In 1999, three grave robbers were combing through a forest near Nebra, about 180 km south-west of Berlin, Germany, using metal detectors when they stumbled upon an extraordinary treasure. This area of the forest had yielded precious objects in the past since it contains some of Europe’s oldest human settlements. This time the robbers had unearthed two bronze swords, two hatchets, a chisel, some fragments of spiral bracelets and a shiny bronze disk with gold inlays. The most valuable among their find was the disk, and the robbers knew it. What they didn’t know was this precious disk is also one of the most significant archaeological finds of the century.
The grave robbers had found what is now called “the Nebra Sky Disk”, and according to UNESCO, it is “the oldest concrete depiction of cosmic phenomena worldwide.” The disk is 30 cm in diameter and weighs 2.2 kg. It’s blue-green patina and embossed with gold leaf symbols which appear to represent a crescent moon, the sun (or perhaps a full moon), and stars, including a cluster that is interpreted as the Pleiades.
The Nebra sky disk. Photo credit
Two golden arcs along the sides were added later (one is missing) indicating the precise angle between the positions of sunset at summer and winter solstice at the latitude of the Mittelberg hill, where the Nebra Sky Disc was found. The final addition to the disk was another arc at the bottom surrounded with multiple strokes of uncertain meaning, often interpreted as “the sun boat” with numerous oars. About forty holes are punched all around the perimeter of the disk.
Each of the symbols on the disk are part of a complex European wide belief system. The sun is worshipped as the harbinger of life all across Europe. The moon was used as a symbol to mark the passage of time. The sun boat alludes to the mythology from this period which tell us that the sun during the night travelled by means of a solar boat. The Pleiades was used as an agricultural marker by farmers of ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece. It appeared in March and disappeared in October, so that farmers knew when they should do certain agricultural activities.
The Nebra Sky Disk brought all these symbols together in a portable format combining an extraordinary comprehension of astronomical phenomena with the religious beliefs of its period, that told archeologists for the first time what people were really seeing, perceiving and believing. It was such an extraordinary piece that it was initially believed it to be a forgery. But detailed scientific analysis revealed that the disk is at least 3,600 years old and is indeed an authentic and precious artifact.
The disk was prepared in four stages. Photo credit
Ancient scholars have been mapping the stars for thousands of years. Old earthworks and megalithic astronomical complexes such as the Goseck circle and the Stonehenge proves that humans had knowledge of the stars and basic astronomical events like eclipses and solstices. But realistic star images did not appear until 1400 BC in Egypt, and these had always been considered to be the oldest known to man, until the discovery of the Nebra Sky Disk.
Perhaps the Nebra Sky Disk wouldn’t have aroused so much curiosity if it was found in Egypt or in Greece where civilization had attained a certain degree of sophistication during the Bronze Age. But the disk was found in the dark heart of Northern Europe which had a reputation of savagery. Here there were no great cities, no early forms of writing, no signs of philosophy. Instead, there are crude lumps of rocks arranged in mystifying monuments whose true purpose has not survived. Everything that archeologists had found here including swords, spears and axes indicate a primitive society. But the discovery of the Nebra Sky Disk forces us to change our understanding of how civilization may have come to ancient Europe.
Miranda Aldhouse-Green, professor of archeology at the University of Wales, told BBC: “We’re dealing with people who had tremendous ability, not only a technological skill, but also immense intellectual ability. They were able to conceive of their world, they were able to represent it. There is tremendous imagination here, and there is an ability to encode information and beliefs and pass them down from generation to generation.”
The Nebra sky disk together with the objects found along with it. Photo credit
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