Late Stone Age and Bronze Age Science: Math, Measurement, Maps and the Nebra Sky Disc

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A Folkton drum

Marley Brown wrote in Archaeology magazine: More than a decade ago, archaeologists Andrew Chamberlain of the University of Manchester and Mike Parker Pearson of University College London began taking measurements at Stonehenge as part of their research at the site. They determined that the Neolithic monument’s earthwork elements — including a ditch, a bank, and a ring of chalk pits — which form concentric circles around the iconic standing stones, all feature diameters evenly divisible by a single standard measurement, that is to say, with no fractions remaining. They termed this measurement the “long foot,” because it is equal to 1.056 modern feet. Chamberlain and Parker Pearson found that the distances between some of Stonehenge’s megaliths could also be expressed as whole numbers of long feet. This led them to question how Stonehenge’s builders had made the calculations necessary to build such a complex monument intended, at least in part, to track the movements of the sun and moon, and to ask what, exactly, were the builders using to take those measurements. Although they didn’t know it at the time, the answer appears to lie in a group of puzzling Neolithic objects. [Source:Marley Brown, Archaeology magazine, May-June 2019]

“The four artifacts are known as the Folkton Drums and the Lavant Drum: three intricately carved chalk cylinders found in a child’s grave in Folkton, East Yorkshire, in 1889, and one unearthed in a pit in Lavant, West Sussex, in 1993. For more than a century, the Folkton Drums have been regarded as some of the most celebrated examples of Neolithic art in Britain. Although scholars immediately recognized the Lavant Drum’s similarity to the Folkton Drums, no one knew what any of the artifacts had been used for 4,500 years ago.

In 2016, archaeologist Anne Teather, also of the University of Manchester, was researching all four drums when she realized that the smallest of the Folkton Drums had a circumference that appeared to equal one long foot. When Teather, together with Chamberlain, considered the circumferences of the other three drums, they noticed a stunning mathematical relationship — the drums’ dimensions appeared to advance in a regular progression. To test their theory, they wrapped a cord measuring 10 long feet around a wooden model of the smallest Folkton Drum and found that it wound around exactly 10 times. They then calculated that the same length of cord would wrap around the next largest drum — the Lavant Drum — exactly nine times. Around the remaining two Folkton Drums, the cord would wrap exactly eight and seven times. Thus, they suggested, the drums, which are themselves ancient replicas of objects that would originally have been fashioned of wood, could have been used to make a sort of Neolithic tape measure. Further, they established that at least one standard measure had been used in Neolithic Britain — and even at Stonehenge itself. “We absolutely didn’t try to marry some of the most enigmatic artifacts in Britain to its most enigmatic monument,” says Teather. “The evidence led us to that.”

“A standard measurement would have also been useful, says Chamberlain, because it is well known that many of Stonehenge’s stones were quarried 100 miles away in what is now western Wales. It’s possible that Stonehenge’s builders or their emissaries communicated specifications to the quarries using this standard measurement. “Anyone who’s done any construction will know that if you get a piece of lumber and it’s too short, there’s not a lot you can do about it,” Chamberlain says. Instead of hauling stones to the construction site and trimming them on location, it now seems more likely that the megaliths were cut to order. “The drums show that it was possible to take that standard to the place where you’re quarrying to make sure the stones you’re getting are the right size,” Chamberlain explains. “That standard could then be shared with the community.”

