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It wasn't a pot of gold, but the treasure found under the rainbow above the Mittelberg, a large hill near the town of Nebra in central Germany, was nearly as dramatic. The 3,600-year-old sky disk of Nebra and other Bronze Age artifacts were buried under a stone mound surrounded by a low circular rampart—possibly an early observatory. The Mittelberg overlooks an important pass along the Unstrut River Valley that served as a highway between northern and southern Germany for thousands of years.

Bronze Age people traveled along extensive trade routes. From the Baltic to the Mediterranean, these routes converged on what is now central Germany, source of several rare and sought-after minerals, including salt and copper, which was combined with tin to make bronze.

The abundance of these natural resources may have given rise to a wealthy and powerful individual who commissioned the sky disk—someone, perhaps, like the man buried in 1942 b.c. near Leubingen, a small town 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of the Mittelberg hill. With numerous weapons and gold trinkets, his is a remarkably opulent grave for the period. What made this man rise above the rest of society? Did he control a valuable salt spring? Whatever his trade, he may have decided to spend his newfound wealth on a device for predicting celestial events. Anyone with such knowledge would have wielded enormous influence—just as pharaohs rose to power in part because they could forecast the Nile's annual floods.

Since that day in Basel when the sky disk was recovered, it has continued to fire the imaginations of archaeologists, astronomers, and visitors to the museum in Halle. A few of the disk's more fanciful admirers believe it might be a time-travel device. In a way they're right. Bronze Age people left behind no written texts and only a few rock drawings. The sky disk of Nebra transports us back, shining light into an impenetrable period of human history. We can only wonder what other antiquities lie out of reach—perhaps still buried or in the hands of looters—that will one day bring us even closer to the mysterious inhabitants of Bronze Age Europe.

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