The Sky Disc of Nebra bears the earliest known concrete representation of the heavens in human history. Intensive astronomical research by Prof. Dr. Wolfhard Schlosser of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum gives us insight into the world view of Bronze Age humanity.
Identification of the cardinal directions opens new horizons
From the statements of the disc's discoverers, and above all from the traces of the hammer which broke its upper edge, we know that the disc was buried in an upright position – with the horizon arcs to the right and left and the barque at the lower edge. This position not only supports the hypothesis of the “horizons” and the “ship”, but also confirms a significant new discovery by Prof. Dr. Wolfhard Schlosser.
According to Prof. Dr. Schlosser, the placement of the horizon arcs corresponds with exact observations of the heavens, such that the horizons were not centred on the disc's diameter, but were set several degrees toward the top. This allows the holder to determine the cardinal directions. North is located above, opposite the ship, which is situated in the south. East and west are reversed with regard to our modern geographical view, but correspond to the orientation of modern astronomical charts. This shows that the illustration of the heavens was, as on astronomical maps, conceived as viewed from below – as if one were to lie on the ground on a clear night gazing into the starry sky.
Thus the horizon arcs are in fact situated where the sky meets the earth. Consistent with this, the ship plies the celestial ocean between sunset and sunrise along this zone. This interpretation of the Sky Disc suggests that we are dealing with a two-dimensional representation of a spherically conceived sky. We can conclude that, as early as 1600 B.C., the Bronze Age people of Central Europe – like the Egyptians and later the Greeks, as well as the account in Genesis – saw the heavens as a dome arching over the earth. If this assumption is correct, the Sky Disc affords us our first view into a complex model of the world held by prehistoric Central European cultures.
Astronomy and archaeology
The astronomical investigations carried out to date by Prof. Dr. Wolfhard Schlosser make possible a simple and plausible working hypothesis with regard to the illustrated celestial phenomena.
According to this hypothesis, the makers of the Sky Disc consciously left constellations out of the representation of the sky, with the exception of the Pleiades. The lack of other constellations gives greater emphasis to the seven-star group of the Pleiades set between the crescent and full moons.
The cluster of the Pleiades was of great importance in the Middle East, as well as in ancient Greece, as we gather from Homer and Hesiod, two of the earliest Greek authors. The role of the Pleiades in determining when to plant and harvest crops, as mentioned by Hesiod, is the most convincing interpretation in the case of the Sky Disc as well.
The crescent and full moon in connection with the Pleiades stand for two dates on which the Pleiades were visible in the western sky – the 10th of March and the 17th of October. The astronomical observability of these key dates in the agricultural year was probably known from the beginning of the Neolithic period, or almost four thousand years before the time of the Sky Disc.
However, it was on the Sky Disc that this knowledge was fixed in an image for the first time.
The two horizon arcs indicate the dates of the summer and winter solstices, the 21st of June and the 21st of December. The arcs stand for the passage of the sun along the horizon over the course of the year. They formed a point of reference in the architecture of Neolithic ring-ditch sites. The ends of the horizon arcs mark the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Since they take an angle of 82 degrees, which the sun attains at Central Germany's latitude, it can be assumed that the horizon arcs were added to the image in this region.