The Nebra sky disk is a bronze disk of around 30cm (1ft) diameter, patinated blue-green and inlaid with gold symbols. These are interpreted generally as a sun or full moon, a lunar crescent, and stars (including a cluster interpreted as the Pleiades). Two golden arcs along the sides, marking the angle between the solstices, were added later. A final addition was another arc at the bottom surrounded with multiple strokes (of uncertain meaning, variously interpreted as Solar Barge with many oars, as Milky Way or as Rainbow).
Possibly an astronomical instrument as well as an item of religious significance, the disk is a beautiful object; the blue-green patina of the bronze may have been an intentional part of the original artifact.
If authentic, the find reconfirms that the astronomical knowledge and abilities of the people of the European Bronze Age included close observation of the yearly course of the Sun, and the angle between its rising and setting points at summer and winter solstice. Observation of solstice is inferred from stationary arrangements such as Stonehenge and the neolithic "circular ditches" such as the 5th millennium BC Goseck circle, but the disk is the oldest known "portable" instrument to allow such measurements.
The disk is unlike any known artistic style from the period, and had initially been suspected of being a forgery, but is now widely accepted as authentic.
The disk had appeared as if from nowhere on the international antiquities market in 2001. Its seller claimed that it had been looted by illegal treasure hunters with a metal detector in 1999. Archaeological artifacts are the property of the state in Saxony-Anhalt and following a police sting operation in Basel, Switzerland, the disk was acquired by the state archaeologist, Dr Harald Meller. As part of a plea bargain, the illicit owners led police and archaeologists to the site where they had found it together with other remains (two bronze swords, two hatchets, a chisel and fragments of spiral bracelets). Though no witnesses were present at the first discovery, archaeologists have opened a dig at the site and have uncovered evidence that support the looters' claim (in the form of traces of bronze artifacts in the ground, as well as matching earth samples found sticking to the artifacts). The disk and its accompanying finds are now in Halle in the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte (State Museum for Prehistory) of Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. The two looters received a four months and a ten months sentence by a Naumburg court in September 2003. An appeal court raised these to six and twelve months, respectively.
The discovery site identified by the arrested metal detectorists is a prehistoric enclosure encircling the top of a 252 m elevation in the Ziegelroda Forest, known as Mittelberg ("central hill"), some 60 km west of Leipzig. The surrounding area is known to have been settled since the Neolithic, and Ziegelroda Forest is said to contain around 1,000 barrows.
The enclosure is oriented in such a way that the sun seems to set every solstice behind the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz mountains, some 80 km to the northwest. It was claimed by the treasure-hunters that the artifacts were discovered within a pit inside the bank-and-ditch enclosure.
The more precise dating of the Nebra skydisk, however, depended upon the dating of a number of Bronze Age weapons which were offered for sale with the disk and said to be from the same site. These axes and swords can be typologically dated to the mid 2nd millennium BC (Unetice culture). Radiocarbon dating of a birch bark particle found on one of the swords to between 1600 and 1560 BC confirmed this estimate. This corresponds to the date of burial, at which time the disk had likely been in existence for several generations.
According to an analysis of trace elements by x-ray fluorescence by E. Pernicka, University of Freiberg, the copper originated at the Mitterberg in Austria, while the gold is from the Carpathian Mountains. Copper from Bottendorf in the immediate vicinity of Nebra has definitely not been used. But few copper objects are found where they were originally smelted.
The development of the disk as preserved was in four stages:
- Initially the disk had 32 small round gold circles, a large circular plate and a large crescent-shaped plate attached. The circular plate is interpreted as either the Sun or the full Moon, the crescent shape as the crescent Moon (or either the Sun or the Moon undergoing eclipsis), and the dots as stars, with the cluster of seven dots likely representing the Pleiades.
- At some later point two arcs were added at opposite edges of the disk, constructed from gold of a different origin, as shown by its chemical impurities. To make space for these arcs one small circle was moved from the left side to the center, and two of the circles on the right were covered over, so that 30 remain visible. The two arcs span an angle of 82°, correctly indicating the angle between the positions of sunset at summer and winter solstice at the latitude of the Mittelberg (51° N). The apparent solar context of the arcs suggest that at least at this stage, the circular plate was taken to represent the Sun.
- The final addition was another arc at the bottom, the "sun boat", again made of gold from a different origin.
- By the time the disk was buried it also had 39 or 40 holes punched out around its perimeter each approximately 3 mm in diameter.
