Comets and Rock Art

comet rock art negev desert

Comets in Negev Desert Rock Art

To an earthbound observer, a comet appears as a large star surrounded by a bright transparent cloud with a tail that travels through the sky. Comets infrequent appearances, they are almost always unexpected visitors in a relatively “known” sky, captivated people and their interpretation has been found on rock art, coins, and art. Different cultures describe it as a sparkling star, broom star, long sword, spear, a human head with hair, burning torch and even as a horse’s mane blown by air.

Comet Description and Movement

Comets are icy bodies, made from frozen gases and dust that reminds of dirty snowball. Their eccentric orbit, not circular around the Sun, made them infrequent visitors to earth and from the earliest days until the 16th century, most people thought that they were harbingers of doom, bad omens, catastrophes, and deaths.

comet description

Fig. 1 Comet orbit and tail direction                                           Fig. 2 – Comet components

The Greeks originated the word kometes, which translates to “long-haired star” because of their glowing long tails as Aristotle phrased them as “running like a road through the constellations”. Comets often have two types of luminous tails: a straight one is made of ionized gas (typically bluish) and a curved tail (white to yellowish) made up of tiny particles of dust compressed by radiation pressure. The comet tail doesn’t indicate its movement direction – it always pointing away from the Sun and sometimes its travel direction appears to defy gravity.  Therefore the comet movement, as seen from earth, can be either toward the tail or its nucleus.

Comets in Negev Desert Rock Art, Israel

There are textual testimonies of comets’ appearance in Israel skies during the Greek/Roman time. According to (Horwowitz W 2018), the Jewish the Maccabean Revolt coincided with Halley’s Comet appearance in 164 BC. In 66AD Halley’s Comet returned, just months before the outbreak of the Jewish war 66-73 AD against Rome. Josephus described it: “And so it was that a star resembling a sword stood over the city (Jerusalem); a comet persisted for a very long time”.

In the Negev Desert, there are numerous comets rock art engravings that show us how people interpreted the comet’s sky appearance. These repeated scenes display a horse rider holding a very long spear fighting an invisible enemy, see Fig.5. The comet in these scenes depicted with the burning nucleus, on one end, and a sliver of a long tail that gets thinner on the other, sometimes even a second tail appears representing a fully developed comet. For example: In scene1 the curved spear signifies the comet movement as seen from earth curvature. Notice the comet bulky nucleus on the right and the comet flight direction as indicated by its tail, scene1 Fig.5. This spear doesn’t have a sharp edge as expected and it’s curved and wiggly shape indicates a different object. For comparison, we can see a depiction of a real spear, in scene3, with a sharp edge and the rider galloping path follows the spearhead direction.

Fig.5 Comet depiction as a horse and rider, scenes 1,2 represents a comet and scene3 depicts a real spear illustrating the difference in the comet abstraction. The horse hoofs in scene2 are wheels depicting the sky carriage idea.

A convincing comet abstraction illustrated in Fig.6, the main post picture. In this scene the horse gallops to the right and the rider throws the spear to the left, the comet movement direction. The comet nucleus on the right top and the two well-developed tails are pointing to the left. This scene reveals the artist’s interpretation of a comet with the second tail, engraved as dots, and continued with straight lines at the end, drawn as an integral part of the horsetail. The other two tails, on the horse right side, are shorter and less developed. The horse-hoofs, in Fig.6 drawn, drawn as wheels, reveals the engraving origin they are an imitation of Apollo Sun chariot idea, thus dating the rock art to Roman time in Israel, about 100AD.

comet rock art

Fig. 6 Comet rock art with a second well developed tail (photos Razy Yahel)

The imaginative horse, pictured in these scenes, metaphorically carries the comet through the sky like a Roman sun chariot. The rider throws the spear across the sky,  as his turned head and feet indicate, toward the horsetail the comet moving direction. This astral phenomenon explained by earthly symbols, the horse and the rider, adapts this unusual vision to the accepted idea that the horse moves the comet through the sky the same way it carries the sun.



Coimbra F.          The sky on the Rock: Cometary images on Rock Art
Gardner S. 2016     The sun, moon, and stars of the southern Levant at Gezer 
Horowitz W 2018     Halley’s Comet and Judean Revolts Revisited
Aksoy O.,           A combat Archeology viewpoint on weapon representation in Arabia  Rock Art 


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