The Pleiades and the Nebra sky disk

Replica of the find: the Celestial Disc, chisel, swords and arm rings

Constellations of rising and setting stars were recorded in early calendars or zodiacs. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks all used the spiral ascents of various stars for the timing of agricultural activities. Many ancient civilizations knew of the star cluster now known as the Pleiades.

The Pleiades were mentioned around 750 BC. in the Iliad and Odyssey of the Greek poet Homer. The poet Hesiod also mentions the Pleiades in his ‘Works and Days’ (Ancient Greek Ἔργα καὶ Ἡμέραι / Erga kaí Hēmérai) around 700 BC. Works and Days was originally intended as a farmers’ almanac, in which Hesiod teaches his brother Perses about the agricultural arts. In addition, scholars have placed his book against the background of an agricultural crisis on the Greek mainland, which inspired a wave of Greek settlers to seek new land (750-550 BC).

Image from 1910 accompanying the Works and Days of Hesiod. The rise of the Pleiades, the time for the harvest.

In Greek mythology, the Pleiades, the seven sister nymphs, were the companions of Artemis (the goddess of the hunt). They were the daughters of the giant Atlas and the Oceanide Pleione. Together with their seven sisters, the Hyades, they were called the Atlantids, Dodonids, or Nysiades: nannies and teachers of the infant Dionysus.

It is said that the name Pleiades derives from πλεῖν (“to sail”) because of the star cluster’s importance in delineating the sailing season in the Mediterranean: “the season of navigation began with their celestial ascent”. The Pleiades would “flee mighty Orion and plunge into the misty depths” as they set to the west, which they would begin to do just before sunrise in October-November. This was a good time of year to lay down the ship after the beautiful summer weather and “don’t forget to work the land”; in Mediterranean agriculture, autumn is the time to plow and sow.

Image from 1910 accompanying the Works and Days of Hesiod. The demise of the Pleiades, the time of sowing.

The Pleiades are referred to as Kirnah in the Bible: “He made the Big Dipper, and Orion, the Pleiades, and the stars of the south.” (Job 9:9), “Can you bind the Pleiades or loose the chains of Orion?” (Job 38:31), “The maker of the Pleiades and of Orion, his name is YHWH” (Amos 5:8). In ancient Egypt they were worshiped in the cult of Isis and used as a reference in determining the beginning of spring.

The Pleiades are still important in different cultures. To the Māori of New Zealand, the Pleiades are called Matariki and their heliacal rise signifies the start of the new year (around June). The Mapuche of South America, where the Pleiades are called Ngauponi, say that the new year begins when Ngauponi appear in the east. The Pleiades appear on the horizon an hour before sunrise, about 12 days before the winter solstice (this is also with the Mapuche in June), heralding tripantu. The sun returns, the days get longer again. Wiñoy Tripantu is celebrated with a ceremony on the shortest day of the year, when different families or even different communities come together to celebrate. All members of the community have a participatory role in the ceremony, which may include songs, dances, a communal meal, and offerings to the land.

Shrine to the “Seven Mothers”, Ramanathapuram District, Tamil Nadu

In Indian civilization they are symbolized as the Saptamatrika, a series of statues with the seven mother goddesses (hence the name “The Seven Sisters”). According to Leslie C. Orr, the Saptamatrika, who first appeared in South India in the eighth century, once had temples dedicated exclusively to them, but by the ninth century they were relegated to the status of “gods of the entourage” (parivara devata) of Shiva. Their images moved from the shrines to the corners of temple complexes and now they can be found as tutelary deities (gardians, protectors) in small village shrines.

The Saptamatrikas are worshiped as Sapta kanya (the celestial nymphs) in most South Indian Shiva temples, especially in Tamil Nadu. The Selliyamman Temple at Alambakkam in Tiruchirapalli district is important in the worship of the Matrikas. A temple dedicated to the Saptamatrika once stood here, which was replaced by the current temple. In Tamil Nadu, the matrikas are called Kannimargal or Saptakannigal and are worshiped everywhere.

Replica of the find, the Celestial Disc, chisel, swords and arm rings (picture taken in the museum in Assen, the Netherlands)

It is clear that the Pleiades are important in many cultures, even as far back as Ancient Greece. But a find announced to the public at a press conference on February 28, 2002, caused history to be rewritten. The German Interior Minister Manfred Püchel gave a bronze disc to the culture minister Gerd Harms during the press conference. The disc was found as early as 1999, but was not made known to the public until much later.

This bronze disc with gold objects turned out to be about 3600 years old. The disc has been extensively investigated, partly because the looters filed lawsuits to get out of their punishment. They wanted to prove that the disk wasn’t really that old, but scientific research has shown time and time again that it is not a modern counterfeit. The disc became known in a very special way. Photos of an unusual object were shared and the director of the museum of prehistory in Halle offered to do a test to determine the age of the materials. However, he secretly cooperated with the police and in this way the looters were arrested in Switzerland.

