Nebra Sky Disk Might be Younger Than First Thought

Was it Bronze Age men or Iron Age men who created the Nebra Sky Disk, and what was its purpose?
Marcia Wendorf
The photo credit line may appear like thisDbachmann/Wikimedia Commons

The ancient man was consumed by the night sky. He attempted to both portray it and understand it as demonstrated by structures such as Stonehenge and the Goseck Circle. However, the oldest known representation of the cosmos is the Nebra Sky Disk.

The Nebra Sky Disk is a bronze disk 11.75 inches (30 cm) in diameter and weighing 4.9 pounds (2.2 kilograms). It has a blue-green patina, and it is inlaid with gold symbols. Prominent among these symbols are the Sun, a crescent moon, and stars. There is a cluster of seven stars that is is commonly interpreted as being the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters.


Added at a later date are two arcs along the disk's sides which display an angle of 82°. This is the angle between the rising and setting points of the Sun during the Summer and Winter solstices at the latitude where the disk was found.

An even later addition to the disk is another arc at its bottom which is surrounded by multiple strokes. While its meaning is unknown, interpretations include a solar barge with oars, or the Milky Way.

The Nebra Sky Disk has had a rather colorful history. It was first unearthed in 1999 by two metal detectorists, Henry Westphal and Mario Renner. The two men were searching in the Ziegelroda Forrest near the town of Nebra in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.

Nebra swords
Nebra swords Source: Dbachmann/Wikimedia Commons

The two men were aware that anything they unearthed was the property of the state of Saxony-Anhalt, but all that went out the window when the men stumbled upon a hoard that included the sky disk, two bronze swords, two hatchets, a chisel, and fragments of bracelets.

Nebra hatchets, chisel and bracelets
Nebra hatchets, chisel, and bracelets Source: Dbachmann/Wikimedia Commons

A day after their discovery, Westphal and Renner sold the hoard to a dealer in the city of Cologne for 31,000 DM (1 DM was roughly half a Euro or USD). Over the next two years, the hoard changed hands repeatedly while remaining within Germany. Then, in 2001, the authorities became aware of the hoard's existence.

In February 2002, Saxony-Anhalt state archaeologist Harald Meller and the police set up a sting operation, and they managed to grab the hoard. Going back through all the hoard's owners led them to Westphal and Renner.

Prosecuted by the state, the two men led authorities to where they had found the hoard. In 2003, the two men were sentenced to four months and ten months, respectively for their crime. Feeling that the sentence was too stiff, they appealed and the appeals court changed the men's sentences to six and twelve months, respectively, proving that appeals don't always pay.

1600 BCE

After Westphal and Renner took authorities to where the hoard had been found, archaeologists opened a dig site which is located the top of an 827 foot (252 m) mound 37 miles (60 km) west of the German city of Leipzig.

The area of the dig was known to have been settled during the Neolithic Era which began around 12,000 years ago. Besides the mound where the hoard was found, the Ziegelroda Forrest has approximately 1,000 barrows, which are mounds of earth and stones that possibly cover graves.

Radiocarbon dating of birch bark found on one of the swords in the hoard dates to between 1600 BCE and 1560 BCE, however, it is likely that the disk had been used by at least several generations prior to being buried, so it may be much older.

Nebra Sky Disk phases
Nebra Sky Disk phases Source: Rainer Zenz/Wikimedia Commons

The Nebra Sky Disk was constructed in four phases. Initially, the disk had the Sun, the crescent moon, and thirty-two small round gold circles which represented stars. At a later date, the two side arcs were added, and this was determined by chemical analysis of the gold.

To make room for the two new arcs, one "star" had to be moved from the left side of the disk to its center, and two "stars" on the right side of the disk were covered over, leaving only thirty stars out of the original thirty-two stars.

The next addition to the disk was the arc at the bottom, which was made of gold from yet a different origin. The final addition was the punching of thirty-nine holes approximately 1/10 of an inch (2.5 mm) in diameter around the disk's perimeter.

Initial analysis of the Nebra Sky Disk indicated that its copper came from Bischofshofen in Austria, and its gold came from the Carpathian Mountains, which are famous for their purported werewolves and Dracula. However, a more recent analysis has determined that the gold used in the first phase of the disk's construction came from the River Carnon in Cornwall, UK and that the tin used to make the bronze also came from Cornwall.

A controversy over dating

Recently, two German scientists, Rupert Gebhard, director of the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich, and Rüdiger Krause, professor of early European history at Goethe University Frankfurt, have proposed that the Nebra Sky Disk is actually 1,000 years younger than supposed.

That would move the sky disk from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. The two scientists also proposed that the disk and other items comprising the hoard were moved to the Nebra site from a different location.

Dr. Gebhard told The New York Times, "They [Westphal and Renner] never tell you the place where they excavated because it is like a treasure box for them. They just go back to the same place to get, and sell, new material."

While this might sound far fetched, in 1871, a large number of rare scarabs, statuettes and papyri began showing up in antique markets in Egypt. Suspicion soon fell on the Abd el Rasul family of Sheik Abd el Gourna.

The village is on the west bank of the Nile River near to the city of Luxor which had been the ancient City of Thebes. Even under torture, members of the el Rasul family proclaimed their innocence. Then, in 1881, a family fight led to one of the Rasuls, Mohammed, leading authorities to a steep shaft cut into the base of a cliff.

Tomb DB320
Tomb DB320 Source: Keith Hazell/Wikimedia Commons

At the bottom of the shaft were almost 40 mummies from the famed 18th and 19th dynasties which the priests of Egypt's 20th dynasty had reburied in an attempt to keep them out of the hands of grave robbers.

To say thank you for his "honesty", Mohammed Abd el Rasul was made the chief guard over the cache of mummies, proving that crime does indeed pay. Today, you can see the Nebra Sky Disk displayed at the Halle State Museum of Prehistory (Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte) in Halle, Germany.


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