Mario Renner and Henry Westphal are metal detecting in Ziegelroda Forest, near the German town of Nebra. They’re up to no good. In fact, since they’re unlicensed the two are no better than looters. Yet they come across an incredible hoard of weapons and artifacts buried some 3,600 years ago. Of the items they dig up, one will eventually be recognized as hugely significant in our understanding of Europe’s Bronze Age.
Now, the ancient artifacts crudely torn from the forest floor by Westphal and Renner included two bronze swords, a chisel, axe heads and bracelets. But there was another enigmatic object, a bronze disc inlaid with gold symbols that emerged from the soil. And although the looters managed to damage it with a shovel, it would become the subject of wonderment – and scientific controversy.
The very next day, Renner and Westphal sold their ill-gotten gains, including the disc, to a dealer in Cologne for about $16,000. Over the next couple of years, the looted treasure is said to have been bought and sold on the black market several times, eventually reaching a rumored six-figure price.
Funnily enough, Westphal and Renner clearly hadn’t appreciated the true value of the ancient treasures they’d stumbled across, especially the disc. And to add to that, the crooked duo were apprehended by the German police and hauled before the courts in 2003. Wisely, the two miscreants struck a deal with prosecutors.
You see, as part of a plea bargain, Renner and Westphal identified the spot where they’d found their Bronze Age treasure. Subsequently, the court sentenced Renner to ten months in jail and Westphal to four months. But an ill-advised appeal actually saw their sentences increased to 12 months for Renner and six months for Westphal.
Now that archeologists knew where the two metal detectorists had uncovered their finds, they were able to excavate the site properly. And it was clear that the artifacts had been buried in a ritual fashion on a hilltop called Mittelberg. Intriguingly, the site was designed so that it would align during the annual solstices with the highest summit of the Harz Mountains, 50 miles away.
Furthermore, the hill where the hoard was buried offered a vantage point for viewing the night-time skies, and the ditch around it meant that it was likely a spot for rituals. To add to that, the area is known to have had human settlers since the Stone Age. And Ziegelroda Forest has abundant barrows, or graves, with as many as a 1,000 of those present.
We’ll get back to the fate of the bronze disc that the looters uncovered shortly. But first let’s learn a little more about the era that these artifacts come from. Now, the Bronze Age got underway around 4,500 years ago. And it’s best known locations are in the warm lands around the Mediterranean, especially on its eastern shores.
Now, the Bronze Age saw the rise of great civilizations and urban living. You see, in a 2004 BBC documentary about the Nebra find, Dr. Bill Manley, an Egyptologist said, “If you think about the traditional classical world in Mediterranean, North Africa, the Near East and Middle East, you’ve got cultures which have developed monumental architecture. They developed sophisticated housing. So urban civilization is well established in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Also, Manley pointed out that these Mediterranean civilizations gave birth to a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and philosophy, knowledge which was recorded in writing. But things seem to have been very different 4,000 years ago in the central European lands that are now modern Germany. This is the very region where the Nebra treasure was discovered.
In contrast to ancient Mediterranean cultures, central European settlers seem to have used their know-how of working in bronze to slake a thirst for weaponry. Yes, archeologists have uncovered thousands of swords in central Europe from the Bronze Age. And as Professor Richard Harrison told the BBC, “The only real purpose for them is to be effective stabbing or slashing weapons against another person, against a human being, they’re for killing men.”
So archeology has given us a somewhat baleful impression of those central European Bronze Age people. Indeed, they have often been viewed as living brutal lives with little indication of scientific wonder, unlike the apparently more civilized settlers of the ancient Mediterranean such as the Greeks and Egyptians.
However, this primeval image of central European tribes was about to be overturned. And amazingly, it was the bronze disc that Renner and Westphal had plundered which would do this. But before we get to that, we need to find out what happened to the disc after the looters had sold it.
In fact, the artifacts had ended up in the possession of two other Germans, Hildegard Burri-Bayer and Reinhold Stieber. Although described as amateur archeologists, the duo seemed to be more motivated by cash than scholarly enthusiasm. And they’d clearly realized they had something of great value when they started trying to sell it on the black market.
