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21 January 2019
What the 'Nebra Sky Disk' tells us about ancient Germans

Twenty years ago, a stunning Bronze Age artifact was discovered in an eastern German forest. The subject of a new book, it reveals how people once saw the world - and the night sky above it.
     Buried in the woods near Nebra, in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, the artifact, along with jewellery and swords lay for over 3,000 years, until it was unearthed one day in 1999. The Disk, considered just another ornamental adornment, was taken by the discoverers, treasure hunters Henry Westphal and Mario Renner, and found its way into the lucrative black market for archaeological artifacts, stretching across Europe. There, the Disk changed hands for two years until too many people became aware of it. Then, in a police sting worthy of Tatort, the treasures from Nebra were recovered and sent back to Saxony-Anhalt, to the care of Harald Meller, the state archaeologist.
     At first glance, the Disk - 30 cm in diameter and made of bronze, appeared to show the night sky, the moon and sun both present in gold. Two gold bands were also present - it appeared one had slipped from its original position. Subsequent tests, however, that dated the deposition of the disk to around 1600 BCE and a manufacture date of 200 years before, revealed that the Bronze Age artifact was quite possibly much more than simple adornment. When aligned properly and held flat, the gold bands aligned with the spread of sunrise and sunsets over the course of a year. The cluster of stars towards the top right appear to be the Pleiades constellation, possibly an aid in aligning the disk.
     The Disk was also the subject of a recent bestseller, co-authored by Kai Michel and the archaeologist who examined it, Harald Meller. The book is called 'The Nebra Sky Disc: The Key to a Lost Culture in the Heart of Europe'; it is only available in German at present, but an English edition is planned.
     While the Unetice people, to whom it belonged, left no written records, the existence of the Disk does go a long way to supporting the idea that they had a complex understanding of the cycles of the night sky, and a developing understanding of navigation. It is hypothesised that the Nebra Sky Disk was a ritual item, used by a priestly class at certain times of the year to remind and reaffirm the movements of the heavens, the path of sun and moon. This idea is supported by the provenance of the metals, that originate from all across Europe - this was no everyday item, and took a great deal of work to put together.
     The Nebra Sky Disk is usually kept in the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte in Halle, but it sometimes lent out for exhibitions. For those who want to understand more about the world of the people who created the Nebra Sky Disk up close and personal, the 'Nebra Ark', a wonderfully-designed visitor centre, does a lot to interpret the world of the Bronze Age.

Edited from thelocal.de (21 January 2019)

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