Germany’s National Treasure Isn’t as Special as They Thought
For Germans, whose ancestors were characterized as barbarians, the idea that Germany had once housed an advanced ancient culture that was older even than Egypt was refreshing.
Every country has its national treasures: buildings, objects, or (euphemistically) people who represent something about the country’s identity as a whole. Americans have the Declaration of Independence; the English have Stonehenge or the Crown Jewels; and Egyptians have the pyramids and the funerary mask of King Tut. For the Germans, their most famous archaeological treasure is the Nebra Sky Disk, a bronze disk inlaid with gold images of the moon and stars. For the past twenty years many have argued that it is the oldest-known representation of the sky and because of that it has been called “one of the most important archaeological finds of the twentieth century.” Its status is currently in jeopardy, however, as a new study claims that the Sky Disk is 1000 years younger than previously believed.
The twelve-inch-wide disk was illegally unearthed in 1999 in the Ziegelroda forest near the town of Nebra, on the river Unstrut in the region of Saxony-Anhalt. According to Henry Westphal and Mario Renner, the looters who found the disk, they located it in a hoard of jewelry and swords using metal detectors. The following day they offloaded their discovery to a Cologne based dealer for 31,000 Deutsche Mark. It changed hands several times and only came to public attention in 2002 when a sting operation in Basel, Switzerland, let to the reclamation of the disk and the arrest of Westphal and Renner. They each received prison sentences for their crime.
At this point the Disk was returned to state hands and entrusted to Saxony-Anhalt’s state archaeologist, Harald Meller. Meller noticed that some of the gold bands on the disk had slipped and that, when properly aligned, the bands represented the spread of the sunsets and sunrises over the course of the year. The stars, moreover, represented the Pleiades constellation. Far from being just a decorative ornament of the night sky, the Nebra Sky Disk was more like a map of the heavens. It is, therefore, either a kind of astronomical instrument or religious object. Astronomer Ralph Hansen has argued that the disc was used to co-ordinate the solar and lunar calendars, but his theory is contested by others who think it was used in shamanistic rituals. Tests performed on other artifacts in the hoard suggested that the Disk may be up to 3,800 years old. A date this early would make it the oldest representation of the heavens in the world. It would be even older than the star map that adorns the ceiling of the tomb of Senmut near Luxor (1500 BCE).
Though there were skeptics from the beginning (one archaeologist said he thought it was a “joke” and a forgery), public excitement about the Nebra Sky Disk ran high. A special exhibit focused on the artifact toured Halle, Copenhagen, Vienna, Mannheim, and Basel, and a visitor’s center was opened near the site of alleged discovery. For Germans, whose ancestors were characterized by the Romans as barbarians and appear unwashed and poorly dressed in films about the period, the idea that Germany had once housed an advanced ancient culture that was older even than that of Egypt was a refreshing change. The Disk was even the subject of a bestseller co-authored by Meller and Kai Michel entitled, Die Himmels Scheibe von Nebra: Der Schlüssel zu einer Untergegangenen Kultur im Herzen Europas (The Nebra Sky Disk: The Key to a Lost Culture in the Heart of Europe). An English translation is currently being prepared. The Disk is currently included in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” register.
A new study published by Rupert Gerhard and Rüdiger Krause looks set to dampen the excitement. In an article published simultaneously in German and English this month in the journal Archäologische Informationen, Gerhard and Krause argue that the Disk is unlikely to be early Bronze Age but dates, instead, to 1000 years later. They analyzed the statements of the looters, the court documents involved in their trial, and all of the scientific evidence assembled thus far. On the basis of geochemical analysis of soil and metals involved in the find they concluded that it’s unlikely that the disk was ever part of the hoard the looters claimed they found it in. (It’s unclear how many of the objects found in the hoard were actually found in the location identified by the looters: a soil sample from one of the axes, for example, is “completely different” than the sample taken from the looter’s pit.) The other items in the hoard, therefore, can’t be used to date the Disk: it’s essentially an individual object with no associated context.
The only way to date it, then, is to compare the Disk to comparable archaeological material. In the same way as you can look at an outfit from the 1960s and know when people wore it, archaeologists can compare the Disk to objects which have a secure dating. When Gerhard and Krause did this they concluded that “no comparable symbolic material can be drawn forth for its classification in the Central European Early Bronze Age.” If it’s really from this area, they add, a date “within the Iron Age…would be obvious.” In their press statement they put the issue more bluntly: “The Nebra Sky Disk is 1,000 years younger than previously assumed” and is “no longer the oldest known concrete depiction of the sky.”
Theories like this one aren’t just a matter of scholarly debate, they are a challenge to public identity and beloved cultural artifacts. As a result, some are responding aggressively to the new study’s findings. Speaking to Livescience Gebhard compared the cultural significance of the Sky Disk to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, adding, “That makes it difficult for me … you can understand that people are not very happy about this.”