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 bright transparent cloud with a tail that travels through the sky. Comets infrequent appearances in a relatively “known” sky captivated people and their interpretation have 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 a horse’s mane being 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.

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

The Greeks originated the word kometes, which translates to “long-haired star” because of their glowing long tails; they often have two types of luminous tails. A straight one is made of ionized gas (typically bluish) and a curved tail (white to yellowish) is made up of tiny particles of dust, pushed away by radiation pressure. The comet tail doesn’t indicate its movement direction – it always pointing away from the Sun and sometimes its travel appears to defy gravity.  It is important to notice that 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 them. These repeated scenes display a horse rider holding a very long spear fighting an invisible enemy. This spear doesn’t have a sharp edge as expected and it’s curved and wiggly shape indicates a different object, see Fig.5. For comparison, we can see a depiction of a real spear with a sharp edge in scene4.  The comet 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 as illustrated in Fig.5 scene1.

comet rockart

Fig.5 Comet depiction as a horse and rider, scenes 1,2,3 represents a comet and scene4 depicts a real spear

In scene1, the main post picture, 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 (symbol 1) and the two well-developed tails (symbol 2 and 3) are pointing to the left. This scene reveals the artist interpretation of comet with the second tail, engraved as dots and straight lines, drawn as an integral part of the horsetail. The horse-hoofs in scene1 and scene3 drawn as wheels, a copy of Apollo Sun chariot idea, thus dating the rock art to Roman time in Israel, about 100AD. In scene2 the curved spear signifies the comet movement as seen from earth curvature. Notice the comet nucleus on the right and the comet movement is toward the tail.

comet collision with moon rock art negev desert

Fig. 6 Rock Art examples: Comet collision with the moon, Negev Desert Rock Art. On the right rock art, the comet second thin tail is visible pointing to the smaller horse.  (photos Razy Yahel)

The unrealistic spear size, illustrated in Fig.6,  fits the comet sky view that can span up to one-third of the night sky and linger there for a long time.   Collisions between comets and planets occurred early in the Solar System formation: some of the craters on the Moon may have been caused by comets as described literally in Fig.6, it can be seen that the spear body appears behind the moon.

The imaginative horse, pictured in these scenes, metaphorically carries the comet through the sky like a Roman sun chariot. The rider, a minor god or demon,  throws the spear across the sky, which explains the spear movement and direction.  This astral phenomenon explained by earthly terms, the horse carries the comet fits the perception in the Roman world,  that all understood and therefore all accepted it as real and possible.



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 and : Megido:                                       Cultural astronomy in Chalcolithic/Early and Middle Bronze Ages

Horowitz W 2018     Halley’s Comet and Judean Revolts Revisited

Hrishikesh J.              Oldest sky-chart with Supernova record

Ömer Can Aksoy       A combat Archeology viewpoint on weapon representation in Arabia                                               Rock Art 


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