The Nebra Sky Disk: Is it really the world’s oldest star map??

The ‘Nebra Sky Disk’ was a prehistoric star chart created in Germany circa 1600 BCE. It illustrates numerous important aspects of the sky (the sun, the moon, and the stars). One of the most intriguing features revolves on the two golden arcs that run down the edges of Disk.

The Nebra Sky Disk
The Nebra Sky Disk. © Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Each arc covers an 82° angle, accurately representing the angles between the summer and winter solstices. As a result, the sky disc is Europe’s first movable relic depicting the solar cycles.

Perhaps the most intriguing characteristic is a cluster of seven dots at the top of the disc (between the sun and moon symbols) that is thought to symbolise the Pleiades constellation. The star mass is frequently found on Scandinavian petroglyphs, indicating that it was a significant emblem to the Germanic people.

None of the disk’s other star alignments correspond to any constellations in the night sky. This indicates that the item was not utilised as a star chart, but rather as a symbolic representation of the universe. Is it feasible, then, that the disc depicted some sort of celestial narrative?

The Pleiades was known as the “star of stars” in Babylon, and was regarded as a regal portion of the night sky. The ancient Egyptians thought it was a manifestation of the goddess Neith, the “divine lady of heaven.” The Pleiades were the Titans’ seven daughters in Greek mythology (Atlas and Pleione). Because of the way the stars floated around the sky, their names signified “the sailing ones.”

The Nebra Sky Disk: Is it really the world's oldest star map?? 1
The style in which the disk is executed was unlike any artistic style then known from the period, with the result that the object was initially suspected of being a forgery, but is now widely accepted as authentic. © Image Credit: Public Domain

Following on from this sailing theme, there is another nautical sign on the chart. Some academics think that a third curve at the bottom of the disc represents the sun boat, a mythological emblem prevalent in Egyptian and Norse mythology.

Ra was a Sun God in Ancient Egypt who was said to travel around the sky in a solar boat. During the day, his ship sailed across the skies, giving light to Earth. It passed below the horizon in the evening, creating darkness, only to return the next day. This event represented the sun god’s death and rebirth.

A heavenly figure with a starry crown standing on a boat can be observed in certain Scandinavian rock art (carved circa 1700 BCE). Unlike the Sun God, who rises and sets every day, this Scandinavian entity was associated with the Pleiades (the constellation shown to the left of the picture), which meant it would rise in the Spring (a season of regeneration) and set again in the Autumn (a time for harvest).

The solar/cosmic god blazes with life in the sky in both mythological representations, ultimately sinking beyond the horizon, indicating a type of celestial death.

To summarise:  The sun symbol to the left of the star map may symbolise the rising and setting of the sun, representing the cycle of night and day.  The moon symbol, too, rises and sets across the sky, but for a considerably longer period of time. The moon is most likely used to depict the month’s cycle.

The Pleiades rises and sets over the horizon as well. The Greeks used it to mark the arrival of spring and the departure of autumn (seasonal cycles).  The golden arcs on the disk’s surface cover an 82-degree angle, mirroring Germany’s summer and winter solstices (seasonal cycles).

Nebra sky disk Pleiades
The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, is an open star cluster containing middle-aged hot B-type stars located in the constellation of Taurus. It is among the nearest star clusters to Earth and is the cluster most obvious to the naked eye in the night sky. © Image Credit: Claudio Balducelli | Licensed from Dreamstime Inc. (Editorial/Commercial Use Stock Photo)

Finally, there’s the cosmic boat, a symbol of a sky deity who rules over the map’s cosmic cycles. When the symbols are viewed in this light, the star disc appears to be narrating the story of death and resurrection, which is present in many world myths.

To see the disc as a portable star map is definitely a stretch. It is more likely a proto-calender, created by priests to identify their location in a lunar year. They could forecast how much spring was left by charting the Pleiades against the golden arcs of the disc (which represented the horizon), when to celebrate the solstices, and when to get the farmers to harvest their crops.

If this is the case, the Nebra Sky Disk would have been held by someone of significant status and would have been an item of considerable power, assisting ancients in understanding and navigating the secrets of the cosmos.