Bitter Archaeological Feud Over An Ancient Universe Vision
A very emotional object is the Nebra sky disk, which has been called the oldest known depiction of celestial phenomena.
The disk is thin, just 12 inches in diameter, but over centuries, it has loomed large in people's minds. The item, made of bronze, was set in gold with an ancient view of the cosmos by its craftsmen. It was updated with new astronomical discoveries through centuries, until it was buried under land that would become thousands of years later, the Federal Republic of Germany.
This is the Nebra sky disk, and in European archaeology, nothing like it has been discovered. It has been declared the oldest documented image of the heavens by many archaeologists, and it is a beloved symbol of heritage for Germans that links them with ancient sky watchers.
"Ernst Pernicka, a senior professor at Tübingen University and director of the Curt-Engelhorn Center for Archaeometry in Mannheim, said, "The sky disk is a glimpse into the minds of these people.
"It's a very emotional object," said Rupert Gebhard, the director of the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich.
But although Dr. Gebhard and Dr. Pernicka both understand the past and present cultural resonance of the disk, much more is not decided on. A bitter archaeological feud over the true age of the object polarizes the two men and others. Most side with Dr. Pernicka in claiming that the item comes from the Bronze Age and is around 3,600 years old. But Dr. Gebhard and some colleagues contend strongly that it has to be around 1,000 years younger, suggesting it shares more with the Iron Age totems.
Harald Meller, a professor at Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg and director of the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, the German institution that is the birthplace of the sky disk, said the conflict is a "unhappy situation." He stands by his conclusion that the disk dates back to the Bronze Period.
Dr. Pernicka and Dr. Meller's paper published late last year gave a clear rebuttal to the Iron Age argument made by Dr. Gebhard and Rüdiger Krause, a Goethe University Frankfurt professor of prehistory and early European history. While some believe the dispute should be resolved by this, other archaeologists believe the debate will continue and should continue.
"Wolfgang David, the executive director of the Archaeological Museum Frankfurt, who has not been involved in either side's studies, said, "This contentious discussion of questions that have not yet been finally answered will cause new research, especially in Halle, and inspire research to make progress.
The disk of the Nebra sky is a plundered treasure. This is where the issues all arise.
During the summer of 1999, two men reported that they discovered the disk along with other ancient objects on a hillside called the Mittelberg near the town of Nebra, around an hour's drive southwest of Halle. They sold it and the remainder of the cache to a dealer in black market antiquities after denting and scraping the artifact as they dug it up.
In a 2002 undercover operation in which Dr. Meller participated, authorities seized the disk and convicted the original looters, who eventually exposed the location where they found the disk in exchange for a plea deal.
Dr. Meller also led the Nebra site excavation and worked to determine its Bronze Age provenance with other archaeologists. Some scientists in earlier years said the object was a forgery. Eventually, however, consensus arose that the disk was created by ancient people, and Dr. Meller supported the object's interpretation as the earliest known human expression of simple astronomical phenomena, such as the star cluster of the Pleiades.
"During the Bronze Age, there is plenty of evidence for archaeoastronomical orientations and an interest in cosmology and the night sky, the day sky, the planets and the stars," said Alison Sheridan, an archaeologist who has worked with National Museums Scotland and was formerly president of the Prehistoric Society, an international association supporting prehistoric science. The Nebra sky disk, however, is "the oldest example of when someone reflected that on material culture," she said.
Later this year, the sky disk will hit new heights when Matthias Maurer, a German astronaut, heads aboard a SpaceX capsule to the International Space Station. Dr. Maurer has integrated the iconography of the disk into the patch design he will wear throughout the mission.
In a study published last year in the journal Archäologische Informationen, Dr. Gebhard and Dr. Krause questioned the Bronze Age period, arguing that the item originated in the Iron Age, around 1,000 years later.
There is a somewhat uncertain situation," Dr. Krause said, "about the history of locating the disk. "This is the big problem we've somehow got to solve."
The two archaeologists suggest that the disk may have been discovered at another location and reburied at the Mittelberg site with unaffiliated objects to make it appear to be more important from the Bronze Age. They point in part to an account provided in a book by one of the looters, stating that other traders in the antiques black market have contacted them after they published their study in September to confirm rumors that the disk was from another location.
"This Mittelberg site is outdated," Dr. Gebhard said. "We believe there is a need to look around for a new site."
They claim that criticism of its famous origin story has been stifled because of the enormous cultural importance of the disk for Saxony-Anhalt, the German state where Halle and Nebra are.
Dr. Pernicka, Dr. Meller and other colleagues replied with a refutation published in the journal Archaeologia Austriaca in November that reaffirms the artifact's Bronze Age origins.