There were initial suspicions that the disk might be an archaeological forgery. Richard Harrison, professor of European prehistory at the University of Bristol and an expert on the Beaker people allowed his initial reaction to be quoted in a BBC documentary (link below):
- "When I first heard about the Nebra Disc I thought it was a joke, indeed I thought it was a forgery. Because it’s such an extraordinary piece that it wouldn’t surprise any of us that a clever forger had cooked this up in a backroom and sold it for a lot of money."
Though Harrison had not seen the skydisk when he was interviewed, it was a reasonable skepticism at that point, but the disk is now widely accepted as authentic and dated to rougly 1600 BC on grounds of typological classification of the associated finds. As the item was not excavated using archaeological methods, even its claimed provenance may be made up, hence authenticating it has depended on microphotography of the corrosion crystals (see link), which produced images that could not be reproduced by a faker.
The disk was the center of an exhibition titled Der geschmiedete Himmel ("the smithied heavens"), showing 1,600 Bronze Age artifacts, including the Trundholm sun chariot, shown at Halle from 15 October 2004 to 22 May 2005, from 1 July to 22 October 2005 in Kopenhagen, from 9 November 2005 to 5 February 2006 in Vienna, from 10 March to 16 July 2006 in Mannheim and from 29 September 2006 to 25 February 2007 in Basel.
An exhibition center near the site of discovery is expected to open in July 2007.
The state of Sachsen-Anhalt has registered the disk as a trademark, which has resulted in two lawsuits. In 2003, Sachsen-Anhalt successfully sued the city of Querfurt for depicting the disk design on souvenirs. In an ongoing (as of 2006) lawsuit, Sachsen-Anhalt is suing the publishing houses Piper and Heyne over an abstracted depiction of the disk on book covers. The Magdeburg court is required to assess the case's relevance according to German copyright law. The defenders argue that as a cultic object, the disk had already been "published" in the Bronze Age, and that consequently all protection of intellectual property associated with it has long expired. The plaintiff on the other hand argues that the editio princeps of the disk is recent, and according to German law protected for the next 25 years, or until 2027. Another argument concerns the question whether a notable work of art may be registered as a trademark in the first place.
The disk has begun to attract the kind of pseudoarchaeology, neopagan and paranormal speculation that is associated with Stonehenge and Arkaim.
- Golden hat
- Trundholm sun chariot
- Tumulus culture
- Antikythera mechanism
- Uriel's machine
- Ute Kaufholz: Sonne, Mond und Sterne. Das Geheimnis der Himmelsscheibe. Anderbeck, Anderbeck 2004, ISBN 3-937751-05-X
- Landesamt für Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt (Hrsg.): Archäologie in Sachsen-Anhalt. Dt. Verl. d. Wissenschaften, Halle 1.2002, S.7–31. Template:ISSN
- Frank Hagen von Liegnitz: Die Sonnenfrau Weihnachtsgabe der WeserStrom Genossenschaft, Bremen 2002.
- Harald Meller (Hrsg.): Der geschmiedete Himmel. Die weite Welt im Herzen Europas vor 3600 Jahren. Ausstellungskatalog. Theiss-Verlag, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-8062-1907-9
- Katja Näther, Sven Näther: Akte Nebra – Keine Sonne auf der Himmelsscheibe? Naether, Wilhelmshorst 2004, ISBN 3934858023
- National Geographic Deutschland. Gruner + Jahr, Hamburg 2004,1, S.38–61, ISBN 3-936559-85-6
- Uwe Reichert: Der geschmiedete Himmel. in: Spektrum der Wissenschaft. Heidelberg 2004,11, S.52–59. Template:ISSN
- Der Sternenkult der Ur-Germanen. Titelbericht im Nachrichtenmagazin DER SPIEGEL vom 25.11.2002.
- E. Pernicka/C.-H Wunderlich, 'Naturwissenschaftliche Untersuchungen an den Funden von Nebra', [in:] Archäologie in Sachsen-Anhalt 1, 2002, pp. 24-29.
- Brief description
- Official Landesmuseum website with spectacular microphotos (German, with some English translation)
- Video of BBC Horizon documentary on Google Video
- Transcript of BBC Horizon documentary on the disc
- Article by archaeologist Schlosser about the possible interpretation of the disc (German)
- Translation of German newspaper article about trial of looters and authenticity of the disc
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