On July 4, 1054, a mysterious light appeared in the sky like a sudden, silent explosion in the cosmos. The light was visible around the world during daylight hours for 23 straight days, and visible at night until April 6, 1056.
Or was it?
The answer to that question depends on what you read. This stellar explosion, now identified as a supernova explosion 6,500 light-years away, was recorded in writings by Chinese astronomers, who called it a "guest star," and by witnesses in Japan and Iraq. However, there are few written reports of this hard-to-ignore stellar event in Europe. Many historians believe this is linked to the East-West Schism going on at the time between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX, ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire which encompassed Europe, banned any talk of it as heresy. However, the discovery of a rare coin from that era shows that one sly whistleblower may have managed to reveal the supernova to Europeans.
"Given the Church's stand on astronomy/astrology, there would be a strong incentive not to report the occurrence of any event — including an obvious supernova — that would threaten the theological/astronomical status quo."
In a study published in the August 2022 issue of the European Journal of Science and Theology, a team of researchers and astronomers from around the world reveal the discovery of a misplace star on the front of one of four rare Byzantine gold coins minted during the last six months of Constantine IX’s rule in 1054. (Photos of the coins can be seen here.) During his reign from 1042 to 1055, Constantine IX minted millions of coins in four known series. In the last series, Constantine IX’s head appears next to a star, which historians believe symbolizes the emperor as the sun and the star is Venus. However, one of the four coins shows what appears to be a second star with eight pointers or rays just like the other one. Why would this coin be different … and what was that second star?
“Yet, it is also conceivable that coins were used as a means of mass communication to project power.”
According to the study, coins of that era were not just used for currency to conduct transactions but also as a show of strength. The engravings were the means to display that power – showing well-detailed depictions of the heads of leaders, symbols of strength and supreme God-given powers like celestial objects, and powerful animals, both real and mythical. That would explain a coin showing Constantine IX and a star – he was known for his attempts to stop the East-West Schism and keep the power centered in the Eastern Orthodox Church and in Constantinople. Constantine IX was known to be prone to conspiracy theories, so his decision to suppress the recording of what every one of his citizens saw in the sky every night and many days fit right in with his style.
We now know from other historical records, particularly those of Chinese astronomers, and modern astronomers that SN 1054 did not disappear but is still visible today as the Crab Nebula. The remnant of the exploded supernova is the Crab Pulsar, and both have been well studied by astronomers for centuries. In 2021, another study in the journal Nature Astronomy explained how astronomers determined that the supernova of 1054 was probably an electron-capture supernova – a rare new class of explosion that occurs when an overwhelming gravitational force crushes the star's core, causing electrons in the core to smash into their atomic nuclei, triggering a core collapse and a spectacular flash of light. In this case, a light that changed the sky and threatened religious beliefs of the time which were already being severely tested by the schism.
“Perhaps one of the ways for a clever astronomer at Constantine IX’s University of Constantinople to record the event would be to use a cipher, in this case, a minted coin of a special edition that were minted after the 1054 event. We make the hypothesis that the head of the Emperor, Constantine IX, displayed in a special edition of coins might symbolise the Sun with a bright ‘star’ on either side - Venus in the east and SN 1054 in the west, perhaps also representing the newly split Christian churches.”
After developing that theory, the study’s researchers went looking for more examples of the two-starred Constantine IX coin. Searching through the known collections in various museums, they found 36 more of the two-starred coins. (Photos of the coins can be seen here.) That seemed to confirm that someone at the Constantinople mint either made a mistake or had something up their sleeve. But what? And was the second star really SN 1054? A closer look at these 36 coins plus the other one pointed to a possible answer.
“While there are no exact historical records, we hypothesise that the coins were intentionally minted in order of decreasing size of the stars. Very surprisingly, we found that the stars in these 36 coins gradually decreasedin size (‘faded’) by ~ 35%; from the largest (4.25 mm; 100%) to the smallest (2.75 mm or 64.7%.”
Using precise calibration tools, the researchers found subtle differences in the sizes of the second star on the coins. That confirmed in their minds that it was a strong possibility that someone, or a group, at the mint let the Eastern Roman Empire know that there really was something in the sky, showed that it was getting smaller over time, and that the guy whose head was in the middle of the coin was also in the middle of squelching the news. Chinging the size of the star on the coin would be easy because dies were made by hand and wore out after stamping about 10,000 coins.
As the study notes, there are no exact historical records to confirm this sneaky whistleblowing, and the coins have no dates to prove they were indeed minted after the supernova appeared, which was at the end of Constantine IX’s reign. Also, Numismantic News points out that this theory has been bandied about for some time by Byzantine coin experts. Still, the new research found nothing to disprove the theory.
It is stories like these that makes one lament the possible end to a pocket full of coins as the cost of making them exceeds their currency value. We forget that, like stamps in another era, coins serve as excellent records of history.
And sometimes whistleblowing.