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the nebra sky disk

Medium: Copper, iron, gold
Dimensions: Roughly 30cm in diameter
Date: c. 1600 BCE
Discovered: 1999
Location of creation: Nebra, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany
Current Location: State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany
Period: Iron Age
Subject: Astronomy
Theme: Sky

brief summary

The Nebra Sky Disk disk is a 3600 year old measuring device, believed to be from the Bronze Age, depicting astronomical phenomena with a very profound significance. It is the oldest known physical representation of astronomical phenomena in the world, and it also might be one of the earliest calendars ever conceived. The Sky Disc is now part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, proving its great significance in the history of Mankind.

general description

The Nebra Sky Disk disk is believed to date to the bronze age, more precisely to 1600 BCE and to the Unetice Culture, and is attributed to a location near Nebra, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. It depicts astronomical phenomena, and is over 3600 years old. With approximately 30 centimetres in diameter and weighing 2.2 kilograms, the disk is made of tinted bronze in a blue-green patina with details or symbols made of gold. At the centre, the full moon or the sun, takes prominence, along with the crescent moon which sits on the right side. They are surrounded by various dots representing the stars, with the more intense cluster of seven dots likely representing the Pleiades (part of the Taurus constellation). In total, 32 stars are depicted. Two additions were conducted to the disk over time. Two arcs were added at opposite edges of the disk, with the precise angle of 82º each, marking the difference of the sunset’s position, at the exact angle, during the summer and the winter solstices, at a latitude of 51ºN (known as the latitude of Mittelberg). The other addition was another arch, at the bottom, also made of gold, identified as a sun boat or as a rainbow.

Schematic depiction of the first stage of the design of the disk

Schematic depiction of the additions

Schematic depiction of its current condition

The disk was discovered by accident, in 1999, by two locals, who were using a metal detector to treasure hunt. They found the disk, a couple of swords, and other random artefacts such as part of a bracelet. Recklessly, they damaged the disk and site when they uncovered the pieces. Acting illegally, they proceeded to sell the disk and the other findings to a trader in Cologne. For two years, in Germany, it traded hands various times, falling into the black market. It was finally found in 2002 by a state archaeologist. The disk and the other pieces are all currently located at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. The exact date of the disk is very debatable, as some researchers believe it is an artifact of the Bronze Age, and others believe it is from a later date, dating the Iron Age. Since the authentication uses micro-photography of corrosion crystals, it is believed that the dating is accurate, however debates still occur as most speculations were based on the dates of burials of the swords which were found with the disk. New studies conducted by German archaeologists/scientists, claim that the disk was rather created during the first millennium BCE, roughly 1,000 years later than originally assumed making it rather an object of the iron age. However, The State Museum for Prehistory in Germany, where the disk is located, claimed that these were “misleading” reports, and insisting that “from a metallurgical point of view, dating the Sky Disc to the Iron Age is clearly out of the question.”

Nebra Swords (swords found with the disk) (CC BY-SA 3.0, Dbachmann)

The disk is widely considered to be “one of the most important archaeological finds of the twentieth century” (an expression claimed by UNESCO when the disk was added, in 2013, to the Memory of the World Register), and one of the most sensational European discoveries of the past decades, as well. The disk has a profound significance for humanity, as it is the oldest known physical representation or depiction of cosmic or astronomical phenomena in the world. Since it is the first known astronomical physical work, in which processes of celestial mechanisms are recorded, to aid man in his daily functions, its discovery greatly adds to our understanding of the knowledge of the people of the European Bronze Age. The accuracy of the angles between the rising and setting points, at both summer and winter solstices, reveals  a great detail of study. The disk, thus, makes our understanding of the Bronze Age people to be highly inaccurate, resulting from a great deal of underestimating of the era. If speculations are correct, then the disk is a very sophisticated calendar, and can be one of the earliest calendars ever conceived.

 

The purpose of the disk has been puzzling archaeologists since its discovery. It is mostly believed to have been a sort of an astronomical instrument, probably for measuring accuracy, while other speculations include religious significance. Since the Pleiades (a cluster of seven stars in the constellation of Taurus) has had great significance for the rural calendar, as it notified times of harvest and sowing, it is believed that its presence in the disk is not coincidental, and therefore, the fact it is some form of astronomical measuring for agriculture and other processes, is a given. Although similar mechanisms can be found in Stonehenge (which aligned its principal axis with the direction of sunrise on summer solstice) and in the Goseck Circle – both larger earthworks and megalithic structures -, its size, form and weight maks this disk the first of its kind to have ever been portable. Significantly, the Goseck Circle is located a mere 25 km from where the disk was found, and is considered Europe’s oldest observatory, another great reference to the astronomical observations which occurred in the area at the time. If it is an attempt to measure and understand the solar and lunar cycles, it is also an attempt to coordinate time, revealing a remarkable sense of the cycles of nature. According to this perspective, its purpose is also a form of a calendar. However, the real underlying purposes as to why the Bronze Age civilization aligned matter with the celestial bodies is still a mystery.

Stonehenge (3000-2200 BC), in Wiltshire, England

Goseck Circle (c. 4900 BC), in Goseck, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany (CC BY-SA 3.0, Kreuzschnabel)

It is commonly accepted that the blue-green color of the bronze was intentional and a fundamental part of the original artifact. Although not much is known of its technique, the sources of the materials used have been traced: the copper is from Austria, the gold has been traced to from the River Carnon, in Cornwall, United Kingdom, and the tin in the bronze is also from the Cornish lands.

Photograph of the Nebra Sky Disk (CC BY 3.0, Anagoria)

The disk was registered as a trademark, by the state of Saxony-Anhalt, and they have been carrying out many lawsuits successfully. According to German copyright laws, the trademark of the disk was to be protected until 2027, even though many argued, as it is an historic piece of art, it should have never been allowed to be trademarked in the first place. However, during an appeal in 2009, the Federal Court of Justice withdrew the trademark rights from the disk, and, instead, the state has registered it’s design under the European Union Intellectual Property law. Depictions of the disk’s design still cannot be used commercially, in souvenir form and book covers, for example.

The Nebra Sky Disc: Cycles in the Cosmos
By Howard Crowhurst (2012)

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