The Star Archive

[Image: Perseids Meteor Shower, August 11, 1999; photo by Wally Pacholka, courtesy of NASA].

In an earlier post, I looked at the possibility that the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh might include a very physical archive of 19th-century meteorological events, with sand, dust, pollen, and other airborne particulates from the days Van Gogh painted en plein air now trapped for all art history inside the vibrant swirls of his canvases.

Adam, from Design Under Sky, then left a comment saying that this unintentional archive of sand already exists, with or without such speculation: “Sand was used as an ink blotting material and remnants are often still found in manuscripts today.” Every library is thus also a museum of sand.

But I completely failed to mention an article that has fascinated me for more than a year now; I believe I originally found it via Andrew Ray of Some landscapes.

In a feature for COSMOS Magazine called “Sky detectives,” we read that “forensic astronomers… are seeking clues to historical events embedded in artworks and literature.”

[Image: Halley’s Comet—upper right—passes through the Bayeux Tapestry].

In other words, similar to the idea of geomythology—in which ancient tales of floods or vengeful fire gods can be re-interpreted in light of newly found evidence for catastrophic tsunamis or volcanic eruptions—”forensic astronomers” look for more celestial clues. Things like Halley’s Comet burning through the night sky of the Bayeux Tapestry will catch their eye, or supernovas as depicted in Native American rock art.

These details, hidden in plain sight, can be used to indirectly piece together long-gone astronomical events.

The following very long quotation gives at least some idea of how extraordinary the results can be; it’s like something out of Minority Report:

Donald Olson, a physics professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, U.S., has used similar techniques to help art historians pin down details of famous paintings. In 2000, for example, he found the location at which Vincent van Gogh created one of his last paintings, The White House at Night.

Knowing that van Gogh painted it in mid-June, and the direction in which the house faced, Olson was able to determine that a bright star in the painting was mostly likely the planet Venus, which would have been prominent at the time.

Two years later, Olson used a similar process with another van Gogh painting, Moonrise. That painting depicts the full moon rising behind an overhanging cliff in southern France. Historians knew the work was made sometime in 1889, and haystacks in the foreground indicate that the time of year is somewhere around harvest season.

Olson’s team hunted down the location and, with a bit of astronomical detective work, determined that there was only one date on which the Moon rose in the right place: 13 July 1889. Since van Gogh once said he never worked from memory and always painted what he saw, this was probably the date on which he started painting Moonrise.

Here, I’ll reveal a secret fantasy of mine: at one point during the film Jaws, there is a night scene during which a meteor suddenly lights up the sky overhead. The characters are out at sea when zoooooom: a flash goes by, from one end of the screen to the other.

Every time I see that scene I wonder what the flash was, and, more importantly, where it went: if something later crashed down into the sands of North Africa, or hit a cliff in Arizona, or splashed into the ocean waters much further out at sea. Or simply burnt up into dust and fiery particles.

[Image: Rock art possibly depicting a supernova. Photo by John Barentine, Apache Point Observatory, courtesy of].

But what if someday you find a meteorite and you somehow piece together evidence for when it fell to earth—and you find that it was during the summer that Steven Spielberg filmed Jaws. You find out exactly where they filmed Jaws, and you keep digging deeper, and then, finally, there it is: some fantastic piece of irrefutable evidence that proves you have just discovered the very object that once flew through the sky in a film seen by countless millions of people around the world. Jaws, after all, is the seventh-highest grossing film of all time.

It’s archaeo-astronomy via Hollywood film history.

In any case, as you will see in the “Sky detectives” article, our forensic astronomers begin reading nothing less than The Odyssey, looking for astronomical clues (“…the poem describes Odysseus steering his boat by the positions of the constellations Boötes and the Pleiades [which] establishes the date as early spring…”).

But as they start putting Homer’s descriptions of the constellations, and the precise order and time of year in which Odysseus saw those constellations, into their weird software that maps the movement of the earth and our nearby planets through 49,000 years of history… my hair began standing on end.

All these astronomical clues—in ancient poetry, famous paintings, and the overlooked skies of film history—simply waiting to be deciphered.

4 thoughts on “The Star Archive”

  1. All the Dead Stars continues Paterson's explorations into the celestial realm. Documenting the known locations of over 27,000 dead stars from data supplied by astronomers, supernova hunters and astrophysists, Paterson finds a visual means to make tangible the enormity of the universe and our location within it. (Our galaxy is indicated by the cluster of stars forming a horizontal line across its centre.) Paterson comments: 'the death of stars really is the cycle of life and death in the universe…stars make the heavier elements needed to form planets and build life.' By her etching of long-gone events into the surface of metal, the map will be defunct even from the moment of its making.

  2. Re sand used as ink blotter. At University I studied the rise of the European mercantile companies in the east. I remember reading a history of the Dutch East India company (the VOC) which contained the following story. The VOC's activities in the East were a colossal bureaucratic project as much as a spice-gathering operation. Detailed reports were meticulously prepared in the east accounting for every clove and guilder. And sand was used to stop the ink of these reports smudging before they were sent back to Amsterdam. This historian, describing her research, said that often she would take one of these fabulously detailed ledgers off the shelf, open it, and fine white Indonesian sand would pour out, a sign that the report had been utterly undisturbed for 400 years. These reports were prepared in the face of unthinkable difficulty, shipped vast distances, and then put on a shelf without even being flicked through. There's something Borgesian about that. The spice must flow.

  3. Jeff,
    Long time reader, first time commenter, etc. Thanks for your work. BLDGBLOG is one of the daily "Gude Thynges" I look forward to.

    This post reminds me of a thought I've often had: the fact that cloud formations are unique, and that they appear in millions of photographs that are otherwise unidentifiable as to place and time.

    There's a little antique shop near where I work that has boxes and drawers full of old photos for sale, photos that once belonged to someone and meant something to someone but are now just pictures of houses and people standing in front of fruit trees, all apart from specific time or place, though sometimes with a name: "Aunt Phoebe".

    But what if there were a database of satellite images comprehensively cataloguing cloud formations, by which one could identify any outdoor scene (except blue sky, of course, and even then, blue sky could still be used as evidence). The trick would be in mapping the shape of clouds when viewed from above to the shape when viewed from underneath or laterally. And anyway, even if we started now, it wouldn't be of any use in existing old photos.

    Still, the fact remains, cloud formations are unique time/space identifiers and plainly visible everywhere.

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