The Nebra Sky-disc captivated me the first time I saw a photo of it. While it looks like a simple blue disk with golden circles and crescents, the bronze disc reflects the heavens in a very specific way. This year, I took the opportunity to see it in person at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle Germany. Fabulous. The breathtaking exhibit gave the story life… and the museum put the time and place into perspective. Specialists call the 3800-year-old Sky-disc one of the most important archaeological finds in Germany since it tells us a lot about the way early man observed the heavens. But it was a rough road getting the disc to the museum. (It’s a story that involves a Trabant and the international Black Market.)
The Nebra Sky Disc
I was unsure what to expect when we arrived at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle. The building, tucked into an urban neighborhood, looked like a cross between the Porta Nigra in Trier, and the old Carnegie library I used to take the kids to, with big steps leading up to the entrance. Inside, the exhibits surround an open atrium area on the ground floor, with the most current exhibit occupying the center stage. The walls are covered with bones and tools. You go up and up getting a sense of what life was like for our ancestors. Finally on the top floor …off in a corner… is a doorway.
Through the door it’s pitch black. You have to stand for a minute to let your eyes adjust. Slowly the stars appear on the ceiling. And then you can just see the walled divider. You step around, and there it is. The Nebra sky-disc. It seems to glow from within. Blue with gold moons and stars. Both beautiful and stunning.
And somehow, larger than I expected.
The museum isn’t crowded, which means you can stand and admire it for as long as you need. Both front and back. And while you stand there in the dark, you can look up, and imagine what it must have been like all those years ago, looking up at the stars in a dark night sky.
Hard to believe the disc might have been lost forever… if it wasn’t for a “ping”.
Finding the Nebra Sky-disc
In July 1999, two men were in the Ziegelrode Forest near Mittelberg, searching for coins with their metal detectors. When one of them heard a “ping”, he started digging. Out of the hole came axe heads, swords, an arm spiral… but there was something more, and it was stuck. Really stuck. So, using a pick to loosen the soil he pulled the piece out the ground (sadly, in his zeal to get it free, he managed to hit the disc enough to dent it and peel part of it off). Neither of the men knew what it was… but they were pleased with their finds. They wrapped it all up in towels, tossed the items into the backseat of their Trabant, and went for a drink at the local pub. And naturally, they told everyone there about their find.
But what to do with it?
They call a friend who can help them sell it. But first… they “clean” it. (Here’s where the archivists among you will begin to sob) First they soaked the disc and other items for a few days, then they used a wire brush to clear the embedded dirt off.
Their friend saw that the men had found something special and tries selling it to museums. But there was a problem. The treasure was found in Saxony Anhalt, and that state has a specific law about treasure found in its borders. You can’t just say “finder’s keepers”. Anything of value found must be turned over to the state. (note- Using a metal detector in Germany is NOT like here in the US. You need training, a license, and a special permit. Treasure hunting for personal profit is frowned on)
Still, they found a buyer, and the pieces are sold to an anonymous collector for 230,000 Marks!
But now, photos of the find are circulating. Dr Harald Meller the State Archaeologist for Saxony-Anhalt hears about the items from a colleague, and opens an investigation with the Public Prosecutors’ office, the State Criminal Investigation Department, the Ministry of Culture, AND the State Archaeology service.
Through an intermediary, Dr Meller agrees to meet the owner in Switzerland (at the Hilton in Basel of all places) to buy the bronzes for 700,000 Marks. The Swiss police are now involved too. The “owner” comes to the meeting with a sword in his briefcase, and the disc taped to his stomach. (Isn’t it sounding like Mission Impossible?). Dr Meller secures the bronzes, and the criminal masterminds are led away.
The men who dug up the bronzes were identified, thanks to the bartender in the pub. They, the intermediary and everyone else involved will face jail time. There is some leniency shown when the diggers take the archaeologist to the site of the find. (I’m imagining the scene. Archaeologists are notoriously neat and systematic at digs. Straight lines, sketches, everything just so. This was 2 guys with picks. OUCH.) Not much more came out of the hole except a broken water bottle that the digger had left behind.
“It Belongs in a Museum!” Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones
In 2004, the Disc is properly cleaned and cared for, and put on display (it even took a short tour around Europe). By 2008, the Nebra Sky Disc was on permanent display in the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte in Halle.
Unesco gave the Sky Disc official “Document Heritage” as an irreplaceable object and part of the “Memory of the World” in 2012.
