An Interpretation of the Nebra Disc

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Discovery, description and authenticity

As is often the case nowadays, the Nebra disc was not found by archaeologists but by two treasure hunters in the summer of 1999. The disc was retrieved by Swiss police in 2002 and returned to Germany, where it is now on display in the Landesmuseum fur Vorgeschichte in Halle. When the treasure hunters were apprehended, they were persuaded to reveal the spot where they had found the disc, and pointed out the 252m-high hilltop called Mittelberg in Ziegelrodaer Forst near the small village of Nebra in Sachsen-Anhalt. With the help of other datable objects that the treasure hunters had found at the same place, the disc has been dated to c. 1600 BC or the Middle Bronze Age.

The bronze disc (Figure 1a-c) weighs 2kg and has a diameter of 320mm, a thickness of 4.5mm at its centre but thins out to 1.5mm at the rim of the disc. The centre of the disc is dominated by two gold plates, each about 100mm across. One describes a full circle while the other forms a crescent (lune). The surface of the disc is further adorned with small, round, thin gold spots (measuring 10mm in diameter) of which there were originally 32. Two of these have been removed and one slightly adjusted to give room for two arcs of thin gold strips lining the rim of the disc. One of these arcs is now missing. A third, shorter and curved gold strip is placed along the rim between the two long gold arcs. The thin arcs lining the rim of the disc subtend nearly 90 degrees each or a quarter of a circle with a radius of 160mm. The remaining shorter gold strip on the rim between them measures about 120 degrees or a third of a full circle with a radius of 90mm. The profile of the disc is almost flat (Figure 1c) and the back of the disc shows no trace of an attachment (Figure 1b). However the rim of the disc is punctuated by 38 (?) pin-holes which may indicate that it was sewn onto fabric or nailed onto wood.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The authenticity of an important archaeological find must be established beyond all doubt, especially for a find with a somewhat obscure provenance. The Nebra disc has therefore gone through a series of rigorous laboratory tests to prove that it is genuinely ancient (Pernicka 2004), although in spite of this, the object still attracts some sceptical comments (Schauer 2005). According to the metallurgical investigation, the relationship between different isotopes of lead points to the eastern Alps as a possible source for the copper used in making the bronze. The bronze of the disc contains an unusually low tin content of 2.5 per cent (Pernicka 2004). The high silver content of more than 20 per cent in the gold strips indicates that the gold was mined in Transylvania, except for the shorter peripheral curved gold strip which has a comparatively low silver content of 13 per cent. The source for this gold has not been identified.

The eastern Alps and Transylvania provided copper and gold, respectively, not only for central but for northern Europe as well (Liversage & Northover 1998: 137-8). According to the metallurgical examination of early Danish Bronze Age craftwork, similar bronze-making processes were used in both regions, although neither imports nor influences from the central European Aunjetitz culture (2300-1600 BC) can be traced in Denmark in the metalwork of Bronze Age Period IA (1700-1600 BC; Vandkilde 1998: 128, 131-2.). Vandkilde even argues that 'in this period the [metal producing] central area around Halle disappears, locally leaving a social and cultural vacuum that re-echoes up the northern peripheries' (Vandkilde 1998: 133).

While the ornament is not itself very characteristic, the short strokes and the parallel bands on the curved strip are rather characteristic features on Danish metal finds from the Bronze Age (Kaul 1998). This provides some support for the idea that the Nebra disc might have been produced in the cultural region of the Nordic Bronze Age or by smiths from that area. …