Reaching for the Stars

Astronomical knowledge on the Nebra Sky Disc

The inquiring gaze into the night sky is thousands of years old.
The inquiring gaze into the night sky is thousands of years old.
At first, prosaically only countless luminous dots show up on a blue-black background, which move across the sky every night in particular configurations. Regular observation of this spectacle reveals that this constellation changes in the course of a year and many stars are not visible in the sky for a longer period of time.
But how many generations must have looked searchingly into the sky to tap into the course of the moon, the sun, and the stars, and to pass this knowledge on to the next generation without writing?


The disc is a direct glimpse into the universe.
No one has ever seriously proposed an interpretation that is not astronomical. One can say that the disc is, in a way, the MOT plaque for Stonehenge, Newgrange, and other monuments.

Prof. Dr. Wolfhard Schlosser (astronomer)

For tens of thousands of years, people lived by hunting and gathering, the stars and the course of the sun serving as a simple orientation aid in space and time. They were part of everyday life in animate nature. Probably the knowledge about the movements of the heavens was handed down in the form of myths and songs - but of this nothing has survived.

The Goseck Solar Observatory is part of the Sky Paths in Saxony-Anhalt. Today, a reconstruction of the 7,800-year-old site can be seen at the original location. The sun's rising and setting points on the horizon for the solstices are marked in the structure and allow a particularly precise bearing at the winter solstice. © LDA, photo: Juraj Lipták.

With the advent of agricultural societies, the annual cycle of the sun takes on a special significance. In the farming year, reliable, weather-independent indicators of the seasons are important, for example, to avoid sowing seeds prematurely in a February that is too warm.
In Central Europe, so-called circular ditched enclosures, such as the Goseck Solar Observatory, already almost 5,000 years before Christ show clear references to the solstices. Thus we also find the first concrete reference to celestial observations in Central Europe.
These references can be detected sporadically again and again in the surviving structures of the Stone Age, the most famous example being Stonehenge. Nevertheless, in the times before 1600 BC we have no objects or buildings with such complex and concrete astronomical information as we find on the Nebra Sky Disc.


(Kopie 10)

Even if we let our gaze wander in the direction of Egypt or Mesopotamia, we find only a few, rather schematic representations of the sky. One example are the countless rows of stars in the Pyramid of Unas in Egypt, which adorn the ceilings of the burial chambers.




The Rulers of Time

The Rulers of Time

The Nebra Sky Disc is the world's oldest concrete representation of cosmic phenomena. At first glance we recognise the sun, moon, and stars. They belong to the first phase and are worth a closer look.

32 stars are distributed on the Sky Disc. With the exception of seven stars in the centre, the distances between them are deliberately regular and do not represent any specific constellations. These 25 stars are therefore emblematic of the night sky. All the more striking are the seven stars in the centre, which form a rosette.

Only they have a concrete counterpart in the night sky:
The Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters. The large golden disc could represent both the sun and the moon, in addition there is a crescent-shaped moon.

The cluster of seven stars - also known as the Pleiades. © LDA, photo by Juraj Lipták

When the Pleiades, the daughters of Atlas, are rising, begin your harvest, but plough when they descend, they remain shrouded for forty nights and forty days, but when they appear shining again as the year moves round, only then begin to sharpen your sickle.

Poet Hesiod around 700 BC

Das Siebengestirn

The Seven Sisters

The Pleiades have been well-known calendar stars since antiquity. The star cluster presents itself as a striking image and is not visible in the night sky all year round. Its last and first visibility is therefore associated in many cultures with rules of agriculture or navigation.


Six to eight stars are visible to the naked eye, although the stellar cluster, which is about 440 light years away, includes more than 400 suns. © NASA, ESA, and AURA/Caltech
The constellation on 10 March and 17 October around 1600 BC. © LDA, Illustration: Klaus Pockrandt after Wolfhard Schlosser.

The last visibility of the Pleiades in spring in the western evening sky thus indicates the time for sowing. There the Pleiades are accompanied by a young crescent moon. Only in autumn do the Pleiades reappear in the firmament, now in the morning in the east. There, the almost full moon dominates the sky – it is time to harvest.

We find representations of the Seven Sisters as a rosette on cylinder seals in Mesopotamia as early as the third millennium BC. The first pictorial representation of the Pleiades in Europe is found on the Nebra Sky Disc.


In 2004, the astronomer Rahlf Hansen from the Hamburg Planetarium decoded another layer of information.
He recognised a leap rule encoded several times on the disc, which served to harmonise the solar with the lunar year.
The complex rule is best explained by Rahlf Hansen himself:

In summary, this leap rule can be described as follows: If a crescent moon as thick as the one on the Sky Disc appears next to the Pleiades in the spring month, a leap month must be inserted.


Hansen also cites the sobriety of its representation as an indication that this astronomical memogram is a transfer of knowledge.

The Sky Disc thus contains astronomical knowledge from Mesopotamia. How this got here is another story.

Thus, unlike the celestial representations of Egypt or the Orient, the Sky Disc shows a coded guide to the ordering of time. Surely only few people were able to decipher this complex knowledge: the princes and priests of the Early Bronze Age around 1800 BC.

The Rhythm of the Sky

The Rhythm of the Sky

© LDA, grafik by Klaus Pockrandt.