By now, knowledge of the bronze disc’s existence had percolated through to the professional archeology world. And one man developed something approaching an obsession with the disc. He was Harald Meller, head of archeology at Germany’s Halle State Museum of Prehistory, an institution highly respected for its Bronze Age collections.
Not long after he was appointed to this position at the museum in 2001, Meller saw something which galvanized him. Yes, a colleague showed him a set of photographs portraying the illicit haul from Nebra, including the bronze disc with its exquisite pattern of gold inlays. The photos had been taken by the two hapless looters, Westphal and Renner.
And the sight of the bronze disc infuriated Meller. You see, it should have been, by rights, on display in his museum which wasn’t that far from the excavation site. Therefore, he spent a year acting as an amateur investigator, tracking down the plundered loot. Amazingly, in 2002 everything fell into place, and Meller’s chance to retrieve the stolen artifacts appeared.
Now, Meller had followed up a rumor that the disc was being offered for sale on the black market for $400,000. Eventually he managed to make contact with the duo who claimed to have the disc, Burri-Bayer and Stieber. After intense negotiations, the pair agreed to meet Meller at the Hilton Hotel in Basel, Switzerland.
In the 2004 BBC documentary, Meller recalled the events of that day in February 2002 after he’d walked into the Basel Hilton. Meller said, “Thus inside the hotel I was met by a blonde woman. She asked me to accompany her to a restaurant downstairs. Sitting there was a thin grey-haired man.” Indeed, one was Burri-Bayer, the other Stieber.
Meller described what happened next, “I said I would have to verify the authenticity of the disc, could they please show me the disc. He said nothing but produced a sword from his bag, and he handed me the sword and asked me to analyze that instead. I wasn’t sure where the disc could be. I didn’t know, there was nothing in the suitcase, for all I knew maybe a gun. But the disc was too big to be in there.”
Then, at last, Stieber revealed the disc. Meller recalled, “But finally the man opened his coat and his shirt and from underneath his shirt he produced something wrapped in a towel. He opened the towel and inside was the disc and he handed it to me.” And that was the cue for the Swiss police to pounce.
For you see, Meller had been working hand in hand with the Swiss police. This was something that Stieber and Burri-Bayer had certainly not bargained for. In the BBC documentary, chief inspector Peter Gill of the Basel Public Prosecutor’s Office explained the set-up, “When Dr. Meller entered the Hilton Hotel he was constantly observed. We were observing entrances, we knew who came in, who left.”
Now it was the turn of Stieber and Burri-Bayer to appear before a court, charged with illegal handling of archeological material. The two were given suspended sentences, but they appealed the verdict. And as we’ll see, their appeal opened another can of worms centered on the bronze disc, which had by now played such a key role in so many people’s lives.
Before we hear about the pair’s appeal, let’s return to the Nebra hoard itself. Now that the artifacts were safely in Meller’s care at the Halle Museum, they could be examined in detail. The swords in particular were outstanding examples of their type. Their hilts were adorned with bronze and copper inlays and featured gold bands. Certainly, these were high-status weapons.
What’s more, the axes and chisel had flaring blades which were typical products of the late Bronze Age. And the bracelets or armbands were made in a spiral form which was a common form of adornment throughout the era. Finally, there was that mysterious bronze disc.
Without a doubt, the bronze disc with its gold inlays was the star of the show. As Meller told the BBC, “It was a thirty-centimetre bronze disc covered with golden decorations. But the real sensation was that the golden decorations formed a picture, and this was something completely unheard of from the Bronze Age. It looked to me like the most significant archaeological find I’d ever seen.”
So the disc, which may have been made as many as 200 years before it was ritually buried, is just over 12 inches across. And it weighs around four-and-a-half pounds. At its central point it’s around a fifth of an inch thick, thinning out towards the edges. What’s more, the basic bronze disc is richly patinated with a greenish-blue color.
