Nebra Disc

In 2002, a spectacular discovery came to the world's attention. It had been made three years earlier in the region of Sachsen-Anhalt in central Germany, close to the small town of Nebra, thirty-five kilometers (twenty-two miles) southwest of Halle, at the summit of a 250-meter (800-foot) hill known as the Mittleberg. Here, inside a pit within a palisaded enclosure dating to the Bronze Age, treasure hunters unearthed a disc thirty-two centimeters (thirteen inches) across, about the size of a dinner plate, made of arsenic-rich bronze. On one side was a decorative pattern of inlaid shapes in thin plate gold. Although corroded and slightly damaged, the original appearance of the pattern is clear enough. To one side of the center was a circle of gold, occupying about a tenth of the whole area. There was also a crescent of comparable size, and three bands in the shape of curved arcs, two of which were placed along the rim on opposite sides, while the other follows a tighter curve, with only its central part touching the rim. The remaining space contained thirty-two smaller dots, scattered unsystematically but generally filling it reasonably evenly, apart from one group of seven dots placed noticeably closer together.

Few could fail to imagine, on first sight of the disc, that these were meant as representations of celestial objects. The crescent moon is obvious; the complete circle could be interpreted either as the sun or the full moon. The fact that there are seven stars in the cluster invites suggestions that it portrayed the Pleiades, one of the most conspicuous groups of stars in the sky. However, the pattern on the disc does not bear any close resemblance to the actual pattern of those stars in the sky—it was not a literal depiction.

Likewise, the disc as a whole was clearly not a literal depiction of the sky. The sun (or full moon) and crescent moon are vastly out of proportion, and the majority of the stars are clearly space fillers.

Could the disc have functioned as some sort of star map or astronomical aid? A number of detailed and highly speculative theories have been put forward, but the strongest evidence in support of this proposition comes from the two golden arcs along opposite rims. Their lengths are almost identical, and each covers almost exactly eighty-three degrees, which at the latitude of Sachsen-Anhalt matches the extent of the eastern and western horizon over which the sun rises and sets, respectively, during the year. Furthermore, the location where the disc was found may well have had cal-endrical significance. From this location, the Brocken, the highest mountain in northern Germany, is visible on clear days eighty-five kilometers (fifty-three miles) away on the northwestern horizon and is in the direction of sunset on the summer solstice. This has led some to suggest that the disc had a practical use as a device for fixing the time of year by observing the position of sunrise or sunset along the horizon. However, this makes no sense. There are no reference points on the disc, whereas the distant horizon, like any horizon, was full of distinguishing features that could have been used directly to identify different days in an agricultural or ceremonial calendar.

Even those who have sought hardest to find a pragmatic function for the disc tend to acknowledge that the third curved arc, touching the "southern" part of the rim (the left side in the photo), presents a problem. Some say that it resembles a ship sailing through the night: tiny lines on the upper and lower edges might even represent oars. If this interpretation is correct, then the whole disc may depict a legend relating to a ship sailing under the stars, or perhaps sailing through the sky. More speculatively, it could represent a myth in which the sun is transported from the western to the eastern horizon during the night in a ship. On the other hand, if the disc is held the other way up, the mysterious curve may simply be a rainbow.

How can we resolve the apparent contradiction between the interpretation of the disc as a portrayal of a cosmic myth and the apparent exactitude of the sunrise and sunset horizon arcs? If we interpret the disc as a representation of the cosmos, there is not necessarily any contradiction. Indigenous worldviews commonly incorporate (on an equal footing) aspects that we would see as purely mythical and aspects that we would see as reflecting scientific actuality, sometimes observed with impressive exactitude. Many indigenous cosmologies assign distinct sets of meanings and attributes to the "quarters of the world" represented by a fourfold partitioning of the horizon around the solstitial directions. (Two of the dots, or stars, on the Ne-bra disc were actually found underneath one of the rim bands, which implies that these were added as an afterthought or later elaboration.)

Unlike the Bush Barrow gold lozenge, another Bronze Age artifact for which detailed but highly speculative astronomical interpretations have been put forward, the Nebra disc indisputably contains astronomical/astrological symbols. On the other hand, to think of the disc as a portable star map is probably wide of the mark. It was more likely a remarkable status object of aesthetic rather than practical value, owned by someone with considerable prestige. As a representation of the cosmos it may well have been an object of considerable sacred power.

See also:

Science or Symbolism?

Bush Barrow Gold Lozenge; Pawnee Star Chart.


References and further reading

Nebra disc "Official website" [in German, partly translated into English].

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