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The First Known Depiction of the Cosmos Adorns a 3,600-Year-Old Disk

Discovered in 1999 in Germany, the 3,600-year-old Nebra Sky Disk is recognized as the oldest known depiction of cosmic phenomena.

The Nebra Sky Disk (1600 BCE) (photo by Anagoria/Wikimedia)

In a series for the first day of each month, Hyperallergic is exploring some firsts in art, from the earliest known depictions of things to pioneers in the visual fields.

An over 3,600-year-old metal shield, embedded with images of the moon, sun, and stars, reflects a Bronze Age vision of the cosmos. UNESCO, which lists the Nebra Sky Disk in its Memory of the World Register, states that it “features the oldest concrete depiction of cosmic phenomena worldwide.”

There’s been no shortage of controversy and speculation around the Nebra Sky Disk since it was, as Discover magazine relates, exhumed illegally in 1999 in Nebra in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. Some unsanctioned treasure hunters found it buried with two swords, two axe heads, a chisel, and two armbands. The hoard was seized by police in 2002, and since then the roughly 12-inch in diameter disk’s home has been the Halle State Museum of Prehistory. The German museum has detailed discovery information and scientific analyses on its site, including this interpretation of its imagery:

Features of the sky at night and by day are mingled, against the background of an abstract representation of a starry sky. The sun and moon’s course across the heavens is not only depicted, but also explained. For, between the horizons, a ship is making a nocturnal journey across the celestial ocean. This is the first time this image occurs in Europe as a central mythic symbol. The Sky Disc gives us a glimpse into our ancestors’ knowledge of the course of the universe and its religious interpretation 3600 years ago.

The Nebra Sky Disk on a commemorative 10 Euro German coin (photo by Stphn/Wikimedia)

Although its ancient age was confirmed by laboratory testing, and its metals identified as copper from the Eastern Alps and gold from the Carpathian Basin of Central Europe, some researchers have maintained their doubts as to its authenticity. Nevertheless, the majority of debate has been over the striking item’s use. Some believe it is an astronomical tool, others think that it portrays a 17th-century BCE lunar eclipse. Its 32 gold dots have been determined to be stars, including the Pleiades, while some scholars have considered them purely decorative. On a BBC episode about the disk, archaeologist Miranda Aldhouse-Green described the disk as an “encoded sacred message,” representing symbols of belief.

There’s now a soaring Arche Nebra interpretive center that opened in 2007 near the discovery site, its angular architecture contrasting to the surrounding landscape of low hills. Whatever the original creators’ intent, the Nebra Sky Disk with its worn patina represents our long human history of looking to the sky, and considering our place in the vast universe.

The Arche Nebra center (photo by Holzer Kobler Architekturen/Wikimedia)
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