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24 September 2014
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The Nebra star disc
BBC Two, Thursday 29 January 2004, 9pm
Secrets of the Star Disc
Coming Up
Horizon tells the story of the man who seemingly brought nanotechnology a step closer to becoming a reality. BBC Two, 5th February, 9pm.

Secrets of the Star Disc - transcript

NARRATOR (THUSITHA JAYASUNDERA): Deep inside this ancient mine is the key to one of Europe’s biggest archaeological mysteries. It’s a story that begins with a robbery from a burial site in the dark heart of Europe. Its hero is an archaeologist with a taste for adventure. There’s even an international police hunt, an undercover sting involving agents from two countries. At its heart is one small piece of bronze.

Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN (University of Wales): It’s the find of a lifetime, indeed the find of several lifetimes. What it’s doing is making people think for the first time, a society that can make this is, is complex, is sophisticated, it’s intellectual.

NARRATOR: This is the extraordinary tale of how one small bronze disc is rewriting the story of how civilisation may have first come to ancient Europe.

NARRATOR: This forest in Eastern Germany contains some of Europe’s oldest human settlements. People have lived and died here for thousands of years. But now the tombs of these ancient dead attract a modern breed to the forest, grave robbers. No one knows just how many objects they have scavenged. But archaeologists have been powerless to prevent it.

DR HARALD MELLER (ENGLISH TRANSLATION) (State Archaeologist, Saxony-Anhalt): When the Berlin Wall came down black market dealers flooded over from the west and handed out metal detectors. So now we’ve got the problem of people running all over the forests looking for burial sites.

NARRATOR: In 1999 three men came combing through this forest with metal detectors. After several hours they found themselves in a small clearing near a hilltop. Suddenly their detectors came alive. With a pickaxe they tore in to the earth. And after a brief struggle the earth gave up a treasure it had kept safe for over three thousand years. What these robbers didn’t realise was that they may have dug up one of the most significant archaeological finds of the century. For they had found an object that would change how we think about one of the most important times in all human history, the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age dawned some four and a half thousand years ago. It was a time when the trappings of true civilisation appeared. A full two and a half thousand years before the birth of Christ humankind took a giant stride forward. At least so it was around the Mediterranean. Here great architecture flourished.

DR BILL MANLEY: If you think about the traditional classical world in Mediterranean, North Africa, the Near East and Middle East. You’ve got cultures which have developed monumental architecture. They developed sophisticated housing. So urban civilisation is well established in the Eastern Mediterranean.

NARRATOR: With civilisation came astronomy and philosophy. And vitally they found ways to record all this new knowledge so that it could be preserved for future generations.

DR BILL MANLEY: By the Bronze Age writing is used in every area of Egyptian culture. It’s used to record religious texts in temples and in people’s tombs. But it’s also being used by thinkers. And every aspect of what it is to be human today is, is, is talked about by the ancient Egyptians. It’s the means by which their ideas and values can be passed on from generation to generation.

NARRATOR: But in the dark heart of Northern Europe it seemed to be an altogether different story. Here there were no great cities, no early forms of writing, no signs of philosophy. Instead crude lumps of rock were arranged in to mystifying monuments. They clearly meant something. But knowledge of their true purpose has not survived. What evidence archaeologists did find pointed to an altogether more primitive society. Among these remains were spears and axes, and above all swords. And they have sealed Bronze Age Europe’s reputation as a place of darkness and even savagery.

Prof RICHARD HARRISON: Swords appear, true swords appear round about seventeen hundred BC, over much of central and north western Europe. And we have thousands of swords. A sword really only has one function. Their design shows quite clearly that they could not be used for hunting animals because you have to get so close that the animal would run away. And the only real purpose for them is to be effective stabbing or slashing weapons against another person, against a human being, they’re for killing men.

