full article in PLASMA 6
by Jaime Calvo Sanchez
Back in 1999, two illegal treasure hunters were wandering with a metal detector in the Ziegelroda Forest (180 km south-west of Berlin) surrounding the mystic Mittelberg -prehistoric enclosure. That day, the looters appeared to have found something finally. What they removed from the ground it is now described as the “world’s oldest known depiction of astronomical events”, the so-called Nebra Sky Disc, buried like a prince, with gold-inlaid swords, axes and jewellery.
This 3600-year-old bronze disc is decorated with a blue-green background with embedded golden symbols which are represented as the full moon or sun, a lunar crescent and stars, as well as one cluster of stars interpreted as the Pleiades. Moreover, two golden arcs along the sides form an angle of 82o, the angle between the rising and setting points of the sun at summer and winter solstice at the specific latitude of Mittelberg. Interestingly, the above-mentioned enclosure is located in a way that the sun appears to set every solstice behind the Brocken, the highest peak in the region and well-known by locals because of the myths and legends around it. The discovery of this old artefact revolutionised the world of archaeology as it is the oldest “portable instrument” to allow such measurements. As Hamburg astronomer Ralph Hansen clarified, this was probably used to tell Bronze Age people when to harvest and plant crops, giving the disc an almost modern sense of time. Nevertheless, other astronomers such as Curt Roslund from Gothenburg argue that few features represented in the disc tend to have more of a symbolic value used for certain rituals. This confirms the impressive understanding of the astronomical phenomena -through a close observation of the yearly course of the Sun- combined with the religious beliefs of its time.
In addition, the Nebra Sky disc gives an insight of how our ancestors perceived the movement of the stars, moon and sun. Another golden arc underneath the crescent moon with several strokes of unknown meaning is interpreted as a Sun boat, also mentioned afterwards by other civilizations such as the Babylonians and the Egyptians. One commonly widespread theory around this boat is that between the horizons -arcs on the sides-, the ship travels across the ocean of the night sky from one edge to the other which elucidate the Sun’s course in the sky between spring and autumn. For thousands of years, people believed the sky was a vast dome over the earth surface and the stars were scattered and attached. The view of the humans into the heart of the world is limited by the horizon, the mythical threshold bearing the ship to the heavens. This would be the first evidence of such belief in Central Europe.
The Nebra Sky disc, as part of the UNESCO´s “Memory of the World” collection, an initiative to preserve the documentary heritage of humankind, is being held at the State Museum of Prehistory of Halle (Saxony-Anhalt, Germany). The precious artefact is exhibited in the centre of a circular room in complete darkness with a starry night sky as the ceiling as to evoke ancient times when the object exerted its function. The room also contains the other finds of the Nebra deposit: two swords, two axeheads, a chisel and two-spiral armbands.
In order to have a full experience about what this represents, only 50 km away from Halle, the impressive Nebra Ark emerges at the exact findspot of the sky disc. This visitor centre connects sky and earth and presents the history encrypted in the bronze disc by combining archaeology and astronomy in an innovative interaction to help us understand the sophistication of the culture of the Bronze Age. This is presented in a Planetarium where virtual figures accompany you through films and comics. Across this 300 m2 complex, a 30 metres high Viewing Tower invites you to study the sky where you can even see the Brocken Mountain with clear weather.
Recently, the State of Saxony-Anhalt has agreed on temporarily moving the Nebra Sky Disc to the British Museum in London by the end of 2021 as part of a special exhibit highlighting the most important archaeological discoveries in the last 20 years. As culture officials said, this would attract tourists from all over the world to see the oldest portrayal of the cosmos and to build a picture of the Bronze Age society.