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Is This Ancient Map of the Cosmos Younger Than Previously Thought?

A controversial new analysis of the Nebra Sky Disc suggests the artifact dates to the Iron Age, not the Bronze Age

A new study suggests the Nebra Sky Disc is 1,000 years younger than previously assumed. (Dbachmann via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0)
smithsonianmag.com

In 1999, two treasure hunters exploring a prehistoric enclosure near the German town of Nebra happened upon a bronze disc inlaid with gold symbols. After crudely excavating the artifact, the pair attempted to sell the now-damaged disc, as well as a selection of weapons and tools, to local archaeologists—an illegal transaction, they discovered, as the objects actually belonged to the state of Saxony-Anhalt.

For the next several years, the Nebra Sky Disc circulated among black market antiquities dealers and collectors. Authorities only recovered the artifact in 2002, when a sting operation worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster ensured its safe return to Germany.

Researchers have debated the object’s origins and purpose ever since—and now, new research is adding yet another layer of controversy to the Nebra Sky Disc’s story. Writing this month in the journal Archäologische Informationen, Rupert Gebhard, director of Munich’s Bavarian State Archaeological Collection, and Rüdiger Krause, a historian at Goethe University Frankfurt, suggest that the disc dates not to the Bronze Age, but to the Iron Age, making it about 1,000 years younger than previously thought.

A circular bronze plate measuring nearly one foot in diameter, the disc’s blue-green patina is covered in applied gold foil icons of celestial bodies. The artifact—currently housed in the collections of the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle—is widely thought to be one of, if not the, oldest known depictions of the cosmos.

Nebra sky disc and bronze artifacts found alongside it
Above: The Nebra Sky Disc. Below: Bronze Age swords, axes and arm jewelry allegedly found alongside the disc (Hildegard Burri-Bayer)

Per a press release issued by the German Society for Pre- and Protohistory, Gebhard and Krause developed their theory after analyzing documents related to the disc’s discovery, including statements from court proceedings against the looters, as well as pertinent scientific and archaeological research.

As Becky Ferreira reports for the New York Times, the researchers argue that the treasure hunters moved the disc to Nebra from a different site, perhaps to keep its location hidden from archaeologists and ensure the continuation of their illicit (but lucrative) activities.

“They never tell you the place where they excavated because it is like a treasure box for them,” Gebhard tells the Times. “They just go back to the same place to get, and sell, new material.”

Speaking with German broadcast network Deutsche Welle, Krause says the disc “must be assessed as an individual find” rather than as a companion to the bronze artifacts allegedly found alongside it.

“It just does not have the background to have been found in a depot with the other accompanying items that ultimately served to date it,” Krause adds. “This can no longer be asserted based on strict scientific criteria.”

Some scholars remain unconvinced by the new findings. A statement issued by the disc’s keeper, for one, calls the archaeologists’ assertions “demonstrably incorrect” and “easily refuted.”

The Nebra Sky Disc, as seen soon after its recovery by authorities
The Nebra Sky Disc, as seen soon after its recovery by authorities (Hildegard Burri-Bayer)

“The biggest mistake in science is if you don’t refer to the whole data,” the State Museum’s director, Harald Meller, tells the Times. “What these colleagues do is refer only to very limited data that seems to fit their system.”

Meller’s team intends to publish a refutation of Krause and Gebhard’s study.

The renewed debate arrives ahead of a major exhibition centered around the disc, notes Sarah Cascone for artnet News. Titled “The World of the Nebra Sky Disc—New Horizons,” the show is scheduled to open in Halle in June 2021 before moving to the British Museum in London in 2022. It will explore connections between Bronze Age Britons and Germany’s Únětice culture.

The dubious nature of the disc’s discovery, in combination with the absence of absolute dating methods for metals (unlike wood, bone, and other organic materials, whose relative age can be determined with radiocarbon dating) and the fact that it’s the only known artifact of its kind, has led some experts to doubt its authenticity—in other words, some think it could be a fake.

As more archaeologists study the Nebra Sky Disc, evidence continues to build for its legitimacy as an ancient artifact. Still, Emilia Pásztor, an archaeologist at Hungary’s Türr István Museum who has studied the disc but was not involved in the new research, tells the Times, the object “belongs [among] those archaeological finds that can be debated forever until some very accurate absolute dating method can be found for metals.”

About Erin O'Hare

Erin O'Hare is an arts and culture reporter based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her work has appeared in C-VILLE Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, and The Australian, among other publications.

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