Himmelsscheibe: The Nebra Sky Disc
November 10, 2016 9:27 PM   Subscribe

In 1999, two men with metal detectors unearthed one of the most significant finds of modern archaeology: the Nebra Sky Disc, a 30-cm bronze disc inlaid with gold depicting the sun, moon, stars (including the Pleiades), and arcs that apparently represent sunrise and sunset at the solstices at Mittelberg Hill in Germany, and a holy sun boat symbol, dating from 1600 BCE or earlier. Because the illicit finders sold the disc on the black market, skepticism about its authenticity abounded for several years before scientific investigations confirmed it was a legitimate find and possibly the oldest concrete depiction of astronomical phenomena ever found. (The looters were seized by police in a sting operation in a bar in Switzerland, sentenced to prison, appealed, and got longer sentences.)

The copper comes from Bischofshofen in Austria; the gold and tin come from Cornwall. The Pleiades may be depicted because they set in the spring at planting time and rise in the fall at harvest in Germany (this use of the Pleiades is common in other ancient star-charting cultures).
posted by Eyebrows McGee (23 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
 
(The looters were seized by police in a sting operation in a bar in Switzerland, sentenced to prison, appealed, and got longer sentences.)

This detail fills me with joy.
posted by tavella at 10:05 PM on November 10, 2016 [32 favorites]


The Schadenfreude is strong with this post...
posted by Harald74 at 10:39 PM on November 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


I stumbled across this when I did my last astronomy post and I couldn't believe we hadn't had a post on it yet! I kept wishing someone would post it before I was finally like, FINE FINE I'LL DO IT. Be the post you wish to see in the world etc.

Anyway, it's such a cool artifact, I'm fascinated by the detail that the gold and tin came from Cornwall and what that implies about the trade networks of the time, and the sting operation starring the archaeologist who totally sees himself as Indiana Jones (and says so) is just a fantastic story!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:51 PM on November 10, 2016 [12 favorites]


It wasn't the actual looters who were arrested in the Swiss sting. The hoard had been sold several times, but the German police walked back the chain until they identified the looters, one of whom decided to collaborate and tell the authorities where they found the treasure.
posted by brokkr at 1:16 AM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


That's such an amazing story - and an incredible artefact.

Today, 80% of the world's population live under light polluted skies and can't see a considerable percentage of the stars in the sky. It's more than a little sad that we've lost our natural, primal connection to the movement of stars and planets that were used to predict the the slow cyclical movement of years, seasons and events.
posted by KirkpatrickMac at 4:08 AM on November 11, 2016 [8 favorites]


World's first connect-the-dots. I can make a smiley. Also, grapes, banana, orange melon rind.
posted by adept256 at 4:11 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


If you can get to a artificial light/pollution-free sky, preferably at altitude, the Pleiades are an amazing sight, very mysterious.
posted by carter at 5:18 AM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is such a cool artifact!
posted by tobascodagama at 5:29 AM on November 11, 2016


I read "Nebra" as "Nebraska". It felt good to have my mind blown in a good way this week, for a little while at least.
posted by vorpal bunny at 5:56 AM on November 11, 2016 [5 favorites]


The Sky Disk is an incredible find, not least because of its combination of beauty and (for its makers) utility. What irks me about it, though, is that it's an exemplar of the madness surrounding modern trademark and copyright law. The state of Saxony-Anhalt obtained a trademark on it (see the second footnote here), and have successfully defended it in court. Here in our enlightened age it's illegal to print an image of it, or even a relatively abstract drawing of it, in Germany despite the fact that it's obviously something that "belongs" to the entire human race.
posted by Quindar Beep at 7:02 AM on November 11, 2016 [10 favorites]


The Pleiades may be depicted because they set in the spring at planting time and rise in the fall at harvest in Germany (this use of the Pleiades is common in other ancient star-charting cultures).

The ancient Subaru people of the All Wheel Drive river basin understood this lesson well.
posted by indubitable at 7:21 AM on November 11, 2016 [16 favorites]


The Landesmuseum site has a lot of information if you click on the links. I particularly like this Stages of life image, which shows how the image changed over time. First it had no arcs. Then two arcs were added corresponding to the solstice measurements (overlapping some of the stars! clearly a later addition). Then later still the presumed "sun boat" was added. And later still (but still in ancient times) one of the two solstice arcs was removed. There's more detailed info on stages of production.

There's also a claim that the specific size of the crescent moon corresponds to a leap year calendar calculation.

The fact that the 82° solstice marking locates the object to a specific latitude, where it was found, is really remarkable.
posted by Nelson at 7:31 AM on November 11, 2016 [5 favorites]


wowowowowowowowow
posted by y2karl at 7:49 AM on November 11, 2016


This is a lovely article, and I love finding our history, especially the history of our spirit and intellect. Swords, yeah, yeah, yeah, but this is special.
posted by Oyéah at 8:11 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


That just sucks that the image can't be reproduced. I would .veto have a necklace with beautiful design.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:21 AM on November 11, 2016


BlueHorse, a necklace could be made with the permission of Saxony-Anhalt, or outside of Germany (I believe). A quick google turns up a few. This one looks nice.
posted by Quindar Beep at 8:26 AM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]


If you can get to a artificial light/pollution-free sky, preferably at altitude, the Pleiades are an amazing sight, very mysterious.

You'd actually be surprised at how many astronomical objects are easily visible with the naked eye. Just off the top of my head, there's the Pleiades, the Hyades, the Andromeda galaxy, the double cluster, several other open clusters including a few that are quite obvious like M6/M7, the Orion nebula, and more. In the southern hemisphere there are even more including two globular clusters (Omega Centauri and 47 Tucanae) and the Magellenic clouds.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:28 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]



If you can get to a artificial light/pollution-free sky, preferably at altitude, the Pleiades are an amazing sight, very mysterious.


Even in the city, binoculars or the cheapest telescope trained on the Pleiades will reward a clear night. I used to have a 3" refractor of the sort nobody should use when I lived in east London, and this cluster filled the field of view like diamonds spilled on velvet. So much depth, so much variation - so many stars. This was 25 years ago, but the memory remains extremely strong.

I subsequently observed them from Galloway, and... yeah, There are a LOT of stars.
posted by Devonian at 11:57 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


The National Geographic link (sting operation in a bar in Switzerland) is subscription-only.

:-(
posted by yhbc at 4:46 PM on November 11, 2016


Quindar Beep, thanks!
I never thought to use the googles. That one is lovely, but a bit out of my range. However, others range in price from $15-$270, so entirely affordable.

Apparently it's quite the thing to wear one.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:09 PM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]


Even in the city, binoculars or the cheapest telescope trained on the Pleiades will reward a clear night

They have clear nights in your city? Lucky you.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:17 PM on November 11, 2016


I just went out and saw the Pleiades through my binoculars for the first time and holy crap, you guys! It's so many bright little stars! I no longer object to optics being in the Civ tech tree, it's like magic!

"They have clear nights in your city? Lucky you."

If you're in the US or Canada, you want cleardarksky.com. It forecasts the cloud cover, transparency (based on water vapor in the air), and atmospheric turbulence, which all affect astronomical viewing, based on a Canadian forecast map that the website translates into local forecasts. (Darker blue is better!) Much easier to stargaze when you can glance on your phone and see that conditions will be good in your city. Thanks, Canada!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:59 PM on November 11, 2016 [8 favorites]


The image seems to be licensed by the State Office of Archaeology Saxony -Anhalt--there's a Sky Disc fountain pen for sale.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:57 PM on November 11, 2016


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