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Nebra sky disc

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The Nebra sky disc

The Nebra sky disc is a bronze disc of around 30 centimetres (11+34 in) diameter and a weight of 2.2 kilograms (4.9 lb), having a blue-green patina and inlaid with gold symbols.[1] These symbols are interpreted generally as the Sun or full moon, a lunar crescent, and stars (including a cluster of seven stars 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 with internal parallel lines (of uncertain meaning, variously interpreted as a solar barge with numerous oars, the Milky Way, or a rainbow).

The disc has been attributed to a site in present-day Germany near Nebra, Saxony-Anhalt, and was originally dated by archaeologists to c. 1600 BCE. Researchers initially suggested the disc is an artefact from the Bronze Age Unetice culture, although a later dating to the Iron Age has also been proposed.[2]

If its Bronze Age dating is accurate, the Nebra sky disc 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."[3]


The disc, together with 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. The detectorists were operating without a license, and knew their activity constituted looting and was illegal. Archaeological artefacts are the property of the state in Saxony-Anhalt. They damaged the disc 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, probably several times, within Germany during 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 disc in a police-led sting operation in Basel from a couple who had put it on the black market for 700,000 DM.[4] 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 supported the looters' claims. There were traces of bronze artefacts in the ground, and the soil at the site matched soil samples found clinging to the artefacts. Currently the disc and its accompanying finds are held at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.

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.

At the enclosure's location, the sun seems to set every summer solstice behind the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz mountains, some 80 km to the north-west. The treasure-hunters claimed the artefacts were discovered within a pit inside the bank-and-ditch enclosure.


The swords found with the disc
Other associated finds: chisel, axeheads, bracelets

The precise dating of the Nebra sky disc depended upon the dating of a number of Bronze Age weapons, which were offered for sale with the disc and said to be from the same site. These axes and swords can be dated typologically to the mid-second millennium BCE. Radiocarbon dating of a birchbark particle found on one of the swords to between 1600 and 1560 BCE confirmed this estimate. This corresponds to the date of burial, at which time the disc had likely been in existence for several generations.

However, research published in 2020 by archaeologists from Goethe University Frankfurt and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich casts doubt on this dating. After reevaluating prior research and the circumstances of the disc's discovery, the authors argue that the disc was likely not part of the cache of Bronze Age weapons, and therefore, cannot be dated with these artefacts. Instead they assert that the disc should be evaluated as an individual find. The authors contend it bears hallmarks of an Iron Age item, and they place its origins instead in the first millennium BCE. This younger age, they argue, would significantly change the sometimes far-reaching cultural and historical conclusions that have been attributed to the disc.[5] [2]

Origin of the metals[edit]

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, whilst the gold was thought to be from the Carpathian Mountains.[6] A more recent analysis found that the gold used in the first development phase (see below) was from the River Carnon in Cornwall, United Kingdom.[7] The tin present in the bronze was also of Cornish origin.[8]


As preserved, the disc was developed in four stages (Meller 2004):

  1. Initially the disc had thirty-two small round gold circles, a large circular plate, and a large crescent-shaped plate attached. The circular plate is interpreted as either the Sun or the full Moon, the crescent shape as the crescent Moon (or either the Sun or the Moon undergoing eclipse), and the dots as stars, with the cluster of seven dots likely representing the Pleiades.
  2. At some later date, two arcs (constructed from gold of a different origin, as shown by its chemical impurities) were added at opposite edges of the disc. To make space for these arcs, one small circle was moved from the left side toward the centre of the disc and two of the circles on the right were covered over, so that thirty remain visible. The two arcs span an angle of 82°, correctly indicating the angle between the positions of sunset at summer and winter solstice at the latitude of the Mittelberg (51°N).[9] Given that the arcs relate to solar phenomena, it is likely the circular plate represents the Sun not the Moon.
  3. The final addition was another arc at the bottom, identified as a rainbow or "sun boat", again made of gold, but originating from a different source.
  4. By the time the disc was buried it also had thirty-nine holes punched out around its perimeter, each approximately 3 mm in diameter.


