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Tree Rings and Supernovas and a Red Cross in Anglo-Saxon England June 29, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

***Dedicated to Larry and Wade who sent this one in***

In early June a report came in from Nagoya University (Japan) that tree rings on the island showed evidence of a massive radiation blast in 774/775 of our era. This interested Beachcombing not the slightest as he doesn’t do radiation or tree rings. But this became a little more interesting a couple of days ago when a Nature follow-up connected the spike with a reference from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 774.

A.D. 774.  This year the Northumbrians banished their king, Alred, from York at Easter-tide; and chose Ethelred, the son of Mull, for their lord, who reigned four winters.  This year also appeared in the heavens a red crucifix, after sunset; the Mercians and the men of Kent fought at Otford; and wonderful serpents were seen in the land of the South-Saxons.

Beachcombing is tempted to write three hundred words about ‘wonderful serpents’ in the land of the South Saxons: memories of a marvelously large snake in Devon. However, he’s splashed some water over his face and will concentrate instead on ‘a red crucifix’ in the heavens. Jonathon Allen, a biochem major at UCSC suggested that this might have been a record of a supernova that would be interesting as a supernova is, apparently, one of the things in nature, that is capable of leading to this kind of radiation spike.

There are three potential problems here that seem worth flagging up, some that can be dismissed but one at least that seems destined to nag away at this theory.

First can we trust the source? The Anglo-Saxon document is a messy ‘document’ – it actually exists in nine different versions, in two different languages, of which the text above is a compromise rendered into modern English. However, it does contain many contemporary passages, particularly for the eighth century.

Second, is the chronicler describing a supernova? Beach interested himself many years ago in the way that objects in the night sky were recorded by medieval Europeans and seen through their own Christian biases. In fact, he once put up a post on astronomical entries from the Irish Annals: which have an even more difficult textual history than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. As an astronomical layman he wonders if this couldn’t be some confused description of the aurora, something that seems to have been responsible for many, many medieval sightings in northern Europe.

Third, the original Japanese research team rejected supernovas. We quote here from the Nature article that gave their findings to the world and which is linked above: ‘A massive supernova, for example, should have been bright enough to produce a ‘new’ star visible even in the daytime, as was the case for two known supernovae in ad 1006 and ad 1054. Such an explosion would have needed to be brighter than either of these, Miyake says, because those events were not large enough to leave traces in the 14C record. It is possible, she says, that the proposed event might have occurred in the far southern skies, where astronomers of the era wouldn’t have seen it. But still, she says, if it did happen, today’s X-ray and radio astronomers should have found signs of a “tremendously bright” remnant of the explosion.’ This last objection seems to have been brushed over rather quickly in the happy coincidence between the red cross over England and Japanese tree trunks.

Any other thoughts on this, possibly from someone who does science? drbeachcombing AT yahoo COM Beachcombing has previously described his relative ignorance of test tubes, natural law and animals’ innards.

A dream book – there have been attempts but none satisfy – would be a collection of all astronomical sightings from the earliest time through to Copernicus, including their contemporary interpretations and an assessment of the quality of all sources. Sighting and interpretation get so confused at times that the poor editor would have to deal with dragons flying through the sky and other airborne monsters: seriously.

Thinking about it perhaps it would be better just to put up a website and ask volunteers to send references in.


30/6/2012 Larry sent in this fascinating post from his list-serv by R Juhl: it seems to rule out contemporary Chinese records: note the book of Tang had a special astronomical section. The following is an attempt to see if Chinese historical records throw any light on the radiation spike of 774.      One common suggestion is that the supposed high-energy pulse of 774 would cause auroras. Following are entries from both the old and new histories of the Tang that are suggestive of auroras in the 773-776 time frame.  09 Aug 773, 5-7 pm: Three strips of vapor crossed the sky. 774: No pertinent entries 16 Oct 775: The moon had a halo encompassing Mars, Bi (epsilon Tau, 19th mansion), Mao (17 Tau etc., 18th), Shen (delta Ori, 21st), Dongjing (mu Gem, 22nd), and Wuche (Auriga). Within the halo were black vapors, which repeatedly came together and dispersed. [This is suggestive of an aurora, but it is not listed as an aurora in the standard list (see below).]  12 Jan 776, night. Above the moon in the east were more than ten strips of white vapor like bolts of silk. They passed through Wuche, Dongjing, Yugui (theta Cnc, etc., 23rd), Zui (phi 1 Ori, 20th), Shen, Bi (epsilon Tau, 19th), Liu (delta Hya, 24th), and Xuanyuan (alpha Leo, etc.). After the third of five night watches, they  dissipated. [This is suggestive of an aurora, but it is not listed as an aurora in the standard list… As can be seen, I was unable to find anything suggestive of an aurora in 774 in the astronomical sections of the histories of the Tang. In fact, from Jan 774 through late 775, there were no aurora-like events listed in the astronomical sections.  There is a second possibility. If I understand correctly, a high-energy pulse from a nearby supernova could cause ionization of the lower atmosphere, resulting in cloudiness and lower temperatures. So the following search sought reports of a dim sun, early frosts, unusually cold weather, and so on that were in or bracketed the 774-5 time frame. To save time, I'll omit the Chinese texts (email me off-list if you want the Chinese).  Great snows were recorded for 24 Jan 773, 10 Dec 774, and 15 Feb 785. Ice storms were recorded for 20 Dec 767 and the lunar month of 5 Jan-3 Feb 786. Low temperatures were recorded during the summer dog days of the lunar month 28 Jul-5 Aug 769 and the lunar month of 20 Dec 811-17 Jan 812. Famines were recorded for the lunar month of 26 Mar-24 Apr 765 and 15 Mar-13 Apr 785. Droughts were recorded in 773 and the lunar month of 13 Feb-13 Mar 777.   Then there are dim sun events. In the New History of the Tang, bracketing dim sun events are recorded for 12 Jan 727 ("sun red as ochre") and 15 Apr 741 ("dim sun" [but the entry says this was caused by dust-laden wind]) as well as 15 Feb 790 (“sun red as blood”). Only one unusual event was recorded within the time frame: the great snow of 10 Dec 774. To sum up, the astronomical sections of the histories of the Tang seem to show nothing exceptional about the 774-5 time frame.  Note: the “standard list” I mention above is “Zhongguo Gudai Tianxiang Jilu Zongji” (Comprehensive collection of records of celestial phenomena in ancient China) published by Jiangsu kexue jishu chubanshe in Nanjing in 1988. Another work I consulted (besides the histories) is Zhongguo Sanqiannian Qixiang Jilu Zongji  (Comprehensive Compilation of Three Thousand Years of Chinese Weather Records, Vol. 1).  Thanks to Larry and we hope RJ won’t mind us publicising this vital piece.