Development of Calendars and Time-Keeping

The Ishango bone from modern Uganda in equatorial east Africa was identified by Marshak as a Lunar Calendar, dated about 9000 B.C.. Lunar calendars measure the recurrent changes in the face of the Moon. These changes repeat approximately every 28 days. A lunar calendar can only treat time in segments of 28 days. After many Moons even the best memory would be unable to correlate an event and the Moon within which it occurred. Sun defined the Day. Moon defined the Month. Subdivisions of the month were defined by the Phases of the Moon roughly corresponding to the Week: New Moon to Crescent Moon, Crescent to Full Moon, Full to Crescent, Crescent to New Moon. Some means of defining longer periods of time was necessary before the Year could be delineated. The Flood-based year of Egypt, though correlated with the star Sirius, corresponded to the Solar Year. The Solar year became (and remains) the basic unit of time, but the discovery of the solar year may have come 6000 years after the discovery of the lunar month. [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

For thousands of years mankind attempted to correlate the Month and the Year with other recurrent phenomena such as the unreliable wet/dry seasons of the tropics, the unreliable four seasons of temperate lands, the complex but unreliably measured interplay of the fixed and mobile lights in the Sky. The periodicity of the Sun may not have been discovered by the residents of the Nile Valley. The builders of Stonhenge knew of the solar year by about 3000 B.C.. Other peoples probably knew of it just as soon. Recognition of periodicity in the movements of the Sun was followed by an effort to count the number of days in a solar year. Mayan time keepers knew the correct number of days (and parts-of-a-day) in a solar year perhaps as early as 250 B.C.. The prediction of a Solar Eclipse by Thales of Miletus in 586 B.C. does not prove that some Near Easterners knew the length of the solar year but only that they were careful observers of the movements of the sun. This knowledge may not have been widely shared

Lebombo Bone: World’s Oldest Math Tool

Lebombo bone markings

The 43,000-year-old Lebombo Bone — a kind of tally stick — found in Swaziland is oldest known mathematical object According to CNN: “The Lebombo Bone is essentially a Baboon fibula that has tally marks on it.... It is conjectured to have been used for tracking menstrual cycles, because it has 29 marks on it.

In the 1970’s during the excavations of Border Cave, a small piece of the fibula of a baboon, the Lebombo bone, was found marked with 29 clearly defined notches, and, at 37,000 years old, it ranks with the oldest mathematical objects known. The bone is dated approximately 35,000 BC and resembles the calendar sticks still in use by Bushmen clans in Nimibia. The closest town to the Lebombo Mountains is Siteki, renowned for its Inyanga and Sangoma School, a government school to train healers and diviners. [Source: CNN, November 15, 2012]

Changes in the section of the notches indicate the use of different cutting edges, which the bone's discoverer, Peter Beaumont, views as evidence for their having been made, like other markings found all over the world, during participation in rituals. The bone is between 44,200 and 43,000 years old, according to 24 radiocarbon datings. This is far older than the Ishango bone with which it is sometimes confused. Other notched bones are 80,000 years old but it is unclear if the notches are merely decorative or if they bear a functional meaning. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to The Universal Book of Mathematics the Lebombo bone's 29 notches suggest "it may have been used as a lunar phase counter, in which case African women may have been the first mathematicians, because keeping track of menstrual cycles requires a lunar calendar". However, the bone is clearly broken at one end, so the 29 notches may or may not be a minimum number. In the cases of other notched bones since found globally, there has been no consistent notch tally, many being in the 1–10 range. +

Ishango Bone: 20,000 Baboon Bone Calculator from the Congo

Named after the place where it was found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Ishango bone is a bone tool described as the world’s oldest calculator and the world’s first mathematical device. Dated to the Upper Paleolitic period, between 22,000 and 20,000 years ago, Ishango bone is a dark brown bone, likely the fibula of a baboon, with a sharp piece of quartz affixed to one end for engraving. Belgian geologist Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt found the bone in 1960 buried in layers of volcanic ashes on the shores of Lake Edward in the Ishango region in DRC, near the border with Uganda. The volcanic ash made it relatively easy to date. [Source: : Dr. Y., African Heritage, August 29, 2013, Wikipedia ~]

