Skip to comments.Barbarians Get Sophisticated (Nebra "Sky Disk")
Posted on 11/16/2003 11:25:46 AM PST by blam
Barbarians get sophisticated
By Andrew Curry
BERLIN--For something so small, the "sky disk" has made quite an impact here. Not even a foot across, the 5-pound bronze disk is embossed in gold leaf with intricate images of the sun, moon, and 32 stars. In the plate's center is a representation of the star cluster Pleiades, which appears in the sky around the autumnal equinox and signaled the arrival of harvest season.
What's most amazing is its age. More than 3,500 years old, the sky disk may well be the most important Bronze Age find in decades. Treasure hunters found it first in 2000 near the eastern German town of Nebra; police in Switzerland had to use an elaborate sting operation to get it safely into the hands of archaeologists. Its recovery was front-page news, and the find inspired headlines like "Culture of the Star Wizards" from the weekly Der Spiegel. "It's an absolutely key find--this is the first accurate picture of the cosmos in human history," says Harald Meller, head of the Halle Institute for Archaeological Research, where the object is being studied. "It's astonishing to people that this was found in Central Europe and not Egypt or Mesopotamia."
Nebra's sky disk isn't the only artifact that has people here buzzing. When Berlin's Museum for Pre- and Early History reopens fully next spring, its centerpiece will be an elaborately decorated gold "hat," 29 inches tall and made out of over a pound of thinly beaten gold. Museum director Wilfried Menghin says that the object, dating from around 1000 B.C. and acquired recently from a private collection, was worn by Bronze Age astronomer-priests and that the decorations are actually an extremely complex solar-lunar conversion calendar. Many scholars are skeptical: The artifact is almost unique, they say, and it's impossible to prove the theory conclusively. What's more, while experts suspect it's from the Nuremberg area, no one really knows its origins. But if true, the achievement would beat the Greek discovery of a similar mathematical system by more than five centuries.
Such debates are part of a mini-renaissance in how Central Europe's early cultures are viewed. For centuries, archaeologists and the public have focused on the people of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia as the only ancient societies worth studying--a perception the ancient Greeks and Romans, who considered anything outside their culture contemptible, reinforced in their written histories.
Doing the math. But the sky disk and the gold "hat" are contributing to a dramatic rethinking of the Bronze Age, which lasted from about 2500 B.C. to 1000 B.C. Scholars say these discoveries show that far from being barbarians, Bronze Age Europeans had a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and astronomy. "We're developing a new paradigm in European archaeology now," says Berlin archaeologist Klaus Goldmann. "European civilization goes further back than most of us ever believed."
More important, people are starting to talk about the period again. The Nazi obsession with proving the superiority of early "Germans" made acknowledging the achievements of prehistoric Central Europeans taboo after the end of World War II. Hitler and his henchmen encouraged the abuse of archaeological evidence to claim a glorious prehistoric past--and justify invading their neighbors.
When the war ended, "there was almost an allergic reaction to the way archaeology had been manipulated between 1933 and 1945," says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee archaeologist Bettina Arnold. She likens postwar research in the region to "stamp collecting": exhaustive cataloging and description that steered well clear of any politically sensitive interpretations.
In the past decade, German archaeology itself has undergone a sea change. The former East Germany is now open to aerial photography and surveying, which were banned under the Communist regime. Dozens of earth mounds and structures like the one in which the sky disk was found have been discovered, promising to keep archaeologists busy for years to come. And a younger generation of scholars, more willing to risk controversial analyses, has emerged. Says Menghin, whose theory on the gold "hat" may be the riskiest yet: "We have to go forward again to show Middle Europe wasn't as barbaric as people think."
Nebra Sky Disk
It's a very interesting find indeed, but I find this remark very silly. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look up at the sky and notice that there is a sun, a moon, and the stars, or to depict them as stylized images.
This doesn't disprove that the Bronze Age tribes in Germany did astronomy, in the sense of mathematical calculations, but it doesn't prove it, either.
Presumably, some degree of astronomical calculation is necessary for any society that needs to know when to plant crops. But the Sumerian astronomers were well beyond anything that can be proven from this object.
More than coincidence?
Don't know. I looked around for a picture and couldn't find one.
This hat looks similar to the felt hats found with the Caucasian mummies found in the Tarim Basin in China.
