The Nebra Sky Disk is a unique object measuring about 30 cm in diameter. Adorned with gold illustrations on its greenish surface, this disk showcases an array of celestial bodies. Created around 1750 BC, it was buried as an offering approximately 150 years later.
The artefact resurfaced in 1999, dug up by treasure hunters alongside a collection of Bronze Age weaponry. Initial doubts about its authenticity have given way to scientific consensus that it's indeed a Bronze Age artefact.
With its golden stars, sun and moon, the Nebra Sky Disk stands as the oldest known realistic representation of astronomical phenomena. Unlike symbolic drawings of gods or mythical creatures, it shows stars as actual shining points. It was likely passed down through generations, with each version becoming more detailed.
Notable additions include golden arcs along the bottom and sides, one of which has fallen off. The objects on the sides are thought to mark points where the sun rises and sets during solstices. The bottom arc, with carved lines, could be a solar boat, a rainbow, the Aurora Borealis, or a comet. Back then, people believed the sun and moon were moved by a boat, as seen in other rock carvings and bronze artefacts.
Since there are no written records from its time, the purpose of the Nebra Sky Disk is a calculated guess. Most experts believe it served as an astronomical calendar. Its ceremonial burial transforms the disk from a mere tool into a religious symbol. People in ancient times aligned their monuments with the sun and moon, suggesting the disk combined these symbols into a visual representation of sacred knowledge.
Regardless of its exact role, the disk offers a valuable look into early human understanding of the night sky, revealing insights into the movements of celestial bodies during the Bronze Age.
While I initially found the Nebra Sky Disk fascinating, I didn't fully grasp its significance. Wouldn't there have been more decorative depictions of stars? Learning about the extensive sky observations needed to create an accurate calendar shifted my perspective on prehistoric knowledge transfer. For some reason, I had always pictured prehistoric society as isolated groups of people, unaware of other tribes or generations.
A good example of meticulous prehistoric knowledge transmission is found in the Iliad. Spanning centuries between the Trojan War and Homer's composition of the narrative, the epic vividly portrays Bronze Age warriors and their technology with remarkable accuracy.
“How Homer could have had so clear a picture of bronze tool-making and armoury can only be explained by precise and well-remembered oral transmission over a very, very long time.” - Stephen Fry, Troy, 2020
Fry, S. (2020) Troy. Penguin Books