NARRATOR: So this was the conventional image for Bronze Age Europe. An unsophisticated place ruled by the sword. Very different from the sophisticated civilisations of Egypt and Greece, but all that was before the discovery of the disc. In May 2001, Harald Meller had just been appointed Head Archaeologist at one of Europe’s most important Bronze Age museums, the Museum of Halle in Eastern Germany. One morning a colleague took him aside and showed him some photographs, they would change his life. These snapshots were taken by the gang who had plundered the forest near his museum just a couple of years earlier. They showed a fantastic hoard of what seemed to be bronze age treasure. There were jewels, tools and swords. But there was something else too, a disc of exquisite design.

DR HARALD MELLER (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): It was a thirty centimetre bronze disc covered with golden decorations. But the real sensation was that the golden decorations formed a picture, and this was something completely unheard of from the Bronze Age. It looked to me like the most significant archaeological find I’d ever seen.

NARRATOR: It was now that an extraordinary thought formed in Harald Meller’s mind. By rights the disc should have been safe in his museum. Instead it was rumoured to be circulating on the black market with an asking price of a quarter of a million pounds. So he decided he personally would track down the criminals and rescue this disc for science. After a year of sleuthing a meeting was arranged in one of Europe’s black market hot spots, Basel in Switzerland. Harald Meller thought he’d finally tracked down the disc and its sellers to the Hilton Hotel. But a third party was also interested in this transaction, the Swiss Police, Meller had tipped them off.

Chief Inspector PETER GILL (Basel Public Prosecutor’s Office): When Dr Meller entered the Hilton Hotel he was constantly observed. We were observing entrances, we knew who came in, who left. We saw what Dr Meller was doing.

NARRATOR: An elaborate sting was underway and archaeologist Harald Meller was the bait.

DR HARALD MELLER (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): Thus inside the hotel I was met by a blonde woman. She asked me to accompany her to a restaurant downstairs. Sitting there was a thin grey-haired man.

NARRATOR: Meller asked to see the disc but the couple seemed to be stalling.

DR HARALD MELLER (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): I said I would have to verify the authenticity of the disc, could they please show me the disc. He said nothing but produced a sword from his bag, and he handed me the sword and asked me to analyse that instead.

NARRATOR: Meller produced some chemicals to test the bronze sword, but the disc was still nowhere to be seen, and now he grew nervous.

DR HARALD MELLER (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): I wasn’t sure where the disc could be. I didn’t know, there was nothing in the suitcase, for all I knew maybe a gun. But the disc was too big to be in there. But finally the man opened his coat and his shirt and from underneath his shirt he produced something wrapped in a towel. He opened the towel and inside was the disc and he handed it to me. Chief Inspector PETER GILL: In the room there were police officers so we saw what was going on.

NARRATOR: And with the disc now in Meller’s hands the police swooped. Chief Inspector PETER GILL: They expect everything these two, but they never expected the police.

NARRATOR: The couple were arrested, the man was handcuffed and they were taken away. And for the first time Harald Meller really took in the disc. There inlaid in gold was the reason why it had been called magical. An incredible picture of the sky, with the sun, moon and what seemed to be stars. Nothing like this had ever been seen before.

DR HARALD MELLER (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): I was completely amazed and astounded, and it was a very important moment in my life.

NARRATOR: Safely back in Harald Meller’s museum in Germany the Nebra Sky disc, as it had become known, sent the archaeological grapevine buzzing, because it wasn’t just a good find, it was an incredible find. And some archaeologists suspected it was all just a little too incredible.

Prof RICHARD HARRISON: When I first heard about the Nebra Disc I thought it was a joke, indeed I thought it was a forgery. Because it’s such an extraordinary piece that it wouldn’t surprise any of us that a clever forger had cooked this up in a backroom and sold it for a lot of money.

NARRATOR: so Dr Heinrich Wunderlich, the Chief Scientist of the museum was called in to determine the authenticity of the Nebra Disc. His laboratory is the first port of call when Bronze Age artefacts are found. He suspected verification would depend on one thing alone, corrosion. Corrosion occurs when metal comes in to contact with oxygen from the air. The disc certainly looked corroded. The green layer of corrosion had formed on its surface. But Dr Wunderlich knew that that didn’t mean the disc was genuine.

