"Studded with stars unutterably bright" - The Sky Disc of Nebra

23 February 2002, the bronze artefact dating back to 1600 BCE later known as the Nebra sky disc, originally looted in 1999 by treasure hunters, was seized during a sting operation by the Swiss police in Basel.

“Heaven's ebon vault,
Studded with stars unutterably bright,
Through which the moon's unclouded grandeur rolls,
Seems like a canopy which love has spread
To curtain her sleeping world.” (Percy Bysshe Shelley “Queen Mab”)

The Sky Disc of Nebra

Admittedly, David Macaulay has a rather whimsical sense of humour. His description of the excavation of a Pompeii-like buried motel from the ancient Usa by future archaeologists in the year 4022 CE is a rather important caveat though. The fictional Howard Carson and his team deduce from the “Do Not Disturb” sign they find in the ruins of the antediluvial dosshouse that they have discovered an important funerary temple and jump at rather hilarious conclusions about the sacral purpose of the unearthed artefacts, from a loo lid to the Thunderbird parked outside. In short, without an accompanying user manual and a reference frame, we might actually put our foot in it like Macaulay’s Carson. Thus, concluding that the ancient Europeans had used their special astronomical knowledge when they built circular enclosures with their concentric circles and doorways aligned to the rising sun on the solstices, enabling them to calculate solar calendars around 5000 BCE, might just be falling for a Neolithic advertising stunt connected to the hip size of fertility goddesses made by a local potter. Or it might not. If the wooden Circular Enclosures like the Goseck circle from 4900 BCE in present-day Saxony-Anhalt was indeed a calendar building and a temple, it proves profound astronomical skills native to the region where the Nebra sky disc was discovered in 1999 by treasure hunters.

"Harriet insisted that she be allowed to wear some of the priceless treasures. 
Carson gave in. For the remainder of the day, Harriet proudly strode around the site 
wearing the Sacred Collar and matching Headband. She also wore 
the magnificent plasticus ear ornaments and the exquisite silver chain and pendant" 
Looking a bit like Mrs Schliemann in the Bronze Age finery excavated by her hubby -
 a depiction of the relics found in the Motel of  Mysteries 

The “smithied heavens”, the Nebra sky disc, is considerably younger than the Neolithic Goseck circle 20 miles away, though. According to the accompanying artefacts found near Nebra in a stone-set treasury or grave, two bronze swords, bronze axe heads and a few bracelets crafted probably by the Central European Unetice culture, the bronze disc is about 3,600 years old. But it might still be older, since the artefact was reworked three times, the first phase showing the Pleiades, a full and a waxing moon, the second brings it in relation to the rising and setting sun and the third adds the sun boat, a cultural image found all across the old word from Egypt and Crete to Denmark. The imagery mirrors the social and cultural exchange of the age, since the copper used for the body of the disc was mined in Austria, the tin in Cornwall and the gold either there as well or maybe in remote Romania. However, even if the disc was made as late as 1600 BCE, it still is the oldest known depiction of the visible universe made by humans we have so far, older by 200 years even than comparable images from Egypt. Whatever the thing was actually good for is still debated by archaeologists, but the theory of the sky disc being an artistic amalgam of various religious beliefs found across Europe, condensed in a single artefact, is certainly one of the most interesting approaches.

A somewhat artistic reconstruction of "Woodhenge" in Goseck

Besides the Trundholm sun chariot, discovered in 1902 in a peat bog in Denmark, the Nebra sky disc is one of the most important and one the most glamorous artefacts we have from the European Bronze Age and it is quite a piece of good fortune that we do have it at all. Actually, the hoard including the disc was about to be lost due to one of the banes of archaeology – treasure hunters using a metal detector. Two of them found the hoard in 1999, damaged the disc while trying to dig it up and sold it for 30,000 Marks to a dealer from Cologne. The story of the discovery of an important ancient find leaked out, though, and after the treasure changed hands several times, the disc along with the accompanying artefacts were seized by the Swiss police during a sting operation involving a bait of 700,000 Marks or € 350,000 in 2002 and was committed to the treasure’s current lawful owner, the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt. It is now exhibited at Halle at the State Museum of Prehistory.

Depicted above is, of course, the now famous Nebra Sky disk, photographed during the exhibition "Beyond the Horizon - Space and Knowledge in the Old World cultures" at the Berlin Pergamon Museum by Anagoria in 2012 and uploaded to


And more about the Sky disc:


The Goseck Circle on:


The Image of "Woodhenge", the Goseck Circle depicted above was found on:


and David Macaulay on: