eclipse of August 7, 1869. The line of totality for that eclipse crossed Lakota territory, and obviously impressed them enough to result in these images.  In each known example they portray it by showing the obscured sun as a black disk and in each case a couple of bright stars are shown, reflecting the fact that in the darkened sky during totality bright stars may be visible. Greene and Thornton (2007) illustrate a few examples in their fascinating book The Year the Stars Fell; Lakota Winter Counts at the Smithsonian. “An Eclipse of the Sun, a drawing by the winter count keeper Lone Dog (Greene and Thornton 2007:264), commemorates the blackening of the sun on August 7, 1869 and accompanying visibility of otherwise invisible stars in the darkened sky.”

Pecos, Texas rock art, Photo Teresa Weedin, 2004.

Painted Cave, Bandelier, Los Alamos
County, NM. Photograph: Russ Finley.

I stated above that I suspect some rock art may indeed represent a total solar eclipse. My candidate for this would be the solar portrayal with projecting rays from the four quadrants that is known as the Zia sun symbol. The Zia Indians of New Mexico regard the Sun as a sacred symbol. Their symbol, a red circle with groups of rays pointing in four directions, is painted on ceremonial vases, drawn on the ground around campfires, and used to introduce newborns to the Sun. (Wikipedia) The examples illustrated above come from the Pecos region in Texas, and a personified Zia sun symbol toward the left of the panel from Painted Cave at Bandeliere, New Mexico. 

New Mexico automobile license plate.

Most recognizable from the automobile license plate from the state of New Mexico, the Zia sun symbol is actually a good representation of the moment of totality in a solar eclipse when the corona of the sun becomes visible and the sharp-eyed viewer can see the prominences in the solar atmosphere (see the first illustration of a total eclipse). Indeed, that is the only time one can see this phenomenon with the naked eye, and this suggests that any sun symbol with points, rays, or projections beyond the outer circle might be a representation of a total eclipse.

Also, representations of the sun with triangular projections around the rim could well be attempts to illustrate this phenomenon. What candidates do you know of?


Greene, Candace S. and Russell Thornton (editors)
2007    The Year the Stars Fell: Lakota Winter Counts at the Smithsonian, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.


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