DR HEINRICH WUNDERLICH (Archaeology Service, Saxony-Anhalt): The problem for archaeologists is that corrosion can be faked.

NARRATOR: Fake corrosion can fool all but the most expert of specialists. So now he began to analyse the disc in forensic detail. Corrosion forms in crystals. The larger the crystals the longer they had taken to form.

DR HEINRICH WUNDERLICH: When I saw down the microscope I saw structural which was like bubbles.

NARRATOR: And these bubbles of corrosion were huge. Much bigger than anything a faker could produce.

DR HEINRICH WUNDERLICH: This can not be made artificially. You can't fake time.

NARRATOR: While they couldn’t give the exact age, the giant corrosion crystals confirmed that the disc was genuinely ancient. It was a revelation that was about to have even greater significance. Because something was about to be uncovered that would transform the disc from being merely a great find in to a worldwide sensation. It was all to do with the images on the disc. The moon and the sun were clearly visible, that in itself was stunning. But between them were mystery dots, what seemed to be stars. So astronomer Professor Wolfhard Schlosser was called in to try and identify them. Were these just random images or did they mean something more? Could Bronze Age Europeans have been advanced enough to have mapped the stars? First Professor Schlosser isolated the largest group of stars. These were spread out in a pattern across most of the disc. Then he ran them against the computer program to see if they would match with the stars in the night sky. But there were no matches. These stars it seemed were just decorations.

Prof WOLFHARD SCHLOSSER (University of Bochum): The stars on the disc are only meant to be a background, a decoration in something like this. Of course looking like the starry sky, but nothing more, no consolations.

NARRATOR: But then his attention turned to the small cluster of seven stars right between the sun and the moon. It seemed to form a distinct pattern like a constellation. Professor Schlosser quickly realised that of the constellations known in the time of the Bronze Age the cluster resembled one above all others. The Pleiades.

Prof WOLFHARD SCHLOSSER: The Pleiades is very well known in Greek, in Mesopotamia, in Russia, it’s a very important star or star group. And so the Pleiades are the first candidate on our list.

NARRATOR: The Pleiades is one of the most mystery constellations in the cosmos. With the benefit of telescopes we now it consists of eleven main stars. But several of these are barely visible to the naked eye. Usually only six or seven can be seen. So Schlosser turned to the oldest images of the Pleiades that he could find, tablets and scrolls from the east. And there he saw a wonder. The Pleiades drawn with just seven stars. An image just like on the disc.

Prof WOLFHARD SCHLOSSER: I nearly had tears in my eyes because it came to as a surprise to all of us because we would imagine such a find in Egypt or Mesopotamia but not in central Europe, central Germany. And so it was fantastic to all of us and I nearly had tears in my eyes yes.

NARRATOR: Mapping the stars has been one of the great achievements of humankind. It is a task that has obsessed scholars and scientists for thousands of years. But no one knows when or where he first started to understand their movement, or write this knowledge down. What is for sure is that in the civilisations of the eat Egyptians and Babylonians depicted their important constellations as animals. But realistic star images did not appear until 1400 BC in Egypt. These had always been considered to be the oldest known to man. But all that seemed to have just changed. Everything now hung on the exact age of the disc. Was it really older than anything found before? Could it really date from before 1400 BC? Because the disc was made of metal they were unable to use the most accurate technique, carbon dating. So they turned to another method called associative dating. The disc had been found in the same hole and had the same soil level as two swords. Swords of a very particular design. The idea was that the age of these swords and the disc could be fixed. By comparing them with similar objects that had been successfully carbon dated. So Meller examined the swords in minute detail, and then he compared those details with every known type of Bronze Age sword. Eventually he came across pictures of swords that looked exactly like those from the hoard, and the date was stunning.

DR HARALD MELLER (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): Using the swords we could securely date the disc to 1600 BC.

NARRATOR: 1600 BC, it made the Nebra Sky disc the oldest accurate picture of the night sky in all history. Two hundred years older than the oldest images found in Egypt.

