Why an ancient German archaeological treasure has voyaged into space

The Nebra Sky Disk and the ISS.
The Nebra Sky Disk and the ISS. Photo: Getty Images / Wikipedia
Just over 30 years after it was discovered, and around 3,600 years after its creation by Bronze Age Germans, a replica of Germany's greatest archaeological find is heading into orbit. 

Aboard the SpaceX Crew-3 rocket, European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer took a replica of the famous ‘Nebra Sky Disk‘ with him as he ventured to the International Space Station.

Blasting off on November 11th from Cape Canaveral, Maurer’s ‘Cosmic Kiss’ mission is devoted to undertaking and carrying out a number of experiments for European and international research organisations.

However, it’s natural to ask – why take a representation of a Bronze Age artefact into space?

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An age-old inspiration

In preparing for the ‘Cosmic Kiss’ mission, the German astronaut took inspiration from the Nebra Sky Disk. Found in 1999 by illegal metal detectorists near the town of Nebra in Sachsen-Anhalt, it is the oldest-known depiction of the night sky.

After a sting operation, Prof. Dr Harald Meller of the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology in Saxony-Anhalt was able to recover it from black market dealers and study it.

It is thought that the Nebra Sky Disk, or ‘Himmelsscheibe’ was a sort of calendar, helping Bronze Age tribes-people of the Utenice culture to regulate the planting of crops. Without knowing when to add an extra month to their calendar, these peoples risked their crops dying in the cold.

A very early example of knowledge being recorded in a systematic manner for posterity, it is a clear precursor to the scientific observation and experimentation carried out by modern people.

 
 
 
 
 
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A pop culture phenomenon 

Despite very little being known about exactly when and by whom the Nebra Sky Disk was created, it has become part of Germany’s cultural heritage. Listed as a UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ it is normally on permanent display at the Museum for Prehistory in Halle, Sachen-Anhalt. In January it will travel to the British Museum for a massive exhibition focusing on the Bronze Age world.

Not only that, but it is often referenced on television and in online media. Popular television host, Jan Bohmermann memorably likened the artefact to a ‘smiley with chickenpox‘, while satirical website Der Postillon gently mocked the mystery surrounding it, suggesting that it was an early pizza recipe.

It is also the subject of two best-selling books, ‘The Nebra Sky Disk‘ and ‘Reach to the Stars‘ by science writer Kai Michel, together with Prof. Dr Meller. 

Astronaut Maurer incorporated the Nebra Sky Disk into his mission. During his mission, he will make contact with viewers on earth and discuss the significance of the artefact to mankind.

Both the Museum for Prehistory in Halle, and the specialized ‘Arche Nebra‘ on the site of the disk’s discovery have greeted news of the mission with celebration, and are publicising it heavily on their social media channels. 


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