Barbarians Get Sophisticated

BERLIN–For something so small, the “sky disk” has made quite an impact here. Not even a foot across, the 5-pound bronze disk is embossed in gold leaf with intricate images of the sun, moon, and 32 stars. In the plate’s center is a representation of the star cluster Pleiades, which appears in the sky around the autumnal equinox and signaled the arrival of harvest season.

What’s most amazing is its age. More than 3,500 years old, the sky disk may well be the most important Bronze Age find in decades. Treasure hunters found it first in 2000 near the eastern German town of Nebra; police in Switzerland had to use an elaborate sting operation to get it safely into the hands of archaeologists. Its recovery was front-page news, and the find inspired headlines like “Culture of the Star Wizards” from the weekly Der Spiegel. “It’s an absolutely key find–this is the first accurate picture of the cosmos in human history,” says Harald Meller, head of the Halle Institute for Archaeological Research, where the object is being studied. “It’s astonishing to people that this was found in Central Europe and not Egypt or Mesopotamia.”

Nebra’s sky disk isn’t the only artifact that has people here buzzing. When Berlin’s Museum for Pre- and Early History reopens fully next spring, its centerpiece will be an elaborately decorated gold “hat,” 29 inches tall and made out of over a pound of thinly beaten gold. Museum director Wilfried Menghin says that the object, dating from around 1000 B.C. and acquired recently from a private collection, was worn by Bronze Age astronomer-priests and that the decorations are actually an extremely complex solar-lunar conversion calendar. Many scholars are skeptical: The artifact is almost unique, they say, and it’s impossible to prove the theory conclusively. What’s more, while experts suspect it’s from the Nuremberg area, no one really knows its origins. But if true, the achievement would beat the Greek discovery of a similar mathematical system by more than five centuries.

Such debates are part of a mini-renaissance in how Central Europe’s early cultures are viewed. For centuries, archaeologists and the public have focused on the people of the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia as the only ancient societies worth studying–a perception the ancient Greeks and Romans, who considered anything outside their culture contemptible, reinforced in their written histories.

Doing the Math

But the sky disk and the gold “hat” are contributing to a dramatic rethinking of the Bronze Age, which lasted from about 2500 B.C. to 1000 B.C. Scholars say these discoveries show that far from being barbarians, Bronze Age Europeans had a sophisticated grasp of mathematics and astronomy. “We’re developing a new paradigm in European archaeology now,” says Berlin archaeologist Klaus Goldmann. “European civilization goes further back than most of us ever believed.”

More important, people are starting to talk about the period again. The Nazi obsession with proving the superiority of early “Germans” made acknowledging the achievements of prehistoric Central Europeans taboo after the end of World War II. Hitler and his henchmen encouraged the abuse of archaeological evidence to claim a glorious prehistoric past–and justify invading their neighbors.

When the war ended, “there was almost an allergic reaction to the way archaeology had been manipulated between 1933 and 1945,” says University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee archaeologist Bettina Arnold. She likens postwar research in the region to “stamp collecting”: exhaustive cataloging and description that steered well clear of any politically sensitive interpretations.

In the past decade, German archaeology itself has undergone a sea change. The former East Germany is now open to aerial photography and surveying, which were banned under the Communist regime. Dozens of earth mounds and structures like the one in which the sky disk was found have been discovered, promising to keep archaeologists busy for years to come. And a younger generation of scholars, more willing to risk controversial analyses, has emerged. Says Menghin, whose theory on the gold “hat” may be the riskiest yet: “We have to go forward again to show Middle Europe wasn’t as barbaric as people think.”