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Cryptic Nebra sky disk might not be so ancient after all, say scientists

Is it really the world's oldest depiction of the cosmos? Maybe not.

The Nebra sky disk was thought to be from the Bronze Age, but that dating might be off by 1,000 years.
Hildegard Burri-Bayer

It's listed in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register. You can buy reproductions on Etsy. The Nebra sky disk has been venerated as "the world's oldest depiction of the cosmos." We'll need to rethink that description, based on a new study that calls its age into doubt. 

Though open to interpretation, the bronze disk appears to depict the moon, stars and possibly the sun.   

A duo of archaeologists from Goethe University Frankfurt and Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich took a fresh look at where and how the disk was discovered. The disk was found during an illegal excavation in 1999 near Nebra, Germany, along with a trove of Bronze Age items, including swords and jewelry. If the disk's age matched that of the other items, it would be about 3,600 years old.

A release from Goethe University this week calls out the "vague information given by the looters." The researchers put on their detective hats, investigated the circumstances of the find and concluded that "the Sky Disk cannot belong together with the other finds which seemed to facilitate the dating of the world-famous object in the first place."

The archaeologists said the artifacts supposedly found with the disk are not strong enough evidence to date the piece to the Early Bronze Age. Instead, the researchers suggest the disk's motifs are a match for the Iron Age, making it 1,000 years younger than assumed.

The researchers published their analysis, Critical comments on the find complex of the so-called Nebra Sky Disk, in the journal Archäologische Informationen (PDF link).

UNESCO describes the Nebra sky disk as "one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century." The scientists behind the study call for a renewed critical discussion of the disk. It may well belong to a different place in time.