Henry Westphal is tired. It’s July 4, 1999, a Sunday. He and a friend are climbing the Mittelberg or “Central Hill,” a small mountain near Nebra, in central Germany. Both men know of ancient ruins located here. Equipped with two metal detectors, they hope to find something of value.
Westphal stops to rest for a couple of minutes. It’s a hot day and he’s out of shape. Suddenly his metal detector starts beeping wildly. He brushes some leaves aside with his shoe but can’t make out anything. The detector’s display reads, “OVERLOAD.”
With a pick, Westphal scrapes at the dry ground. Under a few inches of soil, the pick hits something hard several times. Together the two treasure-hunters dig a small pit. They find several objects: two decorative swords, two ax heads, a chisel, and two bracelets. The objects are piled beside a large, round disk oriented upright in the ground. Through the dirt sticking to the disk, a faint golden shimmer is visible.
The men take the objects, cover up the hole, and drive home. That night they go to a bar to celebrate the unusual and obviously valuable find. What neither of them knows is that the dirty disk would turn out to be a one-of-a-kind, 3,600-year-old artifact, later declared to be one of the most important finds of the 20th century.
After soaking the disk in a bathtub filled with water and dish soap for several days, Westphal sells it together with the other objects to an art dealer for 31,000 Deutsche marks (about 19,000 U.S. dollars at the time). The dealer knows the items are worth more and tries to sell them to several museums. The museums decline, realizing that trading in this ancient find is illegal. The disk ends up on the black market.
In May 2001, Harald Meller, the new state archaeologist in Saxony-Anhalt, hears about the disk. Photos show it’s in bad shape; Westphal had accidentally damaged it with his pick and inexpert cleaning. Meller, the State Criminal Investigation Office, and other officials come up with a plan to get the objects back. Like Indiana Jones, Meller knows that a find like this belongs in a museum.
The item of interest, now known as the Nebra Sky Disk, is a nine-pound plate of bronze inlaid with dozens of gold symbols. The gold figures include a lunar crescent, a large circle, and 30 small circles. After studying the disk for many years, archaeologists have concluded that it is the oldest concrete and accurate diagram of the sky ever found. The disk was a carefully made map used both for practical and religious purposes.
One of the most important components of the disk is a tight group of seven stars placed between the lunar crescent and the large circle denoting the full moon. They represent the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, a cluster of stars visible with the naked eye to people in the Northern Hemisphere. The Pleiades were known to, depicted by, and followed with interest by ancient cultures around the globe.
Researchers believe that the disk recorded the fact that when the Pleiades were seen next to a new moon, that signaled the beginning of spring, when seeds should be sown, at the latitude of central Germany. When the star cluster stood next to a full moon, it was a sign that fall had begun and it was harvest time.
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