Video explaining the significance of the sky disc

The disc may be an astronomical instrument as well as an item of religious significance. The blue-green patina of the bronze may have been an intentional part of the original artefact.[10]

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 is the oldest known "portable instrument" to allow such measurements. Pásztor, however, sees no evidence that the disc was a practical device for solar measurements.[11]

Euan MacKie suggests that the Nebra disc may be linked to the solar calendar reconstructed by Alexander Thom from his analysis of standing stone alignments in Britain.[12]


There were initial suspicions that the disc might be an archaeological forgery. Peter Schauer of the University of Regensburg, Germany, argued in 2005 that the Nebra disc was a fake and that he could prove that the patina of the disc could have been created with urine, hydrochloric acid, and a blow torch within a short amount of time. He had to admit in court that he had never held the disc in his own hands, unlike the eighteen scientists who had examined the disc.[13]

Richard Harrison, professor of European prehistory at the University of Bristol and an expert on the Beaker people, allowed his initial reaction to be quoted in a BBC documentary:[14]

When I first heard about the Nebra Disc I thought it was a joke, indeed I thought it was a forgery. Because it’s such an extraordinary piece that it wouldn’t surprise any of us that a clever forger had cooked this up in a backroom and sold it for a lot of money.

Although Harrison had not seen the skydisc when he was interviewed, and his scepticism was reasonable at that point, now the disc is widely accepted as authentic and is dated to roughly 1600 BCE on grounds of typological classification of the associated finds.

As the item was not excavated using archaeological methods, even its claimed provenance could have been fictitious - hence its authentication has depended on micro-photography of corrosion crystals,[14] which has produced images of structures that could not be reproduced by a forger.

The Sky Disc Visitor Center near Nebra
Replica of the find situation of the Nebra Sky Disc for the German exhibition Der geschmiedete Himmel (German "The forged sky")

Harald Meller, lecturing to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in April 2008, gave a list of evidence supporting the authenticity of the disc, and for its having been found at the site on the Mittelberg. The most persuasive of the latter was the discovery by the archaeologists — in the pit in which the looters said they had found the metalwork — of a fragment of gold leaf exactly fitting the gap present in the gold leaf covering of the 'sun' symbol when it originally was recovered.


The disc was the centre of an exhibition entitled Der geschmiedete Himmel (German "The forged sky"), showing 1,600 Bronze Age artefacts, including the Trundholm sun chariot, shown at Halle from 15 October 2004 to 22 May 2005, from 1 July to 22 October 2005 in Copenhagen, from 9 November 2005 to 5 February 2006 in Vienna, from 10 March to 16 July 2006 in Mannheim, and from 29 September 2006 to 25 February 2007 in Basel.

On 20 June 2007, a multimedia visitor centre was opened near the discovery site at Nebra.

The disc is part of the permanent exhibition in the Halle State Museum of Prehistory (Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte) in Halle.

In 2022 the disc will be on display at the British Museum in London as part of The World Of Stonehenge Exhibition from 17 February to 17 July.[15]

Legal issues[edit]

The State of Saxony-Anhalt has registered the disc as a trademark, which has resulted in two lawsuits. In 2003, Saxony-Anhalt successfully sued the city of Querfurt for depicting the disc design on souvenirs. Saxony-Anhalt also successfully sued the publishing houses Piper and Heyne over an abstracted depiction of the disc on book covers.[16] The Magdeburg court assessed the case's relevance according to German copyright law. The defenders argued that as a cult object, the disc had already been "published" approximately 3,500 years earlier in the Bronze Age, and that consequently, all protection of intellectual property associated with it has long expired. The plaintiff, on the other hand, argued that the editio princeps of the disc is recent, and according to German law protected for 25 years, until 2027. Another argument concerned the question of whether a notable work of art may be registered as a trademark in the first place. The Magdeburg court decided in favour of the State of Saxony-Anhalt.

