In September of 2002, German archaeologists revealed a Bronze Age find with the potential to change modern-day thought about how the ancients viewed their relationship to the stars, moon, and sun, and how they may have used solar observatories to predict the cycle of life. Based on its association with other Bronze Age artifacts found near Nebra, a site located about 110 miles southwest of Berlin in eastern Germany, archaeologists believe that the bronze Sangerhausen Star Disk may be 3,600 years old.
Despite having been discovered about four years ago by metal detectors illegally working the site, it was not until July of 2002 that authorities seized the artifact, along with two swords, two axes, a chisel, and a set of arm-rings, and arrested the people who had plundered the site. Only then were archaeologists able to pinpoint exactly where the looters had unearthed the plate-like disk and begin excavating the site. Thus far, archaeologists have uncovered a circular earthen embankment some 200 yards in diameter, which encloses the entire site and includes a series of ramparts and ditches that were used continually from 1,600 to 700 BC.
Valued at about $10 million, the disk’s images were embossed with gold leaf. They display the sun (or a full moon), a crescent moon, the horizon, and 32 stars, several of which may represent the Pleiades, the star cluster used by Bronze Age peoples to predict the timing of autumn and the fall harvest. If determined to be authentic, the Star Disk could be the earliest astronomical map in existence, and the forested site where it was found—Mittelberg hill—might be the home to the oldest surviving solar observatory.
Speculating that the structure was a celestial observatory, astronomer Wolfhard Schlosser from the University of Bochum, said,
The site’s special aspect can be seen in the correct determination of at least two important dates. On June 21, the sun can be seen from here to set exactly behind the Brocken, the most important mountain in the Harz, and on May 1, the sun sets behind the Kulpenberg, the highest hill of the Kyffhäuser.
Superficially, then, the Nebra site has similarities to other henge sites in Europe, including Stonehenge and Avebury, both of which were enclosed with earthen banks and ditches. However, since the German site was constructed with timber logs rather than stone slabs, it is more similar to Woodhenge, an ancient site in England where timber uprights were erected instead of stone.
The Purpose of the Disk
While scholars have wrestled with the possibility that such megalithic sites functioned as some sort of celestial observatory, they have been unable to offer concrete physical proof to bolster their theories. So the association of the Star Disk with the henge-like structure at Nebra may be just the breakthrough they have been seeking. The images on the Star Disk may even correlate with the view of the night sky as seen from Mittelberg hill during the Bronze Age.
Besides identifying several astronomical bodies on the bronze disk, scholars have offered a variety of interpretations about the two curved shapes depicted opposite each other on the object. According to Professor Schlosser, the two gold bands represent an angle of 82.5°. This represents the circle of the daily period passing from the summer solstice on June 21 to the winter solstice on December 21 in central Germany. A third more curved gold band lies between the two horizon arcs, and may represent either the Milky Way or a ship sailing between the horizons across the nocturnal celestial ocean.
Archaeologist Harald Meller, director of State Museum for Prehistory in Halle, Germany, believes that both the circular building and the Star Disk were used by the ancients to track the sun’s movement from winter to summer solstices, providing information on when to sow and harvest their crops.
Findings from the Nebra excavations will be published in early 2003, and a conference on the subject is planned for 2004 in Halle, Germany, where the Star Disk is currently being studied. Future plans for the site near Nebra include reconstructing the solar observatory and turning the hilltop into a tourist attraction so that visitors will be able to experience how the structure may have functioned during prehistoric times.
Perhaps by then, sufficient evidence will exist to determine whether the bronze plate is authentic and confirm both its original purpose and that the henge site was used by the ancients as a solar observatory. Its broader implications may change the way archaeoastronomers understand the prehistoric world, how megalithic monuments were used, and whether or not the ancients had an intellectual sophistication that modern humans have yet to define.