The Sky Disc of Nebra


In the eighth century BC, Hesiod writes in Works and Days (383-389):

When the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, are rising, begin your harvest, and your ploughing when they are going to set. Forty nights and days they are hidden and appear again as the year moves round, when first you sharpen your sickle.

It now seems that this knowledge was worked out in detail and well-known in bronze age Europe at least as far back as 1600 BC. Thus today’s Welt reports on the latest interpretations of the Sky Disk of Nebra, the world’s oldest image of the cosmos. It caused a world-wide sensation when it was brought to the attention of the German public in 2002, having been discovered in the state of Saxony-Anhalt two years earlier.

The Sky Disc of Nebra — a bronze disc around 32 centimeters (12 inches) in diameter and weighing about 2 kilos (4.5 pounds) with gold-leaf appliques representing the sun, moon, stars and a ship — is back in the limelight. The Welt article suggests that the astronomical knowledge of bronze age northern Europe inscribed on the disc predates similar knowledge in the Fertile Crescent (where until now we thought it had first arisen) by 1000 years. Which could lead to some interesting rethinking & ordering of the flows of cultural knowledge — a world much more in flux, much more nomadic then we may have thought.

According to the article, the astronomer Rahlf Hansen now suggest that the disc represents the leap-year rule which made it possible “for man to bring the sun-year (365 days) and the moon-year (354 days) into consonance.” The first written trace of this rule dates from Babylonian tablets a thousand years later. The researchers formulate the rule as follows:

When in the spring month with which the year begins a new-light sickle [the first visible moon sickle after the new moon] stands near the Pleiades, then we have a normal year. If however the moon only stands next to the Pleiades on the third day of this month, so that it is already a thicker crescent, then a leap-month has to be inserted.

According to Hansen, this is exactly what the Nebra disk tells us. He also notes that besides the 7 stars of the Pleiades, another 25 stars are represented on the disk. This adds up to a total of 32: an important number. For the leap rule can also be expressed as follows: “If the number the days since the new-light of the previous month is 32 by the time the moon stands in the Pleiades in the spring-month, then a leap-month is necessary.” The number 32, so Die Welt, returns in a further way: 32 sun-years represent 33 moon-years, and thus the central circle on the disk can be interpreted as either the sun or the full moon in the spring month. An interesting double-symbolism letting us move with ease between what is usually perceived as two diametrically opposed, or at least radically differently loaded symbols.

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2 Responses

  1. Euan MacKie says:

    Please consult my chapter on the Nebra disc in the newly published “Viewing the sky through past and present cultures: selected papers from the Oxford VII International Conference on Archaeoastronomy” (held at Flagstaff, Arizona, June 2004), Ed. Todd Bostwick & Bryan Bates, Pueblo Grande Museum Anthropological Papers no 15. I link it to the work of Alexander Thom, and particularly to the design on the gold lozenge from Bush barrow, Wiltshire.
    Euan MacKie
    (euanmackie@btinternet.com)

  2. Ernst Holle says:

    I heared there are really good quality bronze-copies of the sky disk of Nebra available. But, I can’t find out who offers this reproductions. (if still..)
    Can someone help?

    Many thanks!

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