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27 November 2006
Sky disc of Nebra shines in Basel

The oldest representation of the cosmos the sky disc of Nebra has gone on show in Basel's history museum. Basel (Swiss) has a special place in the disc's history. It was here that police seized the disc after it was stolen from its place of origin in Germany. The disc, which forms the centrepiece of an exhibition devoted to Bronze Age objects, has been hailed as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of recent times. Made out of bronze with gold embossing, the 3,600-year-old object is an astronomical clock. It connects the sun and the moon calendars together, with the sun giving the day and year and the moon, the month. The moon year is, however, 11 days shorter than the sun year. This was taken into account in ancient times by adding an extra month, leading experts to believe that people in the Bronze Age were already making sophisticated astronomical observations similar to those written about by the Babylonians around 1,000 years later.
     "Basically the disc was used by people in the Bronze Age, or at least the elite, to work out the beginning of spring or autumn, or the seasons in general," Eliane Tschudin, a museum spokeswoman, told swissinfo. "They were not aware of the calendars of today with their named days and months," she added. "When the constellation of the sky matched that on the disc they knew for example that it was the beginning of spring." According to disc expert Ralph Hansen from the Hamburg Planetarium, this knowledge was very important and could be described as "Bronze Age high-tech know-how".
     The disc is said to be the oldest representation of the cosmos known to man and is of great importance to researchers in archaeology, astronomy and the history of religion. But it has not yet revealed all its secrets. "There are three films in the exhibition to help the public understand what the disc means," said Tschudin.
     The 32-centimetre disc, which weighs around two kilograms, was found along with other valuables in Nebra in eastern Germany. According to Tschudin, the site is well known to archaeologists and has been called "a buried history book" as it contains thousands of burial mounds. Illegal treasure hunters have also been attracted to the area, which is how the disc is thought to have been found in 1999. The two who uncovered it, believing it was a type of lid sold it on despite it belonging to the state of Saxony-Anhalt. It was only three years later that the police followed the trail of the disc to Basel, when they intercepted two people trying to sell the object at the city's Hilton Hotel. They and the treasure hunters have since been tried over the affair.
     Also on show at the Basel exhibition are Swiss exhibits from the Bronze Age. This includes a golden bowl, dating from around 1,000 BCE, which was found in Zurich, and which also shows the heavens. And there is a golden goblet from Eschenz on Lake Constance which is the same age as the sky disc. The Trundholm Sun Chariot from Denmark, which shows a horse drawing the sun in a chariot, is also on display, as well as many burial mound articles, weapons and jewellery.

Source: Swissinfo (22 November 2006)

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