Published: January 2004
Star Search
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.

The sky disk discovery generated enormous interest in Europe, and the disk has become the unofficial symbol of the small town of Nebra, located near the Mittelberg. It can now be found on T-shirts, wine labels, even cookies at Nebra's Castle Hotel (above). When the unrestored disk was briefly displayed at the State Museum for Prehistory in Halle after its recovery, it generated more than 2,500 visitors a day from all over Europe. The museum's website still gets 12,000 hits a day. Some of the disk's more esoteric fans have suggested that it's a message from the people of the Pleiades, or that it can be used to communicate with UFOs—proof of the disk's mysterious power over the imagination.

After I closely examine the piece, we agree on a price. I'll pay $400,000 for the disk and other items found with it—two swords (including the bronze one I had already seen), two axes, two spiral armbands, and a chisel—all forged from bronze. Then I politely excuse myself to the men's room, snap open my cell phone, and alert the police. After what feels like an eternity, six officers swarm into the café and arrest us all. The smugglers were shocked because I'd assured them that Switzerland's neutral status would afford a safe haven for our meeting.

So ended one of the most bizarre yet exhilarating periods of my career. It had begun in May 2001, shortly after I was appointed director of the State Museum for Prehistory in Halle in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, an antiquities-rich but economically depressed region of former East Germany plundered by looters since reunification in 1990.

A colleague at the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin told me he'd photographed the disk in 1999 when a pair of black marketeers offered to sell it for a half million dollars. He wanted the disk for his museum's collection, but when he heard it had been found in Saxony-Anhalt—and by German law therefore belonged to that state—he told the men their find was illegal.

Archaeologists hadn't seen the sky disk since. It changed hands several times on the black market until it finally resurfaced in January 2002. That's when its newest owners persuaded Focus, a German news magazine, to run a piece on the disk, expecting to start a media frenzy that would increase its value. I learned of the story and tipped off the police, who devised the sting: I'd play the Indiana Jones role, pretending to represent a large bank buying the disk for my museum.

After the arrests in Basel (I was released immediately, of course, my arrest being a show for the sting), police found the remaining items at the home of one of the smugglers. The style of the swords confirmed that they were roughly 3,600 years old. That meant the disk—looted from the same site—was of similar age.

Police later traced the disk to one of its previous owners, who agreed to cooperate with the investigation. He took me to the looted site on the Mittelberg, a large hill near the town of Nebra in Saxony-Anhalt. After a quick survey of the area, I found that the original looters had removed the artifacts from a stone mound buried near the top of the hill. A low circular berm nearly 75 yards (69 meters) in diameter surrounded the site. Known as ringed-ditch enclosures, such structures are found throughout Europe and may have marked prehistoric ceremonial or holy places. Today the Mittelberg hill is heavily forested. But back in the Bronze Age the hill would likely have been logged bare (people relied heavily on timber for heating, cooking, building, and smelting), and the ringed-ditch may have enclosed an early observatory.

With a German police officer standing guard, photographer Kenneth Garrett focuses his lens on the sky disk while staff from the State Museum for Prehistory in Halle look on. The smugglers who were arrested with the disk were offering it for about U.S.$400,000. It would have been a steal at that price. Its insurance value has been pegged at 50 million dollars, though its actual value is impossible to determine, says museum director and author Harald Meller. Like the funerary mask of Tutankhamun, there is only one sky disk of Nebra.

Wolfhard Schlosser, an astronomer at Ruhr University, examined the sky disk of Nebra and developed a theory on how it may have been used. He suggests that the ends of the two gold bands (one of which was lost in antiquity) along its outer edges mark the points on the horizon where the sun rises and sets on the summer and winter solstices—the longest and shortest days of the year. An astronomer could have followed the sun's path along the gold bands to establish a rudimentary calendar, providing farmers with information critical for planting and harvesting.

The circular group of seven gold stars on the sky disk is almost certainly a representation of the Pleiades constellation. In early March its disappearance in central Germany signals the beginning of the planting season.

Schlosser is less sure of the significance of two other objects on the disk. One is shaped like a crescent moon; the other is round, what I first thought to be the sun but now think is the darkened moon of a lunar eclipse. We know that once every decade the Pleiades appears next to the crescent moon, as seems to be depicted on the disk. A lunar eclipse follows seven days later. If Bronze Age astronomers used the disk to predict eclipses, it shows that these so-called barbarians had been studying the heavens for generations.

The sky disk had religious significance too. Overlaid on it is a curved gold object laced with feather-like oars, set between the horizon bands. It may represent the night ship, a celestial craft early peoples believed carried the sun god on his journey from darkness to dawn. The night ship motif was common in Egypt, but its appearance on the sky disk is the earliest evidence that Bronze Age Europeans had adopted this religious icon. It would later become as important to Bronze Age cultures as the crucifix to Catholicism.

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.