They first point out that both looters testified in court that they had uncovered the hoard, complete with the disk, at the Mittelberg site to refute claims that the disk came from another site. Flemming Kaul, a senior researcher at the National Museum of Denmark, who was not involved in either report, said that testimony "was corroborated by a lot of scientific or forensic proof."
Dr. Meller and his colleagues claim that for the individuals who created it, the disk fulfilled sophisticated theological and calendar aims. In their new research, they speculate that, along with two spears, two axes, a chisel and arm spirals in the hoard, the Mittelberg site may have been chosen as the resting place for the disk because it acted as an elevated perch for astronomical observations.
"Dr. Pernicka said, "It was not thrown away," regarding the contents buried at the site. It was, he said, an intentional arrangement that might have been a ritual burial without a corpse or an offering to the gods.
"Maikel Kuijpers, assistant professor in European prehistory at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in either study, said, "We actually see this quite a lot in the Bronze Age, these so-called depositions, or 'bronze hoards,'
A small piece of birch bark, ensconced in the handle of one of the blades, which was carbon-dated to around 1,600 B.C., provides the scientific basis for the assertion of Bronze Age origin. The hoard appears typical of the Bronze Period, overall, which some experts say supports the argument that the disk is also from that era.
"Bettina Arnold, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who was not involved in either study, said: "If it can be proven that the looters deliberately assembled a perfectly calibrated collection of artifacts to set off an intellectual feud between specialists, the most parsimonious explanation is that the items were found together.
The teams also disagree with the proof provided by soil samples, the origin of the metals of the disk, and the significance of the bewitching celestial scenes that decorate its face.
The study of the Mittelberg site by Dr. Pernicka showed gold and copper concentrations in the soil, indicating that metals from the disk had leached out over thousands of years. Dr. Gebhard and Dr. Krause are not persuaded that these particles are bound to the disk, and more comparative soil analysis is suggested.
More nebulous is the question over whether the disk's iconography evokes the Bronze or Iron Age. Take the curious semicircle at the bottom of its face: this element, added some time after the disk was first formed, is believed by many archaeologists to represent a solar barge, a mythological vessel associated with the ancient Egyptian religion. In the Bronze Age, the appearance of this barge, also known as a barque, could suggest the northward expansion of Mediterranean motifs throughout Europe.
"For our understanding of Bronze Age religion, the Nebra sky disk should be considered as a religious object of utmost importance," Dr. Kaul said. "When this figure is considered, in particular, as a solar barque, it is one of the earliest renderings of the sun ship in the iconography of Europe."
Dr. Gebhard and Dr. Krause dispute the understanding of the solar barge, who claim that the curved form of the figure does not fit contemporary representations of such sky boats found in dig sites from Egypt up through Scandinavia.
"Indeed, we have no pictures of barges that are totally round," Dr. Gebhard said.
If their solar barge theory is correct, it poses questions about the circular symbol, generally believed to be the sun, on the disk. Dr. Gebhard and Dr. Krause suggest that the full moon is on the left side of the crescent period. Together with the appearance of so many stars, this understanding of the disk relates to how European Iron Age cultures perceived the night sky, they add.
"The disk is unique in terms of form and decoration in the Bronze Age," Dr. David said. "For the early and middle Bronze Age, the representations are too naturalistic, in which lunar and solar motifs are represented in a very abstract manner."
Some archaeologists, however, have arrived at the opposite conclusion. The disk was "much more consistent with the iconographic and ideological concepts of the Bronze Age than those of the Iron Age in Central Europe," Dr. Arnold said, and Dr. Kaul said he had "no problems with the iconography of the Nebra sky disk in the context of the European Middle Bronze Age."
Dr. Kuijpers sees issues with the views of both parties on the iconography because he said the disk "doesn't fit either period." In his opinion, the main issue with this conflict is the focus on an artifact that is without parallel.
Dr. Kuijpers said, "It's really unfortunate if we put all our focus on one exceptional object of status." "I don't think that helps our discipline and what we can do, really. Studying and looking at it is wonderful and amazing, but still, in a way, insignificant to the broader picture of typical early Bronze Age society.
Although parts of the discussion on iconography would remain subjective, Dr. Sheridan said she agreed that the article by Dr. Pernicka and Dr. Meller should resolve the claim that the artifact was "a real early Bronze Age find."
But the Nebra sky disk is an archaeological wild card, made of gold, bronze and copper, as much of a mystery as it is. Public imagination continues to be captivated by the artistic flair of its celestial tableau, even as its mysterious meaning and the crimes that contributed to its excavation imbue the relic with tantalizing mystery.
"While the proof (as it is) is tilted in favor of a Bronze Age date on balance," Dr. Arnold wrote in an email, "the Nebra Disk is a fascinating but tragic finding whose real significance is likely to remain obscure regardless of how many tests it is subjected to."