The disk was not found by them, that happened a bit earlier. Henry W. and Mario R. dug on the Mittelberg near Nebra near an earth ring embankment and came across what they thought was a manhole cover. The disc stood upright and was hit hard by their tools, knocking off a piece of the round gold disc. They also found a chisel and a sword, which turned out to rest on another sword, and arm spirals. They sold it to Achim S. and he tried to clean the disc with steel wool, among other things.

After the police got hold of the finds and locked up the looters, Achim S. was also arrested (in July 2002). He decided to show the place where the items were found. As a result, he escaped punishment, but the people who actually dug up the disc and other looters involved were prosecuted. So they tried everything they could to avoid punishment and wanted to prove in all kinds of ways that it was a forgery. Several scientists conducted studies, which showed that the metal of the disk comes from eastern Austria.

Own photo of Nebra’s Celestial Disc, taken in the Drents museum
Own photo of the back of Nebra’s Celestial Disc

The gold turned out to be from Cornwall, in fact it was mined from the river Carnon. The gold of the stars and celestial objects originates from the same source. The two arches were added later. For this, 2 stars were moved, and the composition of the gold of the remaining arc is slightly different from the stars. There is 1 star forged from the same gold compound as the horizon arc. It is likely that removing a star in order to move it caused damage. The blacksmith must have reforged the star and attached it to the bronze at the same time as the bows.

The disc is 2050 grams and the Seven Stars, the Pleiades, are clearly recognizable. Before the discovery of the Celestial Disc, it was thought that such a high culture could not have existed in Central Europe around 1600 BC. But the horizon arcs show it must have been used near Nebra. The two horizon arcs show where the sun rises and sets during the year. Seen from where the celestial disk was found in the observatory, the sun sets behind the Brocken at the time of the summer solstice (around June 21, Midsummer) and behind the Kyffhäuser on May 1 (Beltane). Mountain and disc are a perfect match.

Own photo, taken in the Drents museum during the exhibition

Rahlf Hansen has a theory; the disk would represent the full moon and also the sun. The Pleiades near sunrise in October indicate the end of the agricultural year.

The disk could be used to determine leap years. The lunar year and solar year are synchronized when a new thin crescent moon appears near the Pleiades in spring.

But if the crescent moon is too thick (and the moon is therefore older), then lunar year and solar year are too far apart and an intercalary month must be inserted to restore harmony.

At the time of the use of the celestial disc, the crescent indicated the beginning of the spring month, but the beginning of spring was celebrated twelve days later: during the full moon. Full moon at the beginning of spring is the start of the solar year in many cultures.

The solar barque, the boat that seems to rest on the bottom, was added even later and the gold differs more in composition (but also comes from the same environment from Cornwall). Scientists debate whether the application of the solar barque turned the astronomical object into a cult object. The sunbark seems to have been crammed in and the blacksmith didn’t have the skill as the blacksmith (or blacksmiths) who have worked on it before. Perforations were made on the edges, the disc may have been placed in a stand. A bow has disappeared, it is believed that this object was already removed in Antiquity before the object was sacrificed.

The Celestial Disc has been exhibited in various museums, it has been a UNESCO documentary heritage ›Memory of the World‹ since 2013. Normally the object can be seen in Halle (Germany). Restorers have tried to restore the missing gold surface, which was damaged when the excavators stumbled upon it, with gold they had forged themselves. The gold shone more than the original gold, although the composition of the gold took into account the shine that the original now has. It was necessary to use a scouring pad to make the ‘new’ gold look like the gold of the round object, which was “cleaned” by Achim S.

Constellation Taurus, image from 1690 (Orion can also be seen chasing the Pleiades, visible on the ecliptic – on the bull’s neck)

Religion, myth and science used to be one. The modern division between religion and science obscures the view of historical reality. Astrology and astronomy were not separated for a long time, but today astronomy is associated with physics and astrology with superstition. According to some, the Pleiades are depicted above a bull in the cave of Lascaux. The paintings are 17,000 years old. Even now, the Pleiades are on sky maps in the constellation Taurus.

Left: constellation Taurus

Above: constellation Taurus on a stamp of Kazachstan

Thai star lore associates the Pleiades with a mother hen, and fiastyúk (“mother hen”) is the Hungarian name for the Pleiades. For the Vikings, the Pleiades were the chickens of the goddess Freya and in other (Northern) European cultures, such as the Old English and Old German, they are associated with a chicken with chicks.

There are megaliths associated with hens and chicks. “Hens with chicks” would appear at the megaliths and they would turn into gold, it is said (among the mámoas in Spain this happens on the night of San Juan (midsummer), see Who built the megaliths on the Iberian Peninsula? and Midsummer). Could these sites have been used to observe the Pleiades in ancient times? Did people look at the stars to determine when the new year or spring began? I think this is definitely not impossible….

Marinda Ruiter

Sirius is the fixed star with the largest apparent magnitude and one that is almost non-variable. The Pleiades, a major feature of Taurus shown over Orion in the same photo, also experience an annual period of visibility (“rise and set”).


This is a translation of a Dutch article, sources can be found in that article: De Pleiaden en de hemelschijf van Nebra

De Hemelschijf van Nebra, op zoek naar een verdwenen beschaving in het hart van Europa, Harald Meller & Kai Michel, ISBN 9789460039317


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