Ishango bone

The Ishango bone is actually two baboon bones, one 10 centimeters and the other 14 centimeters long, with several incisions on each of their faces. The smallest of the two bones was the first to be discovered. Its existence was announced by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels This bone has several incisions organized in groups of three columns. I) The left column is divided in four groups, respectively possessing 19, 17, 13, and 11 notches, adding up to a total of 60 notches. The numbers 11, 13, 17 and 19 are the four prime numbers between 10 and 20. This constitutes a quad of prime numbers. II) The central column is divided in groups of 8 with some debate over how many notches there are (in the parenthesis, is the maximum number): 7 (8), 5 (7), 5 (9), 10, 8 (14), 4 (6), 6, 3. The minimal sum is 48, while the maximal sum is 63. III) The right column is divided into four groups, respectively possessing 9, 19, 21, and 11 notches, adding up to a total of 60. The second bone has not been well-studied. However, we know that it is composed of 6 groups of 20, 6, 18, 6, 20, and 8 notches. ~

According to the African Heritage blog: “The first bone has been subject to a lot of interpretation. At first, it was thought to be just a tally stick with a series of tally marks, but scientists have demonstrated that the groupings of notches on the bone are indicative of a mathematical understanding which goes beyond simple counting. In fact, many believe that the notches follow a mathematical succession. The notches have been interpreted as a prehistoric calculator, or maybe a lunar calendar. Jean de Heinzellin was the first to consider the bone as a vestige of interest in the history of mathematics. For instance, he noted that the numbers in the left column were compatible with a numeration system based on 10, since he saw that: 21 = 20 + 1, 19 = 20 – 1, 11 = 10 +1, and 9 = 10 -1. These numbers are also prime numbers between 10 and 20: 11, 13, 17, 19.” ~

A Belgian physical engineer proposed that the bones were a slide rule. Alexander Marshack has argued that they are the oldest known lunar calendar on earth. Claudia Zaslavsky thinks that the Ishango bone maker was a woman following the lunar phases to calculate her menstrual cycle. The second bone appears to have no connection with lunar calendar theory, and favors more the numeration system. ~

World’s Oldest Calendar: 10,000-Year-Old Pits in Scotland

According to British archaeologists humans developed a sophisticated calendrical system thousands of years earlier than previously thought, David Keys wrote in The Independent: “The discovery is based on a detailed analysis of data from an archaeological site in northern Scotland – a row of ancient pits which archaeologists believe is the world’s oldest calendar. It is almost five thousand years older than its nearest rival – an ancient calendar from Bronze Age Mesopotamia. [Source: David Keys. The Independent, July 15, 2013]

“Created by Stone Age Britons some 10,000 years ago, archaeologists believe that the complex of pits was designed to represent the months of the year and the lunar phases of the month. They believe it also allowed the observation of the mid-winter sunrise – in effect the birth of the new year – so that the lunar calendar could be annually re-calibrated to bring it back into line with the solar year. Remarkably the monument was in use for some 4,000 years – from around 8,000BC (the early Mesolithic period) to around 4,000BC (the early Neolithic).

Scottish calendar

“The pits were periodically re-cut – probably dozens of times, possibly hundreds of times – over those four millennia. It is therefore impossible to know whether or not they originally held timber posts or standing stones after they were first dug 10,000 years ago. However variations in the depths of the pits suggest that the arc had a complex design - with each lunar month potentially divided into three roughly ten day ‘weeks’ – representing the waxing moon, the gibbous/full moon and the waning moon.

“The 50 metre long row of 12 main pits was arranged as an arc facing a v-shaped dip in the horizon out of which the sun rose on mid-winter’s day. There are 12.37 lunar cycles (lunar months) in a solar year – and the archaeologists believe that each pit represented a particular month, with the entire arc representing a year. The 12 pits may also have played a second role by representing the lunar month. Mirroring the phases of the moon, the waxing and the waning of which takes 29 and half days, the succession of pits, arranged in a shallow arc (perhaps symbolizing the movement of the moon across the sky), starts small and shallow at one end, grows in diameter and depth towards the middle of the arc and then wanes in size at the other end.