But it’s the gold leaf patterns on the disc which provide an astonishing insight into late Bronze Age culture in central Europe. Two large pieces of gold plate are at the disc’s centre, one in a crescent-moon shape and the other circular. Then there is a seemingly random pattern of small gold dots across the disc and two gold strips. In fact, it’s believed there was originally a third gold strip on the disc, too.
And the rim of the disc has a regular line of holes around it, which may at one time have been used to affix it to a piece of cloth or wood. At first, it was assumed that this was merely a charming and ornate decorative piece. But as Meller analyzed it he had a stunning realization. This, he felt sure of, was actually an accurate map of the night sky.
Given that this disc was perhaps as much as 3,800 years old, that made the artifact utterly unique. Nothing like it had ever been discovered before. And what’s more, it now had the status of being the first celestial map to come from anywhere in the world – including those advanced Bronze Age societies of the Mediterranean.
As Dr. Meller went on to explain to the BBC, “The disc is the earliest concrete astronomical representation of the stars in the sky. It’s the first representation of the universe in human history.” Far from being a merely decorative object, this disc inferred an advanced knowledge of the night sky which could only have been obtained through careful observation.
Researchers believe that the people who made this disc were from what is known as the Unetice culture. This stretched across much of central Europe and thrived from about 2300 B.C. to 1600 B.C. Interestingly, the people of the Unetice were noted for their metal work, and the Nebra Sun Disc as it’s come to be known, is a prime example of those developed skills.
But it’s the knowledge embodied in the artwork which has really thrilled archeologists and other scientists. You see, when the disc is shifted to a flat plane, the gold strips align with the sunrise and sunset angles on the horizon for that central European latitude. This is a powerful indication that these settlers were anything but primeval barbarians.
What’s more, the idea that these people had a sophisticated understanding of the night skies is supported by that cluster of gold dots on the disc. You see, the dots are taken to denote stars, and researchers believe that they actually represent the Pleiades constellation. And it turns out that this array of stars was much more prominent in the sky above central Germany then, than it is today.
So the Nebra Sky Disc is an extraordinary artifact, not only beautiful in itself but also evidence that we need to reassess our ideas regarding the Bronze Age. Or that’s how it seemed until a bombshell hit the world of archeology. Yes, because a prominent researcher later went public with an allegation that this bronze disc was nothing more than a manufactured fake.
And this revelation fitted in very well with the appeal that rogue-sellers Stieber and Burri-Bayer were making against their convictions. For if the bronze disc was an elaborate fake, they could not be guilty of dealing illegally in protected artifacts of ancient heritage. Now, the man who made the forgery claim was an archeologist from Germany’s Regensburg University, Peter Schauer.
That’s right, and Shauer claimed that the patina on the disc could easily have been manufactured by applying urine and acid. Burri-Bayer and Stieber called Shauer as a witness at their appeal. But when it came to testifying in court, the archeologist proved to be less than convincing. For a start, it emerged that he’d reached his conclusions without ever handling the disc. He’d only seen photos of it.
What’s more, experts at the Halle Museum had subjected the disc to an extensive battery of tests and reached the conclusion that it certainly dated back to the late Bronze Age. So Stieber and Burri-Bayer’s appeal was thrown out of court. And as a result the original sentences, 12 months suspended prison time and 150 hours of community service for each of them, were upheld.
Furthermore, Meller and his colleagues felt vindicated. The Nebra Sky Disc was no fake. Buried in a sacred ritual 3,600 years ago; looted by thieves in 1999; dishonestly handled by “amateur archeologists” in 2002; the center of forgery allegations in 2005; the disc has certainly had a checkered career. And it’s next move will be to the British Museum for an exhibition in London in 2021.
But we’ll leave the last word to Harald Meller. Speaking to the Archaeological Institute of America online, he said, “The astronomical rules that are depicted wouldn’t be imaginable without decades of intensive observation. Until the Sky Disc was discovered, no one thought prehistoric people capable of such precise astronomical knowledge.”