Oh yeah, blam, dead ringer for Pleiades, LOL! Looks more like someone's imagination has gotten the better of their common sense!
I don't get it, blam, this is not the first time you've posted this kind of Art (Bell) nouveau, astronomical pseudo-science. What's up with that?
Lighten up a little. If you'll check page 34 of the December edition of Scientific American you'll find essentially the same article. Art Bell? Don't know. I post'em you decide.
"Lighten up a little."Sorry about that, didn't mean to come across that way. I meant it more in the sense of a light hearted poke in the ribs.
"If you'll check page 34 of the December edition of Scientific American..."I grew up on Scientific American. There was a time when I'd wear out and dog ear nearly every copy of Dad's subscription. I particularly loved Charles Stong's, column, "The Amateur Scientist". From there I learned enough to build my first laser, an x-ray source and a (nearly deadly) Pockels cell (trying to make an ultra-high speed camera shutter similar to Harold Edgerton's).
But imo, the days of scientific preeminence of that once great magazine are long gone, as they have given themselves over to hawking politically correct science. I first noticed this when they began publishing the writings of the leftists at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that were highly critical of our cold war defense efforts. This political bias carried over to their pseudo-scientific rantings against nuclear power and in the 80's they continued their journey to the left with very biased (and often incorrect) hyperbole about ecology and the environment.
Because of their anti-science political bias, I haven't subscribed to SA in the last 15 to 20 years. But because I'm a perennial optimist, about once a year I'll look through a copy at the news stands in hopes that they may have changed their left-wing editorial bias, bus so far, no luck. If anything, it's gotten worse. jmo...
If the claim that the star cluster on the "sky disk" was Pleiades, came from SA, that would explain a lot since it is so obvious that the star disk does not depict anything like Pleiades on it. Someone confused wishful thinking with science.
Here's another example of the holes in this story. Did you think to stop and question just how they dated the disk as being 3,500 years old? Dating metal objects is a very subjective science. And it gets even harder when, as in this case, the scientists didn't have access to the original extraction site that the object was found in.
One last thought. I really was curious about your propensity to post stories about astronomical archeology. What's up with that? Does this interest extend to your profession?
I'm a retired chip-maker, click on my name (profile page) for more particulars, I post on all archaeology/anthropology articles as a hobby. Go here: Gods, Graves, Glyphs to see lots of previously posted articles. I agree with your assessment about Scientific American.
LOL, now I'm curious why you seem to be attracted only to the ones about astronomical archaeology.
"I'm a retired chip-maker..."Oh yeah, the TI guy, now I remember reading your profile a long time ago. We're the same age (if your profile is current), but I just haven't had enough sense to retire yet. Did you ever work with Jack Kilby? I always found the history of his invention and the contending claims between Kilby and Noyce, TI and Fairchild, Ge vs Si, wire bonding vs passivation, to be fascinating. Gosh, that seems like a long time ago.
"LOL, now I'm curious why you seem to be attracted only to the ones about astronomical archaeology."Turn about is fair play, huh? Well after reading the first paragraph of this reply, I'll bet you've already got a pretty fair answer to your question. You can't truly understand and enjoy science without knowing the history of science. In high school I hated history, but history is like a narcotic, it will sneak up on you and addict you before you realize what's happening. Once you get started, you just can't get enough.
And speaking of such history, I just finished an interesting book on the life and times of Léon Foucault ("Pendulum, Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science", Amir D. Aczel, Atria Books, 2003), and his famous pendulum experiment. Two things I learned from this book were, first, what were the politics involved in why his experiment became so widely acclaimed (from the title: "the triumph of science" [over faith]) but perhaps more importantly, I learned that the simple and common explanation of why the plane of oscillation rotates (the pendulum maintains its inertia in reference to a universal frame of reference, rather than an earthly one), is only a first approximation at a precise explanation of Foucault's Pendulum and even Mach's and Einstein's later attempts at explanations fell short of providing a comprehensive explanation. At least to some degree, it is still in doubt 152 years later.
No, never met Kilby...he received the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the IC, in 2000 if I remember correctly. I started my IC career in 1967 at a small start-up company in the San Jose area, National Semiconductor, most of the originals came from Fairchild.
This is a topic from 2003 which never got added to the catalog. No ping.
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