The case was appealed and on the basis of decisions from the Oberlandesgericht Düsseldorf in 2005 and the Federal Court of Justice in 2009, the initial ruling was overturned and the German Patent and Trademark Office withdrew the trademark rights.[17] Thereafter, the State of Saxony-Anhalt registered the design of the disc as a trademark with the European Union Intellectual Property Office.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ferreira, Becky (January 19, 2021). "A Bitter Archaeological Feud Over an Ancient Vision of the Cosmos - The Nebra sky disc, which has been called the oldest known depiction of astronomical phenomena, is a "very emotional object."". The New York Times. Retrieved January 19, 2021.
  2. ^ a b Ferreira, Becky (September 13, 2020). "How Old Is This Ancient Vision of the Stars?". The New York Times. Retrieved September 13, 2020.
  3. ^ "Nebra Sky Disc". Unesco memory of the World. 2013.
  4. ^ Meller, H. (January 2004). "Star search". National Geographic: 76–8.
  5. ^ Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main (3 September 2020). "New dating of Nebra sky disk". Retrieved 4 September 2020.
  6. ^ Pernicka, E. & Wunderlich, C-H. "Naturwissenschaftliche Untersuchungen an den Funden von Nebra". Archäologie in Sachsen-Anhalt. 1/02: 24–29.
  7. ^ Ehser, Anja; Borg, Gregor; Pernicka, Ernst (2011). "Provenance of the gold of the Early Bronze Age Nebra Sky Disk, central Germany: geochemical characterization of natural gold from Cornwall". European Journal of Mineralogy. 23 (6): 895–910. Bibcode:2011EJMin..23..895E. doi:10.1127/0935-1221/2011/0023-2140. Retrieved 12 November 2013.
  8. ^ Haustein, M. (2010). "Tin isotopy: a new method for solving old questions". Archaeometry. 52 (5): 816–832. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4754.2010.00515.x.
  9. ^ McIntosh, Jane (2010). Lost Treasures; Civilization's Great Riches Rediscovered. London: Carlton Books. p. 16. ISBN 9781847322999.
  10. ^ Meller, H (2002). "Die Himmelsscheibe von Nebra – ein frühbronzezeitlicher Fund von außergewohnlicher Bedeutung". Archäeologie in Sachsen-Anhalt. 1/02: 7–30.
  11. ^ Pásztor, Emilia (2015), "Nebra Disk", in Ruggles, Clive L. N. (ed.), Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy, New York: Springer Science+Business Media, pp. 1349–1356, doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-6141-8_128, ISBN 978-1-4614-6140-1
  12. ^ MacKie, E (2006). "New evidence for a professional priesthood in the European Early Bronze Age?". In Todd W. Bostwick; Bryan Bates (eds.). Viewing the Sky Through Past and Present Cultures: Selected Papers from the Oxford VII International Conference on Archaeoastronomy. Pueblo Grande Museum Anthropological Papers. 15. City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department. pp. 343–362. ISBN 1-882572-38-6.
  13. ^ "Himmelsscheibe von Nebra - Eine Komödie der Irrungen" (in German). Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. March 17, 2005. Retrieved 2010-05-12.
  14. ^ a b "BBC - Science & Nature - Horizon - Secrets of the Star Disc". BBC. 2004. Retrieved 2008-03-25.
  15. ^ "Nebra Sky Disc: British Museum to display world's 'oldest map of stars'". BBC News. 2021-10-17. Retrieved 2021-10-18.
  16. ^ Himmelsscheibe von Nebra "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-19. Retrieved 2009-11-16.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  17. ^
  18. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Ute Kaufholz: Sonne, Mond und Sterne. Das Geheimnis der Himmelsscheibe. Anderbeck, Anderbeck 2004, ISBN 3-937751-05-X
  • Landesamt für Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt (Hrsg.): Archäologie in Sachsen-Anhalt. Dt. Verl. d. Wissenschaften, Halle 1.2002, S.7–31. ISSN 0072-940X
  • Frank Hagen von Liegnitz: Die Sonnenfrau Weihnachtsgabe der WeserStrom Genossenschaft, Bremen 2002.
  • Harald Meller (Hrsg.): Der geschmiedete Himmel. Die weite Welt im Herzen Europas vor 3600 Jahren. Ausstellungskatalog. Theiss-Verlag, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-8062-1907-9
  • Katja Näther, Sven Näther: Akte Nebra – Keine Sonne auf der Himmelsscheibe? Naether, Wilhelmshorst 2004, ISBN 3-934858-02-3
  • National Geographic Deutschland. Gruner + Jahr, Hamburg 2004,1, S.38–61, ISBN 3-936559-85-6
  • Uwe Reichert: Der geschmiedete Himmel. in: Spektrum der Wissenschaft. Heidelberg 2004,11, S.52–59. ISSN 0170-2971
  • Ch. Sommerfeld : ...Sterne mal Sterne durch Sonne ist Mond - Bemerkungen über die Nebra-Scheibe, Praehistorische Zeitschrift, 87(1) 2012, S. 110–131. ISSN 1613-0804
  • Diedrich, Cajus: The "Sky Disk of Nebra" – revision to daily life "marriage and fertility" in the final Hallstatt (Early Iron Age, HaC-D) times. American Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 21, 2021, 1-26.

External links[edit]

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Coordinates: 51°17′02″N 11°31′12″E / 51.28389°N 11.52000°E / 51.28389; 11.52000