“The Nebra Sky Disc, the oldest known realistic representation of the cosmos ever found, was possibly used as an advanced astronomical clock to determine crop planting and harvest times, though its true purpose is yet unknown. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
At some point in ancient history, a starry scene was immortalized on a disc of bronze. That artifact is an enigma today. Recovered by treasure hunters in 1999, it’s been named the "Nebra Sky Disc" after the town of Nebra, Germany, near the site where the disc was found.
Cosmic artwork is nothing new; some experts say this object might be the first surviving attempt to portray astronomical objects (like stars) in a realistic way. But we’re missing some important context. While the Nebra Sky Disc is undoubtedly valuable, its age is open to debate.
A Scene of Celestial Wonder
The artifact measures about 12 inches (30 centimeters) wide and weighs 4.6 pounds (2 kilograms). A series of 39 to 40 tiny holes were made along the perimeter. Color-wise, the disc has a bluish-green backdrop punctuated by golden symbols.
Extra attention has been paid to seven tightly-packed dots. They most likely depict Pleaides, a star cluster visible from both hemispheres.
There’s also a large golden circle thought to represent the sun or moon. It faces a crescent-shaped object that might be an artist’s take on some eclipse or lunar phase. Finally, we’ve got 25 other dots, a curved line toward the bottom — and two long arcs hugging the sides.
The latter evoke horizons, a possible reference to the solstices. Who knows? Perhaps the disc helped farmers time their harvests in accordance with the changing seasons. It could’ve had religious value as well. Though the arcs, stars and other ornaments were made of gold, the disc itself is corroded bronze (hence its blue-green color).
Ancient Artifact, Modern Crime
Following its discovery in 1999, the Nebra Sky Disc spent three years on the black market until authorities seized the relic in a 2002 sting operation.
Shortly thereafter, in 2005, Regensburg University archaeologist Peter Schauer claimed the disc was a modern forgery. His arguments have been dismissed; the corrosion and other lines of evidence are a testimony to this object’s advanced age.
Still, the nature of its recovery raises questions. The two men who found the sky disc claimed they unearthed it at a site near Nebra, Germany — about 111 miles (180 kilometers) southwest of Berlin. Since the disc was considered property of the state, they had no legal right to dig it up or attempt to sell it. But these guys did both. And in 2005, they were found guilty of illegal excavation.
“A pair of Bronze Age swords, among other artifacts, was allegedly found near the site of the Nebra Sky Disc discovery in 1999.Schellhorn/ullstein bild/Getty Images
Before the sting, the looters tried to sell the disc as part of a collection that also included two axes, two swords and other artifacts allegedly taken from the same location.
Is It Bronze Age or Iron Age?
Right now, the disc is on display at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Germany. According to the locally based State Office for the Preservation of Monuments and Archaeology’s official website, it "cannot be directly dated" using radiometric dating techniques.
Yet all is not lost. Radiocarbon dating shows that the bark on one of those associated sword hilts is about 3,600 years old. If the sky disc was made at the same time (more or less), then it’s definitely a Bronze Age treasure.
However, a controversial paper, released in September 2020, proposes that the disc’s place of origin may not have been reported accurately. The authors also suspect it could be 1,000 years younger than previously thought, making it an Iron Age relic.
Harald Meller, director of the Halle State Museum, isn’t sold. Neither is Deputy State Archaeologist Alfred Reichenberger, who wrote a press release questioning the 2020 paper. "The colleagues not only ignore the abundance of published research results in recent years, their various arguments are also easily refuted," declared Reichenberger’s statement. According to this January, 2021 story in The New York Times, the controversy concerning the age of the disc continues to rage unabated.
Looters, a court case and rejected fakery charges. After everything it’s been through — just in the past 21 years or so — one wonders what the future has in store for the mysterious Nebra Sky Disc.
Now That’s Interesting
Capitalizing on his artistic background, the great astronomer Galileo Galilei published detailed sketches of sunspots and the moon’s pockmarked face.
Originally Published: Oct 1, 2020