“In its role as an annual calendar (covering 12 months – one for each pit), a pattern of alternating pit depths suggests that adjacent months may have been paired in some way, potentially reflecting some sort of dualistic cosmological belief system – known in the ethnographic and historical record in many parts of the world, but not previously detected archaeologically from the Stone Age.

:Keeping track of time would have been of immense economic and spiritual use to the hunter gatherer communities of the Mesolithic period. Their calendar would have helped them to pinpoint the precise time that animal herds could be expected to migrate or the most likely time that salmon might begin to run. But Stone Age communal leaders – potentially including Shamans – may also have used the calendar to give themselves the appearance of being able to predict or control the seasons or the behaviour of the moon and the sun.

“The site – at Warren Field, Crathes, Aberdeenshire – was excavated in 2004 by the National Trust for Scotland, but the data was only analysed in detail over the past six months using the specially written software which permitted an interactive exploration of the relationship between the 12 pits, the local topography and the movements of the moon and the sun. The analysis has been carried out by a team of specialists led by Professor Vincent Gaffney of the University of Birmingham. “The research demonstrates that Stone Age society 10,000 years ago was much more sophisticated than we had previously suspected. The site has implications for the way we understand how Mesolithic society developed in economic, social and cosmological terms, ” said Professor Gaffney. “The evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer societies in Scotland had both the need and sophistication to track time across the years, to correct for seasonal drift of the lunar year and that this occurred nearly 5000 years before the first formal calendars known in the Near East. In doing so, this illustrates one important step towards the formal construction of time and therefore history itself,” he said. “

6,000-Year-Old Passage Grave “Telescope” in Portugal

Avery Thompson wrote in Popular Mechanics: “Much of our culture has been shaped by what ancient humans thought about while looking at the night sky. Myths and legends, gods and demons, all are influenced by our ancestors' observations of the movements of the planets and stars. And now, researchers have uncovered one of the earliest tools that they used to make those observations: a telescope from six thousand years ago. [Source: Avery Thompson, Popular Mechanics, Royal Astronomical Society, July 1, 2016 +++]

Saint-Bélec Slab

“While a modern telescope works by magnifying images with mirrors or lenses, this ancient structure is a long, narrow corridor designed to filter out unwanted light. The corridor helps when viewing stars during the hours of dawn and twilight, when the light from the sun makes it hard to view stars near the horizon. The structure is part of a what's called a "passage grave," a prehistoric tomb with a long entrance corridor. Passage graves are found throughout Europe, and scientists are just starting to examine the astronomical uses of their entrances. The researchers are focusing on a particular passage grave, the Seven-Stone Antas in central Portugal, which is about 6,000 years old. +++

“The researchers believe that the Seven-Stone Antas corridor was used to view the star Aldebaran, the red giant in the constellation Taurus. Aldebaran first becomes visible in the Northern Hemisphere in the early morning of late April, just before sunrise, and viewing it through the passage could make it visible days earlier. Aldebaran likely was a seasonal marker, and its appearance would signal migration patterns or weather changes. The researchers are now studying other passage graves, in the hope of learning more about prehistoric people.” +++

Saint-Bélec Slab — The World’s Oldest Land Map

Daniel Weiss wrote in Archaeology Magazine, When a team of researchers led by Clément Nicolas, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University, first saw archival photographs of a broken schist slab held at France’s National Archaeology Museum, they were intrigued. Because the seven-by-five-foot slab was carved with repeated motifs linked by a network of lines, they suspected it might be some sort of map. [Source: Daniel Weiss, Archaeology Magazine, January/February 2022]

The slab had been excavated in 1900 from a barrow in Brittany, where it formed one of the walls of a stone tomb dating to the end of the Early Bronze Age, from roughly 1900 to 1640 B.C. The artifact, which weighs more than a ton, had been in storage for over a century when Nicolas and his colleagues, including Yvan Pailler of the University of Western Brittany and France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research, retrieved it to take a closer look.

