The Nebra sky disk is a bronze disk about 30 centimeters (11 3/4 inch) in diameter and weighing 2.2 kilograms (4.9 lb), having a blue-green patina and inlaid with gold symbols. These symbols are interpreted generally as the Sun or full moon, a lunar crescent, and stars (including a cluster of seven interpreted as the Pleiades).
Two golden arcs along the sides, interpreted to mark 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 a Solar Barge with numerous oars, the Milky Way, or a rainbow).
The find is regarded as reconfirming 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 the summer and winter solstices.
While much older earthworks and megalithic astronomical complexes, such as the Goseck circle and Stonehenge, had already been used to mark the solstices, the disc presents this knowledge in the form of a portable object. The disc may have had both a practical astronomical purpose as well as a religious significance.
The depiction of the Pleiades on the disc in conjunction with a crescent moon has been interpreted as representing a calendar rule for harmonizing the solar and lunar calendars. This rule is known from an ancient Babylonian text with the transcribed title of MUL.APIN. According to this rule, a leap month should be added when the Pleiades appear next to a crescent moon a few days old in the spring, as depicted on the disc. This conjunction occurs approximately every three years. Harald Meller suggests that knowledge of this rule may have come from Babylonia to Central Europe through long distance trade and contacts, despite it being attested earlier on the Nebra disc than in Babylonia.
The number of stars depicted on the disc (32) is also thought to be significant, possibly encoding the calendar rule numerically, in two different ways. Firstly, the conjunction of lunar crescent and Pleiades depicted on the disc occurs 32 days after the last 'new light' (the first visible crescent moon of the month), and not before.
Secondly, 32 stars plus 1 sun (or full moon) equals 33, which is the number of lunar years in 32 solar years. That is, after 32 solar years, the time difference between lunar and solar years adds up to one whole lunar year, with an error of only two days. This is because a solar year has 365 days whereas a lunar year has approximately 354 days. So 365 x 32 = 11680 days, and 354 x 33 = 11682 days. The Nebra disc has also been compared to a passage from the Greek poet Hesiod in Works and Days, written around 700 BC
The disk is attributed to a site in present-day Germany near Nebra, Saxony-Anhalt, and dated by Archaeological association to c. 1600 BC. Researchers suggest the disk is an artifact of the Bronze Age Unetice culture.
The style in which the disk is executed was unlike any artistic style then known from the period, with the result that the object was initially suspected of being a forgery, but is now widely accepted as authentic.
The Nebra sky disk features the oldest concrete depiction of the cosmos yet known from anywhere in the world. In June 2013 it was included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register and termed "one of the most important archaeological finds of the twentieth century."
The precise dating of the Nebra sky disk 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 dated typologically to the mid 2nd millennium BC. Radiocarbon dating of a birchbark 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.
The disk, two bronze swords, two hatchets, a chisel, and fragments of spiral bracelets were discovered in 1999 by Henry Westphal and Mario Renner while they were treasure-hunting with a metal detector. Archaeological artifacts are the property of the state in Saxony-Anhalt; the hunters were operating without a license, and knew their activity constituted looting and was illegal. They damaged the disk with their spade and destroyed parts of the site.
The next day, Westphal and Renner sold the entire hoard for 31,000 DM to a dealer in Cologne. The hoard changed hands within Germany over the next two years, being sold for up to a million DM. By 2001 knowledge of its existence had become public. In February 2002 the state archaeologist Harald Meller acquired the disk in a police-led sting operation in Basel from a couple who had put it on the black market for 700,000 DM.
The original finders were eventually traced. In a plea bargain, they led police and archaeologists to the discovery site. Archaeologists opened a dig at the site and uncovered evidence that supports the looters' claims. There are traces of bronze artifacts in the ground, and the soil at the site matches soil samples found clinging to the artifacts. The disk and its accompanying finds are now held at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle.
The two looters received sentences of four months and ten months, respectively, from a Naumburg court in September 2003. They appealed, but the appeals court raised their sentences to six and twelve months, respectively.
The discovery site is a prehistoric enclosure encircling the top of a 252 metres (827 ft) 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 in the Neolithic era, and Ziegelroda Forest contains approximately 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 north-west. The treasure-hunters claimed the artifacts were discovered within a pit inside the bank-and-ditch enclosure.
According to an initial analysis of trace elements by x-ray fluorescence by E. Pernicka, then at the University of Freiberg, the copper originated at Bischofshofen in Austria, while the gold was thought to be from the Carpathian Mountains. A more recent analysis found that the gold used in the first phase was from the River Carnon in Cornwall, United Kingdom. The tin present in the bronze was also of Cornish origin. Read more
The Nebra Sky Disk: Is the world's oldest star map really a map at all? Astronomy.com - May 11, 2021
The Nebra Sky Disk is marvelous looking piece of art, no matter what its intention was. The circular copper plate is about 12 inches in diameter — about the size of a medium pizza. Only rather than pepperoni, the millennia-old disk contains inlaid circles and crescents representing stars, the moon and possibly the sun, with a series of stars dotted around them. The disk has a number of different interpretations, with some people believing it represents the oldest sky map ever found, dating as far back as 1600 B.C. Some archaeologists question the provenance of the disk, believing it may not be that old. They also question whether the disk represents a map at all. They believe it may just be a fanciful depiction of celestial phenomenon.
Study casts doubt on Nebra sky disk thought to be oldest representation of the heavens Live Science - September 15, 2020
One of Germany's most famous ancient artifacts may not be what it seems, if a new study is to be believed. Fierce debate over the Nebra Sky Disk has been reignited by a new study that suggests it is at least 1,000 years younger than previously thought, and probably doesn't have any of the elaborate meanings proposed for it. The 12-inch-wide (30 centimeters) bronze disk inlaid with gold circles, arcs and crescents was reportedly unearthed in 1999 near the town of Nebra, in Germany's Saxony-Anhalt state. It was widely hailed as one of the most stunning ancient artifacts ever found. But controversy has surrounded it since its discovery.
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