Nebra Sky Disk Portable Instrument for Syncing Solar and Lunar Calendar with Seasons

Bronze Age Europeans used the sky disk to determine if a thirteen month needed to be added to the year

The Nebra sky disk was found with a hoard of artifacts scientists are still studying to determine their origin and construction.
The Nebra sky disk was found with a hoard of artifacts scientists are still studying to determine their origin and construction.

Space news (ancient astronomy: ancient, advanced astronomical instruments; the Nebra sky disk) – astronomical clock from 3600 BCE Germany, discovered in 2003 

The trail starts in February 2003, when two treasure hunters tried to illegally sell Bronze Age artifacts to an undercover officer posing as an antiquities dealer, in the basement bar of the Hilton Hotel in Basle, Switzerland. Among the items found in the treasure hoard, investigators discovered a damaged 32-cm-wide (12.6-inch) bronze disk, with what appeared to be representations of the Sun, Moon and possibly stars.

Subsequent police investigations discovered the treasure looters found the bronze disk on the top of 252-meter Mittelberg hill in the German state of Sachsen-Anhalt in 1999. The hill at the time was part of a bigger archaeological site under study and is close to the famed Goseck Henge site. 

Archaeologists studying the 2.2 kg bronze disk found the symbols were inlaid with gold leaf and included a possible representation of the seven visible stars of the Pleiades star cluster (Seven Sisters) 3,600 years ago. 

Subsequent analysis found the bronze disk, which was called the Nebra sky disk, appeared to be an advanced astronomical instrument. A 1600 BCE Bronze Age disk Europeans used to determine the winter and summer solstices and other important dates of the year.

Archaeologists believe the Nebra sky disk was developed through four different stages over a 400 year period. Possibly used to accurately predict important events and times during the year, this handheld instrument was probably used by only a select few or one individual. A truly advanced astronomical instrument for the age and culture it was being used, the Nebra sky disk tells us how little we know about the celestial knowledge and skills of ancient people of the region and age.

Archaeologists studying the Nebra sky disk think it was constructed through four different phases, over a four hundred year period.
Archaeologists studying the Nebra sky disk think it was constructed during four different phases, over a four hundred year period.

Recently, a team of German scientists found evidence suggesting the disk was also used to synchronize the solar and lunar calendars people living in the region of Sachsen-Anhalt used during the Bronze Age. 

“This is a clear expansion of what we knew about the meaning and function of the sky disc,” said archaeologist Harald Meller.

The lunar calendar used by Bronze Age humans was based upon the phases of the moon, which ancient cultures observed for thousands of years. The lunar calendar is eleven days shorter than the solar calendar because it only takes 354 days for the moon to return to new phase 12 times. 

Ancient cultures around the world during distant times used a lunar calendar to keep track of celestial and yearly events.
Ancient cultures around the world during distant times used a lunar calendar to keep track of celestial and yearly events.

Archaeoastronomers think the Nebra disk was used to determine if a thirteenth month needed to be added to the lunar calendar to keep it in sync with the solar calendar and seasons. Bronze Age farmers used a combination of solar and lunar calendars to determine planting and harvesting times through the year. Ancient astronomers or shaman able to predict these yearly events accurately would have been very valuable to the survival of a tribe. Syncing calendars would need to be done every two or three years in order to make sure the crops were planted and harvested on the right dates.

Mysteries remain

The trail started to twist when archaeologists and archaeoastronomers noted the moon on the Nebra sky disk was too thick to be in a new moon phase. After consulting the Mul-Apin collection of Babylonian scripts from the 6th and 7th century B.C, they determined the alignment of the moon and the Pleiades pictured in the sky map is as it should be if a thirteenth month needed to be added. 

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It puzzled scientists how Bronze Age cultures in Europe around 1,600 BCE, knew lunar and solar calendars needed to be synchronized, 1,000 years before the Babylonians? Where did they get the understanding and technology required to accomplish this feat?  

Were the sky disk and the knowledge to use it passed onto specific Bronze Age Europeans

Did they inherit the knowledge and technology to build the Nebra sky disk? 

What do we know?

The Nebra sky disk was a complex, portable astronomical clock used by Bronze Age Europeans to determine important seasonal dates and align solar and lunar calendars essential for determining planting and harvesting times of crops. What other ceremonial and astronomical functions was the sky disk used for?

If archaeoastronomers and archaeologists are right, 3600 years ago Bronze Age humans used the Nebra sky disk to help their society and culture survive the onslaught of nature. It probably also held both a ceremonial and cultural significance to the Bronze Age culture in terms of the best time of the year to trade for specific items and goods

Standing upon the crest of Mittelberg hill in Sachsen-Anhalt region of Germany 3600 years ago, Bronze Age astronomers would have held the disk against the sky to compare the position of the moon and stars of the Pleiades, to their positions as pictured in the face of the Nebra sky disk. 

If the positions matched, the astronomer would know it was time to add a thirteenth month to the lunar calendar. It’s possible that after generations of use, the knowledge of how it was devised was lost. The use of the Nebra sky disk doesn’t require knowledge of its engineering and design. In the end, it might have just been a ceremonial or cult object of worship, once the knowledge of its use was lost.

How and why the sky disk came to be buried upon Mittelberg hill in Sachsen-Anhalt Germany is an interesting question? Was it buried and then somehow forgotten? 

Archaeologists do know that when the Nebra sky disk was buried, it had thirty-nine or forty holes punched out along the perimeter of its face. They also know the gold and tin used in the metallurgy of the bronze was from the river Carnon in Cornwall. A portable device of such construction and importance would have been very valuable to its owner. The owner carried a portable Stonehenge in their pocket, one of the most important and monumental ancient astronomical constructions of its age. With this astronomical device in your pocket and the knowledge how to use it, a traveler could go places and be valuable to any society. 

Not all archaeologists agree the Nebra sky disk was used for astronomical measurements of the Sun, the moon, and stars pictured on its face. Instead, they point out the features pictured on the disk tend to be inexact and were more likely used in shamanic rituals.

Perhaps one day, archaeologists will discover additional artifacts that will shed more light on the mysteries surrounding the Nebra sky disk. Until that day arrives, the oldest known example of an astronomical clock sits awaiting additional confirmation of its uses and importance to ancient Europeans.

Learn more about the Nebra sky disk here.

Learn more about Stonehenge here.

Discover the oldest known solar observatory in the world, Goseck Henge here.

Learn about the Mul-Apin collection of Babylonian scripts from the 6th and 7th century B.C here.

Learn what astronomers have discovered about young, newborn stars.

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