The archaeologists recognized that a triangular hollow at the slab’s left edge resembles the shape of the Odet River Valley near where it was discovered. A square motif in this hollow appears to represent a prominent granite mass in the landscape. Likewise, the lines on the slab closely match the area’s river network. Nicolas’ team concluded that the slab is a map of an area measuring some 19 miles by 13 miles and that it dates to approximately 2150 to 1600 B.C. “This is the oldest map of a territory that we can recognize in Europe,” says Nicolas. A motif in the center of the slab may mark an enclosure, leading the researchers to suggest that the map depicts the realm of a small Bronze Age kingdom and that its purpose was to stake a claim to this territory.

Is the Saint-Bélec Slab a Treasure Map?

Not long after the Saint-Bélec Slab was recognized a map it was called a a "treasure map" that archaeologists used to hunt other ancient sites around northwestern France. "Using the map to try to find archaeological sites is a great approach. We never work like that," said Yvan Pailler, a professor at the University of Western Brittany (UBO). "It's a treasure map," said Pailler. Ancient sites are more commonly found with advanced radar equipment or aerial photography, or by accident in cities when the foundations for new buildings or subways tunnels are being dug. [Source: CBS News, October 18, 2023]

Comparison between the engravings of the Saint-Bélec slab and the topography of the Montagnes noires area: a) zoomed DEM view of the carved triangular hollow on the left-central part of the Saint-Bélec slab compared with b) the topography around the Saint-Bélec Barrow; c) interpretation of some engravings as the figuration of the relief and the river network compared with d) the relief and river shapes of the Montagnes noires area.

CBS News reported: The team is only just beginning their treasure hunt. The ancient map marks an area roughly 30 by 21 kilometers and Pailler's colleague, Clement Nicolas from the CNRS research institute, said they would need to survey the entire territory and cross reference the markings on the slab. That job could take 15 years, he said.

The French experts were joined by colleagues from other institutions in France and overseas as they began to decode its mysteries. "There were a few engraved symbols that made sense right away," said Pailler. In the coarse bumps and lines of the slab, they could see the rivers and mountains of Roudouallec, part of the Brittany region about 500 kilometers west of Paris. The researchers scanned the slab and compared it with current maps, finding a roughly 80 percent match. "We still have to identify all the geometric symbols, the legend that goes with them," said Nicolas.

The slab is pocked with tiny hollows, which researchers believe could point to burial mounds, dwellings or geological deposits. Discovering their meaning could lead to a whole flood of new finds. But first, the archaeologists have spent the past few weeks digging at the site where the slab was initially uncovered, which Pailler said was one of the biggest Bronze Age burial sites in Brittany. "We are trying to better contextualize the discovery, to have a way to date the slab," said Pailler. Their latest dig has already turned up a handful of previously undiscovered fragments from the slab. The pieces had apparently been broken off and used as a tomb wall in what Nicolas suggests could signify the shifting power dynamics of Bronze Age settlements.

The area covered by the map probably corresponds to an ancient kingdom, perhaps one that collapsed in revolts and rebellions. "The engraved slab no longer made sense and was doomed by being broken up and used as building material," said Nicolas.

Nebra Sky Disc: Oldest Depiction of the Universe?

The Nebra Sky Disc: is one of the most advanced and best-known artifacts of the Bronze Age. Named after the town where it was found in 1999 and dated to 1800 B.C., it surprised archaeologists, who couldn't believe a devise of such sophistication could be produced in the Bronze Age, a period better known for its swords, daggers and other weapons designed for battle. [Source: Jessica Orwig, Business Insider, January 21, 2015 +++]

Nebra sky disc

The Nebra Sky Disc is the world’s oldest representation of a specific astronomical phenomenon. Found in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, it is older than the 3,500-year-old star map on the ceiling of the tomb of Senmut near Luxor, Egypt. Made of bronze and gold, it is 30.5 centimeters (1 foot) diameter and weighs two kilograms (4.6 pounds). Jessica Orwig wrote in Business Insider: When it was first crafted, it would have shone a brilliant golden brown because the disc itself is made from bronze. But over time, the bronze corroded to green. The symbols are made of gold and didn't corrode. Although experts do not agree on what each symbol represents, for example the full circle could be the sun, full moon, or some type of eclipse, the overall message is clear that the symbols represent celestial objects. +++

