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Is the Nebra Sky Disc a millennium younger than we thought?

Analysis by German archaeologists suggests that the piece was not part of the Bronze-Age hoard looted in 1999

Early picture of the Nebra Sky Disk, around January 2002. This is one of the few photographs showing the condition of the sky disc before it was taken over by the Landesmuseum Halle and before the conservation work carried out there. Important are the traces of corrosion, which are still easily recognisable here Photo: Hildegard Burri-Bayer

The Nebra Sky Disc, the world’s oldest known depiction of the cosmos, might not be as old as previously thought. The disc was discovered during an illegal excavation in 1999 and is regarded as one of Germany’s most significant archaeological finds. The looters said that they had unearthed the disc at a hill fort called the Mittelberg, near Nebra in Germany, along with various other artefacts, including swords, axes and bracelets. Experts dated these objects to around 1600BC— in the Early Bronze Age— and assigned the disc the same date because it was found alongside them.

Now, Rupert Gebhard, the director of the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich, and Rüdiger Krause, the professor for prehistory and early European history at Goethe University Frankfurt, have questioned whether the disc dates to the same period as the other artefacts. Writing in the journal Archäologische Informationen, the archaeologists re-evaluated previous research, including the results of soil studies and geochemical analyses of the artefacts’ metals, and what was known about the Mittelberg site.

Further early pictures of the Nebra Sky Disk and the find complex. Above: The Nebra Sky Disc. Below: Bronze Age swords, axes and arm jewelry, allegedly found together with the Nebra Sky Disk Photo: Hildegard Burri-Bayer

“Our conclusion is that the disc very probably was not found by the looters on the Mittelberg, but somewhere else,” Krause says. “The second conclusion is that the swords and the other bronze artefacts were not found together with the disc. That means it was not a hoard. As a consequence, the disc cannot be dated to the Bronze Age, but has to be assessed as a single find.”

Gebhard and Krause also studied the disc’s decorative motifs, which include a crescent moon, a full moon or sun, stars and a sky ship, and found no similar symbols on artefacts from the Early Bronze Age. “According to the iconography we are dating the disc now to the younger Iron Age, that means around 500-50BC, says Krause.” This makes it more than 1,000 years younger than previous estimations.

Early Celtic iron sword from the 5th century BC from Munich-Allach with inlaid gold sheets representing the crescent moon, full moon and five stars Photo: State Archaeological Collection Munich, Manfred Eberlein

“The disc no longer has any meaning for the Early Bronze Age,” Krause adds. “We have to start thinking of a new meaning of the disc for the Iron Age, which will be very different and more general in the cultural context.”

The researchers’ arguments have received a rebuttal from the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, where the Nebra Sky Disc is kept. In a press release, the museum says that Gebhard and Krause “not only ignore the abundance of published research results in recent years, their various arguments also are easily refuted”. The museum also says that the researchers’ reassessment of the soil studies and geochemical analyses are “demonstrably incorrect”.

The Nebra Sky Disc was inscribed in Unesco’s Memory of the World register in 2013. In 2019, the disc received renewed media attention after it was announced that it would be loaned to the British Museum for an exhibition centred on the artefact and its history.