JSK - Collection & H.G.Winkler Art Collection




The Sky Disc of Nebra (1,600 BC)

The bronze disc with gold appliqués was found at Nebra (Saxony-Anhalt, Germany) only a few years ago and displays the oldest tangible cosmological representation in the history of mankind. It allows a deep insight into the astronomical knowledge of Bronze Age people and is thus a key find for European prehistory, the history of astronomy and the history of early religion.

The representations on the bronze disc required observations of the starry sky over many generations. Furthermore, the disc as well as the associated artifacts indicate extensive contacts as far as the eastern Mediterranean, thus giving substantial and fresh impulses to research.

History of the discovery

In 1999, equipped with a metal detector, treasure hunters illegally salvaged a large bronze disc as well as additional bronze objects from the area of a prehistoric circular enclosure on the Mittelberg hill near Nebra (Saxony-Anhalt). At the beginning of 2002 the police were able to secure the assemblage during a bogus purchase meeting and deliver it to the responsible museum – the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle.

The determination of the perpetrators finally lead to decisive information concerning the precise findspot of the artifacts which could subsequently be confirmed by a comparison of the soil samples on the artifacts with soil samples from the Mittelberg as well as by an official excavation.

Location

The Mittelberg, towering above the Unstrut meadows, bears a prehistoric circular walled and ditched enclosure on its summit with a diameter of ca. 160 m, whose defensive function is however questionable.

On the summer solstice (June 21st) the sun sets behind the 80 km distant Brocken, the most prominent mountain of the Harz. In clear weather lines of vision existed to the Brocken as well as to the Kulpenberg, the main hill of the Kyffhäuser. The sun sets behind the Kulpenberg on May 1st.

Following an excavation conducted by the State Office for Heritage Management the stone lined pit was identified in which the bronze disc had been found. Together with the disc had been deposited two precious bronze swords, two bronze axes, a bronze chisel and two spiral bracelets. The assemblage presumably was a deposit at a sacred place, which served as an observatory.

 Short description and interpretation

The Sky Disc of Nebra, 31-32 cm in diameter and ca. 2.1 kg in weight, is made of bronze with gold appliqués. Its edge is deformed in one place and a piece of the large circular gold sheet appliqué has been torn off, damage which occured during the incompetent salvage by the treasure hunters. Thirty-two small gold plates are to be interpreted as stars. Amongst them a group of seven stars most likely represents the Pleiades. In prehistory, this constellation played an important role in the prediction of sowing and harvest times. The "sun" and the "crescent moon" also represent celestial bodies, however they cannot be identified with certainty. The "sun" could also represent the moon, similarly the "crescent moon" could represent a partial lunar or solar eclipse. Two lateral curved golden bands can be interpreted as the western and eastern horizon arcs depicting the points of sunrise and sunset through the year.

Their angle of about 82° corresponds to the path of the sun at the latitude of Saxony-Anhalt in the Early Bronze Age. The feathered sickle-shaped element may be seen as the mythical sun barge, that travels back and forth between the sunrise and sunset. The feathering most likely represents oars.

The nightly voyage of the sun over the celestial ocean (the return route to the daily sunrise) is one of the central motives of ancient Egyptian religion. Sun, moon and star symbols, but above all the characteristic representation of the Pleiades as found on the Sky Disc of Nebra, are very well-known from the advanced Bronze Age civilizations of the Near East. Until now we merely knew of isolated finds, such as weapons or jewellery, which could be recognized as being typical products of the eastern Mediterranean and thus proved long-distance contacts between this region and the Early and Middle Bronze Age of central and northern Europe. The discovery of the Sky Disc of Nebra, provides the clearest indication that not only goods but also intellectual concepts and religious ideas reached Central Europe from the Near East and Egypt.

 Associated finds

In view of the significance of the Sky Disc it is easy to overlook the fact that also the swords are extraordinary pieces in their own right. The two almost identical weapons are decorated with fine engravings. In addition, a ring of gold sheet adorns each of the two hilts. However, most remarkable of all are the inlays on the bronze sword blades and hilts: Pure copper was set in prepared wide shallow grooves in the bronze, thereby its reddish brown copper colour contrasted with the golden bronze. The inlay technique is extremely complicated and occurs only very rarely in Early Bronze Age Europe beyond the eastern Mediterranean.

The two axes, the narrow chisel and the two fragmented spiral bracelets are local forms which confirm the dating of the assemblage to the end of the Early Bronze Age.

 Proof of authenticity

Given that the Nebra find was recovered by treasure hunters under dubious circumstances and illegally sold, and that the Sky Disc is unique and totally extraordinary, following its securement the authenticity of the assemblage was immediately checked with the most modern scientific techniques.

Through measurements of the radioactivity (Pb 210), the characteristic size, structure and colour of the green corrosion products (malachite crystals), residual copper compounds on the gold sheet as well as the complex and typical composition of the bronze and gold alloys, it could be proven beyond all doubt that the Sky Disc of Nebra is not a forgery.