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Early Superhighways

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By Harald MellerPhotographs by Kenneth Garrett



Relic thieves, a 3,600-year-old disk of the heavens, and an intrepid archaeologist add up to a real-life thriller.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

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 smuggler learns 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.
 
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. 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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Flashback
Flashback to 1936 when physicists at New York's Corning Glass Works absorbed themselves in perfecting the light-reflecting mirror disk for the Palomar Observatory.


More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Germany's Harz Mountains, an enchanted realm of jagged peaks, steep cliffs, and lush forests, have long been imbued with legends of witchcraft and magic. For centuries people in the Harz region believed that witches gathered on the Brocken, the range's highest peak, on April 30 to dance with the devil. The mystical gathering coincided with pagan spring festivals, which celebrated the arrival of the new season with bonfires and revelry.
 
After Christianity arrived in the area during the Middle Ages, clergy named the night Walpurgisnacht after St. Walpurga, an eighth-century English missionary, and recast it as a celebration to drive out evil spirits.
 
Festivities on the Brocken were banned when the area was part of East Germany, but over the past decade thousands have flocked to the mountaintop each year to dance in honor of Walpurgisnacht.
 
—Cate Lineberry
Did You Know?

Related Links
History of Astronomy
curious.astro.cornell.edu/history.php
Discover how ancient civilizations studied the night sky.
 
The Pleiades
www.ras.ucalgary.ca/~gibson/pleiades
Learn more about the cluster of stars known as the Seven Sisters.

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Bibliography
Bradley, Richard. The Significance of Monuments: On the Shaping of Human Experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. Routledge, 1998.
 
Mohen, Jean-Pierre, and Christiane Eluère. Discoveries: The Bronze Age in Europe. Harry N. Abrams, 2000.
 
Pare, C. F. E. Metals Make the World Go Round: The Supply and Circulation of Metals in Bronze Age Europe. Oxbow Books Ltd, 2000.

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NGS Resources
Hessler, Peter. "The New Story of China's Ancient Past," National Geographic (July 2003), 56-81

Hawass, Zahi. "Egypt's Forgotten Treasures," National Geographic (January 2003), 74-87.

"Bronze Age Boat Beneath DoverStreets," National Geographic (May 1994), Geographica.

"Bronze Age Circles on the Golan Heights," National Geographic (December 1992), Geographica.

Bass, George F. "Oldest Known Shipwreck Reveals Splendors of the Bronze Age," National Geographic (December 1987), 692-733.

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