13 January 2012

History's Mysteries: The Nebra Sky Disk

By J.S. Dunn


The Nebra sky disk
Der geschmiedete Himmel, the forged heaven.

That’s the poetic title of an exhibit that featured a bronze disk about the size of a dinner plate. The exhibit took place in Mannheim, Germany in July 2006, and attendance totaled over 300,000 persons over a few months. Why the buzz?

For starters, this disk is absolutely unique. No prototypes, earlier models, or later knockoffs exist. The Nebra sky disk, as it is called, has been the subject of controversy since it was rescued from looters who dug it up around twelve years ago by a daring archaeologist participating with police in a tense sting operation. Instead of netting one million DM for their troubles, the thieves got jail time. That much of the story would suffice for a good thriller film. The star might well be the disk itself, its upper surface covered in gold foil symbols of a sun (or full moon), a crescent moon, scattered stars, and gold foil strips at precise places on its perimeter.

The real controversy and the intellectual kick of this object lies in deciphering when and where it was made, and ultimately why or its purpose. Micron-level analysis of its green patina surface revealed that it is genuine, the corrosion crystals too large to have been faked. The metal composition is northern European rather than Mediterranean, despite its having been found with Mediterranean-styled long knives. 

Other items found with the Nebra sky disk
The overall find has been dated with relative confidence to say that the disk was made between 2100 BCE and 1700 BCE and deposited shortly after the latter date with the associated objects. Its perimeter has pierced holes that were added to it later and indicate a long period of use or change in its function. But physical scientists and archaeologists still debate its function.

Is this the oldest astronomy object in Europe, and older than any Egyptian representation of the stars (the oldest of those from around 1400 BCE)? If so, the implications for northern Europe at this time are sweeping.  Rather than being brutish warriors ruling by the sword, crudely clad, and digging their carrots with a short stick, is it possible those in the northern part of what is now Europe developed an astronomy that rivaled that of later Babylonian, Greeks, Phoenicians?

Naysayers claim the object to have been merely decorative, the riddle of the sun and crescent moon appearing together on a field of “star” shapes signaling nothing in particular. Other experts analyze old stone carvings, clay tablets, and papyrus fragments to find parallels. For those of us who enjoy astronomy, and the history of scientific instruments, the puzzle is delicious.

The Sky Disk has even been said to be the famed shield of Achilles as wrought by Hephaistos that contained the heavens: sun, moon, and Pleiades according to Homer, Book 18, The Iliad. To read more about the Sky Disk, Google Nebra Sky Disk and find abundant articles and discussions debating its origin and purpose.

The sky disc of Nebra was found near Europe's oldest observatory in Goseck
The decorated disk in bronze and gold is truly a beautiful object and the fascination of science and laypersons is unlikely to abate. No other such object has been found to date in northern Europe. However, the wooden observatory-circles of Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium; and the engineered mounds and megaliths from even earlier dates on Ireland, Wales, and Orkney, stand today in mute testimony to the power of the heavens on early human imagination.

J.S. Dunn is the award-wining author of Bending the Boyne, which took first place in the Next generation Indie Book Awards 2011