But first let us take one step back: the so-called horizon arcs on the Sky Disc were added in the second phase of manufacture. They cover two gold stars from the first phase, and another one was even moved for this attachment. This means that the makers of the second phase no longer knew the coding of the leap rule by the number of stars. Had the leap rule perhaps been completely forgotten?

The use of a different grade of gold for the horizon arcs and the displaced star also suggests that some time had passed between the first and second phase – maybe even a few generations?

Ancient knowledge from Central Europe can also be found on the Sky Disc.

If one projects the ground plan of the circular ditched enclosure at Goseck onto the Sky Disc, it immediately becomes clear that there is a connection between the lateral golden arcs on the Sky Disc and the openings for observing the sun at Goseck.


he two removed stars under the right horizon arc are clearly visible. © LDA, photo by Juraj Lipták

These horizon arcs span an angle of 82.7 degrees and symbolise the passage of the Sun along the horizon within the course of a year. To better understand this: Imagine the Earth as a (celestial) disc and you standing at its centre. Now on each day of the year, mark the points on the horizon where the sun rises and sets. At the end of the year, your markings will exactly depict the horizon arcs on the Sky Disc. Or as astronomer Wolfhard Schlosser aptly summarises for the horizon arcs:

"Gold where the sun could reach - no gold where it could not"
(Schlosser 2010:913).

The ends of both arcs indicate the points on the horizon where the sun rises and sets on the two solstice days of 21 December and 21 June.

Connecting the ends of the horizon arcs crosswise, the intersection lies slightly above the centre of the Sky Disc. This shift of the horizon arcs "upwards" reflects a natural phenomenon:

We observe sunrises and sunsets slightly shifted to the north by the atmosphere. This means that the horizon arcs are based on actual solar observations that have taken place in our latitudes: If we were in Italy or England, for example, the radian measurement would be much smaller or larger respectively. If we convert the radian measure of the Sky Disc into geographical latitude, we end up in a range of about 52 degrees.

And this range runs right through the middle of what is today Saxony-Anhalt.

The strip shows the latitude range in which the fixation of the solstices with the horizon arcs works perfectly: the ends of the arcs then point precisely to the sunrise and sunset points on 21 June and 21 December. © LDA, Graphic: Kocmoc

This precise observation helps us to determine the cardinal points on the disc: north is at the top, south is at the bottom. If the crescent moon is then interpreted as a new moon, west would be right, east left.

Still today, this is the astronomical definition of directions in the sky. This is simply because "in geography you look at the Earth from above, but in astronomy you look at the sky from below", Wolfhard Schlosser explained to puzzled archaeologists.

From Logos to Mythos

From Logos to Mythos

© LDA, grafik by Klaus Pockrandt.

In phase 3, the solar ship is attached to the Sky Disc, the age of pure knowledge coding is over and mythical images are used to explain questions of the sky.

These first two phases of the Sky Disc make it an exceptional object of the world of that time: abstracting complex knowledge in seemingly simple images requires such a high level of transfer as one would not have suspected for the people of the central European Bronze Age.

When the time of the great princes of the Early Bronze Age ended around 1600 BC, the Sky Disc was buried on the Mittelberg near Nebra. On what must have been a sacred hill, which was probably already used to observe the course of the Sun at the time of the disc - but more about that elsewhere.


Listen and watch Wolfhard Schlosser and Harald Meller talking about the astronomy of the Sky Disc:


To dig deeper


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F. Bertemes, P. F. Biehl, A. Northe, O. Schröder, Die neolithische Kreisgrabenanlage von Goseck, Ldkr. Weißenfels. Archäologie in Sachsen-Anhalt, NF Bd. 2, 2004, 137–145.


R. Hansen, Sonne oder Mond? Verewigtes Wissen aus der Ferne. In: Meller, H., Bertemes, F. (Hrsg.), Der Griff nach den Sternen. Wie Europas Eliten zu Macht und Reichtum kamen. Internationales Symposium in Halle (Saale) 16. - 21. Februar 2005 (Tagungen des Landesmuseums für Vorgeschichte Halle (Saale) 5/II; 2010), 953–959.

H. Meller, K. Michels, Die Himmelsscheibe von Nebra – der Schlüssel zu einer untergegangenen Kultur im Herzen Europas (Berlin 2018).

H. Meller, K. Michels, Griff nach den Sternen. Nebra, Stonehenge, Babylon: Reise ins Universum der Himmelsscheibe (Berlin 2021).

W. Schlosser, Zur astronomischen Deutung der Himmelsscheibe von Nebra. Archäologie in Sachsen-Anhalt, 2002, 21–23.

W. Schlosser, Lichtblicke – geometrisch-astronomische Analyse der Kreisgrabenanlage von Goseck, Ldkr. Weißenfels. Archäologie in Sachsen-Anhalt N. F. 4, 2006 (2007), 282–284.

W. Schlosser, Astronomische Analyse der Himmelsschei­be von Nebra und des Kreisgrabens von Go­seck – Gemeinsamkeiten und Unterschiede. Acta Praehistorica et Archaeologica, 2008, 57–60.

W. Schlosser, Die Himmelsscheibe von Nebra – Astronomische Untersuchungen. In: Meller, H., Bertemes, F. (Hrsg.), Der Griff nach den Sternen. Wie Europas Eliten zu Macht und Reichtum kamen. Internationales Symposium in Halle (Saale) 16.–21. Februar 2005 (Tagungen des Landesmuseums für Vorgeschichte Halle (Saale) 5/II; 2010), 913–934.

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