What IS the Nebra Sky Disc?
It’s pretty, isn’t it? The bronze disc, oxidized to a deep heavenly blue with gold symbols. But the Nebra Sky-disc’s purpose goes beyond mere ornamentation, it explains the Leap Year. Today, we have calendars, and know that every 4 years there will be an extra day in February. But to early man, synchronizing the missing 11 days between Lunar Calendar and the Solar Calendar took careful observations. It’s believed that the images on the Nebra Sky-disc relate the “Leap Year” rule.
(Let me see if I can explain this)
The cluster of 7 stars on the disc represent the Pleiades, aka. the “Calendar Stars”. The Pleiades disappear in March and reappear in the heavens in October, so for thousands of years, man looked to them to know when it was safe to farm. BUT if at the beginning of your Spring month (March, or whatever it was called), they see a Crescent Moon (3-4 days of moon) instead of a New Moon (basically, no moon) next to the Pleiades cluster, then an extra leap-month of 32 days had to be added to the calendar to compensate. Look closely at the disk… there are 32 stars for a reason….
(To clarify… the disc does not tell people when to plant, the farmers already knew that. It’s explaining when to add an extra month to the year, by showing a change to something they normally observe).
But wait, there’s more!
The semi-circular pieces on the sides of the disc were added years later, to represent the summer and winter solstice. When lines are drawn across the disc from the tops and bottoms of the arcs, the overlap isn’t perfectly 90 degrees. Does that mean the artisan messed up? No… the crossing fits exactly to where someone standing in Mittelberg would see the sunrise and sunset on June 21 and December 21. (The missing crescent was most likely lost when the digger went at the disc a little too enthusiastically with his pick. The missing piece was never found, but the imprint remains)
The Nebra Sky Disc Gets More Additions
The biggest source of mystery might be the rounder crescent at the bottom of the disc. Some scientists believe it is a ship… a sky ship… that travels across the heavens. The idea and imagery are common in Egypt, but how did it get to Northern Europe? Still, there are plenty of examples of similar ship in Denmark that also show the little marks resembling oars on a boat. (So, if you can imagine that the disc is really a dome… and the ship is sailing around the edge…) Other’s claim that the crescent is a sickle, used for harvesting.
(Here you can see the holes around the edges better…you also see the dent from the pick axe….)
Finally, those holes all around the edges. Someone somewhere added them much later. Most likely to attach the Sky disc to a pole, for a procession or other ornamental uses.
Then one day, the Nebra Sky-Disc someone buried it as part of a hoard along with swords, bronze axe heads, and a few arm spirals, on a hill in Mittelberg. Hidden away for close to 2000 years, until that fateful “Ping”.
Swords, axe heads and armbands found with the disc
The State Museum of Prehistory in Halle
I can’t imagine a better display space for the Nebra Sky-disc than the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle. The disc may be an important artifact, but it certainly isn’t the only thing to see there. And do take the time to walk through it with open eyes. Seeing the exhibits that lead up to the 3800 year old disc puts the Bronze Age find into perspective.
Mammoths and axe-heads…
Exhibits are incredible. Instead of a few axe heads… an entire wall is dedicated to the varying sizes and shapes of these essential tools.
Much of the museum feels “Hands On” with buttons to press and drawers to open. .
Here each drawer shows the grain types found during the era.
Jewelry and pottery
And a Menhire!
And through to the Bronze Age
And naturally, a café and gift shop
Where, after spending time touring, you can buy Nebra Sky-disc jewelry, books about prehistory, and enjoy slice of Cake!
State Museum of Prehistory Tickets
The Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte in Halle (Saale) houses a permanent exhibit, and rotating main exhibits, while we were there, it was about Nomadic Riders. Learn more about the museum and their special programs, as well as how to get there -> Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte
Tickets for the museum can be purchased in advance online by time slot-> Tickets
The museum itself is fully accessible with elevators or stairs on each floor. And there are benches here and there for those who just want to sit and admire things instead of walking around.
Be aware that you will have to lock up your bags and purses in lockers before being allowed to tour the museum. Lockers are free, but you will need a coin to operate it (like an Aldi cart).
Put the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte in Halle on your “to -see” list for your next trip to Germany.
The Nebra Sky-Disc Kleine Reihezu den Himmelswegen Band 2 by Regine Maraszek (English by Brendan O’Connor and David Tucker)