Published: January 2004

Star Search

Photographs by Kenneth Garrett
Buried on the Mittelberg hill near the town of Nebra in 1600 B.C., the sky disc shines at sunset in central Germany. The disk, which tracks the sun's movement along the horizon, contains the oldest known depiction of the night sky and may have served as an agricultural and spiritual calendar.

In the basement café of a tourist hotel in Basel, Switzerland, I tell the smuggler and his accomplice that the exquisite bronze sword he has placed on our table is a worthless forgery. Having handled hundreds of Bronze Age artifacts, I know this sword actually dates to 1600 b.c. But I'm bluffing, for if the smugglers learn its true origin, they'll never part with the real prize: a bronze disk from the same period that is purported to be the earliest known depiction of the cosmos. If authentic, the disk would be one of the most important finds of the early 21st century, and its value would far surpass that of the sword.

Despite my bravado, I'm extremely nervous. As an archaeologist, such cloak-and-dagger deals are new to me, and I can't forget the advice from the Swiss police officer who had set up this sting: "The most important thing," he'd said, "is that you survive. We lose people in some of these transactions."

A week earlier the smuggler's accomplice had phoned to arrange our meeting, assuring me they would bring the disk. Now I'm getting impatient and demand to see it. The smuggler slowly pulls an object wrapped in a towel from beneath his shirt. As he opens the package, I stifle a gasp. Indeed it's a bronze disk, and it's the size of a large dinner plate. It's been crudely cleaned, and I can make out a gold sun and moon set in a field of glimmering gold stars. One constellation appears to be the Pleiades. If the disk is the same age as the sword, it will precede the beginning of Greek astronomy by a thousand years. And it will far surpass monolithic Stonehenge. At this moment, with my heart racing, I know how Howard Carter must have felt when he first glimpsed King Tut's tomb.

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