The Nebra sky disc was so unlike any other artifact of its time that some archaeologists thought it was too good to be true. "When I first heard about the Nebra Disc I thought it was a joke, indeed I thought it was a forgery," Richard Harrison told the BBC in a documentary of the disc. Harrison is a professor of European prehistory at the University of Bristol and expert on the culture that inhabited Germany during the Bronze Age. "Because it's such an extraordinary piece that it wouldn't surprise any of us that a clever forger had cooked this up in a backroom and sold it for a lot of money." +++

“The disc was sent to the laboratory of Heinrich Wunderlich at the Museum of Halle in Eastern Germany. Heinrich specializes in dating artifacts from the Bronze age. If the disc was a fake, he could easily find out by studying the greenish bronze covering the disc.Bronze disease is the corrosive process that occurs when chloride molecules, such as chloride salts in soil, interact with bronze (or other copper-based materials). The result is a chemical reaction producing microscopic crystals that look either white or green. Over time, these crystals grow larger, which means that Wunderlich could easily spot a forgery by looking at the size of the crystals. When he looked under the microscope, he saw large crystals, which resembled large bubbles, shown in the image below, that spoke to the disc's authenticity. It was no fake. "When I saw down the microscope, I saw structure which was like bubbles," Wunderlich told BBC. "This can not be made artificially. You can't fake time."

The Nebra Sky Disc was unearthed by looters in the Ziegelroda forest near the river Unstrut and almost disappeared into the world of undergound collectors. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: 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. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, September 20, 2020]

Symbols on The Nebra Sky Disc

First Phase of the Nebra Sky Disc: On the left the Sun or the Full Moon, on the right the Waxing Moon, and between and above, the Pleiades

Jessica Orwig wrote in Business Insider: “The precise meaning of the disc eludes explanation. But an expert in Bronze Age religions, Miranda Aldhouse Green, at Cardiff University in the UK, has put together a general picture of what it might have meant for the people who used it thousands of years ago. [Source: Jessica Orwig, Business Insider, January 21, 2015 +++]

There are six objects of importance depicted on the disc: 1) Sun (or full Moon or a type of solar or lunar eclipse); 2) Crescent Moon; 3) Sun Boat; 4) Pleiades Constellation; 5) Left arc; 6)Right arc. “It makes sense that the full circle slightly left of center would be the sun, Green said in the BBC documentary, "The sun is absolutely central to northern European Bronze Age religion. There's a clear connection between the sun and life. If the sun disappears then life comes to an end." And the crescent shape is likely a crescent moon. In ancient times, the moon was used to represent time, and, "if you can control time, and if you understand time, then you are a powerful, a powerful human being," Green said. Then there's the smiley-shaped band beneath the sun and moon, which Green suspects is the sun boat — an ancient holy symbol. Bronze Age Europeans believed that the sun traveled on a sun boat when it set at night. +++

“The smaller circles speckled across the disc seem to represent stars. In particular, the concentrated clump between the sun and moon are thought to be the Pleiades constellation, which was an imporant constellation for Bronze Age farmers because it first appeared in March and disappeared in October — important farming times. "We know from Greek writers that the Pleiades were used as an agricultural marker, so that farmers knew when they should do certain agricultural activities," Green said. "So what the Nebra disc does is to tell people not only the right time to [plant and harvest] but it is the blessed time to do it." The left and right arcs on either side of the disc have an additional agricultural importance and were crucial in helping scientists determine that the disc was European-made.” +++

