The oldest surviving sky map is neither Egyptian nor Mesopotamian; it is neither the work of Pharaohs nor the fruit of Sumerian astronomy. It does not belong to China, India, or Pre-Colombian America, but rather belongs to Saxony-Anhalt in present-day Germany where the Bronze Age trade routes once converged, and it is known as the Nebra Sky Disc. This Disc is no less wondrous than the Zodiac of Dendera (now in the Louvre) or the Aztec Sun Stone, and it has a story to tell us about a civilization that left no written record of its knowledge and its achievements.
Discovered in 1999 near Europe’s oldest observatory in Goseck, the 3600 year-old bronze disc is adorned with gold-leaf shapes depicting the sun, the moon, stars and a solar boat, reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian boats that were believed to serve as vehicles for the sun as it sailed across the sky from darkness to dawn every day. We already recognize a cluster of stars as the Pleiades the way they would look 3600 years ago, but why the sun and the moon together? And why a moon that is not a nascent crescent moon, but rather a 4 to 5-day old moon? It would seem these Bronze Age astronomers had managed to reconcile both solar and lunar calendars, allowing for a thirteenth month, but that is not everything.
A golden arc on the tip of the disc at one side (and which had a similar arc on the opposite side, now lost) seems to form a triangle with the moon and the sun. Its edges mark the exact points on the horizon where the sun rises and sets on the longest and shortest days of the year (summer and winter solstices) in Central Europe. The solstices had both ritual and practical significance to Bronze Age people, as they were associated with divinity and helped mark seasons and agricultural calendars.
It is believed that the solar boar motif was added to the disc some time after the sun and the moon had been added. As the National Geographic puts it, this motif ‘would later become as important to Bronze Age cultures as the crucifix to Catholicism.’
A sky map, a calendar, a ritual object; it comes as no surprise that this Disc was listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register as ‘world documentary heritage’. One can only contemplate the good old saying: ‘archaeology is not what you find; it’s what you find out.’ Will we find out one day whether the Sumerian Clay Planisphere at the British Museum was actually a sky map and whether it was older than the Nebra Sky Disc?