Five Phases of Making the the Nebra Sky Disc

Jarrett A. Lobell wrote in Archaeology magazine: When the Nebra Sky Disc was buried, it had already been in use for 200 years. While its raw materials were imported from as far away as Cornwall, the knowledge required to create the object was entirely local, drawn from observing the heavens from atop Mittelberg, a mountain near the modern village of Nebra. [Source: Jarrett A. Lobell, Archaeology magazine, May-June 2019]

In the Second Phase of the Nebra Sky Disc arcs were added on the horizon for the zones of the rising and setting Sun and individual stars were shifted and/or covered; In the Third Phase of the Nebra Sky Disc the "solar boat" was added at the bottom; in its current condition (see the first image) a star and a part of the Sun—or Full Moon—have been restored

The bronze disc had five phases over its history. In the first phase, the disc showed the night sky with 32 gold stars, including the Pleiades, a gold orb representing the sun or a full moon, and a crescent moon. It served as a reminder of when it was necessary to synchronize the lunar and solar years by inserting a leap month. This phenomenon occurred when the three-and-a-half-day-old moon — the crescent moon on the disc — was visible at the same time as the Pleiades. “The astronomical rules that are depicted wouldn’t be imaginable without decades of intensive observation,” says Harald Meller, director of the State Museum for Prehistory in Halle. “Until the Sky Disc was discovered, no one thought prehistoric people capable of such precise astronomical knowledge.”

“Artisans next added two golden arcs to the sides of the disc, hiding two original stars. The arcs, one of which was later removed, show the horizons as seen from Mittelberg on the summer and winter solstices. At some unknown time, a stylized ship was affixed at the bottom as an allegorical symbol of the sun’s journey across the sky. “One of the most fascinating aspects of the Sky Disc is that its first two phases show the results of pure observation, astronomical knowledge without any religious or mythological implications,” says Meller. “It’s only in the third phase that these aspects, represented by the ship, are added.” Next, holes were bored around the disc’s edge, probably to attach it to a pole to be carried as a standard. Finally, in around 1600 B.C., the disc, perhaps no longer of either scientific or religious use, was buried, likely as an offering to the gods.

Meaning of the Nebra Sky Disc Symbols

The disk was first studied by by Saxony-Anhalt’s state archaeologist, Harald Meller. Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: 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. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, September 20, 2020]

Jessica Orwig wrote in Business Insider: Astronomer Wolfhard Schlosser, at the University of Hamburg, found that if you draw a line from the center of the disc to the top and bottom end of the right arc, the angle between the two ends measures exactly 82 degrees. And it's the same value for the left golden arc. This number is very important for only a small group of people who live at the same latitude as the current German town of Nebra. That's because it's the angle between where the sun sets on the horizon in mid-winter and mid-summer. "The angle between both is precisely eighty two degrees," Schlosser told BBC. "This angle responds to the journey of the sun between summer and winter for this specific latitude right here in Nebra." [Source: Jessica Orwig, Business Insider, January 21, 2015 +++]

“Although Schlosser's find offered compelling evidence that the disc was crafted in Europe, the only way to determine beyond any doubt was to discover where the metals came from. Archaeologist Ernst Pernicka further investigated the copper within the bronze. Copper has a unique fingerprint that Pernicka used to compare copper in Bronze Age mines versus Mediterranean metals. From this, he traced the disc's metal to a European mine, confirming that the disc was manufactured from European metal and was not a gift crafted by another culture.” +++

Today, The Nebra Sky Disc is on public display at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Germany. In 2013, UNESCO inducted the disc into their Memory of the World Register stating: “The bronze disc is considered to be one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th Century. It combines an extraordinary comprehension of astronomical phenomena with the religious beliefs of its period, that enable unique glimpses into the early knowledge of the heavens”. +++

Gold strips on the side of the disc mark the summer and winter solstices; The top represents the horizon and north

Image Sources: Wikipedia Commons except Scottish calendar David Kreps and the Saint-Bélec slab from Clément Nicolas and Pailler Yvan, Researchgate

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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