DR HARALD MELLER (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): The disc is the earliest concrete astronomical representation of the stars in the sky. It’s the first representation of the universe in human history.

NARRATOR: Suddenly an amazing question began to loom. Was early European man really an astronomer more advanced than his counterparts in the great Mediterranean civilisations? Or could there be an altogether less dramatic explanation? The disc contained not only an image of the stars but also a moon and an image of the sun. And beneath it a curious golden curve. And it was now that the hard questions began. It was Flemming Cowell who threw a spanner in the works. At the Danish National Museum he has built up an incredible collection of ancient images of ships, carved in to rocks, all over Northern Europe. They’re represented as curves, often surrounded by tiny strokes. But these are not images of seafaring ships.

DR FLEMMING KAUL (National Museum of Denmark): These ships we see carved on the rocks of the north. They are not ordinary ships in our practical sense. They are not sailing ships just for fun or for transport. No they are ships of the religious world.

NARRATOR: Flemming Kaul now made a vital connection between these religious ship images and the curve on the Nebra disc.

DR FLEMMING KAUL: Both in the north and on the Nebra disc we see the ship together with the sun, helping the sun over the hills or through the night, through the underworld. I believe that the ship on the Nebra disc is the sun ship.

NARRATOR: The sun ship was one of the most potent and enduring images of all pre-history. And it originated not in Europe but in Egypt. Ancient Egyptians believed that their most powerful deity Rah, the sun god, travelled through the night sky on a boat so that in the morning he could be reborn at sunrise. But what was an Egyptian idea doing on this allegedly European disc? There was now a new and disturbing possibility for the archaeologists. First there was the Pleiades, an image known to be important in the near East. Now a sun ship, a potent symbol from Egypt. In other words perhaps the sky disc itself wasn’t European at all. Perhaps the disc had simply been passed by traders from the advanced East, and had somehow wound up in the hands of primitive Europeans. The importance of the disc now hung in the balance. It was either the most sensational find of the Bronze Age, or more likely a trinket from the East. Then along came Professor Schlosser the astronomer, he had noticed yet another feature of the Nebra Sky disc. As well as the sun ship there was shallow curves on the side. Again they seemed to be very deliberate shapes.

Prof WOLFHARD SCHLOSSER: I didn’t know what they were but I measured the angle and it was eighty two degrees.

NARRATOR: Eighty two degrees is a very specific angle, and it reminded him of something that Europeans had known since the earliest times. For it is here that between the high mid-summer sunset and the low mid-winter sunset the sun is seen to travel around eighty degrees along the horizon. Since prehistoric times ancient monuments have been aligned to mark these solstices all across northern Europe. But the precise angle varies from place to place. Further north it would be ninety degrees. To the south just seventy degrees. In just a tiny band of central Europe would the suns journey measure exactly eighty two degrees. And as Professor Schlosser returned to the site of Nebra, in Germany, where the disc had been found, he realised something that was beyond coincidence.

Prof WOLFHARD SCHLOSSER: That’s where the sun sets mid-winter. That’s where the sun sets mid-summer. The angle between both is precisely eighty two degrees. This angle responds to the journey of the sun between summer and winter for this specific latitude right here in Nebra.

NARRATOR: In other words if the golden horizon bands did mark the solstices then the disc really could have been made in Europe, right at the place where it was found. But with so much at stake hard scientific evidence was needed. The archaeologists called in Professor Ernst Pernicka. He tests ancient metal to discover where it has come from. He had long nurtured doubts of the origins of the disc.

Prof ERNST PERNICKA (University of Tubingen): I knew scientifically it was unique, it was very interesting, it was a sensation. But when Harald Meller and I myself sat together we thought about various aspects of the, of the disc, like the boat. The questions come by themselves, of course you want to know if the disc came as a souvenir from the Mediterranean. But to know this it is important to know where the metal comes from.

NARRATOR: So Pernicka’s task was to determine if the disc was actually made from European or Mediterranean metal ore. Five hundreds metres inside this mountain, deep in the Austrian Alps, an expert guide eventually led him to the remains of Bronze Age copper mines.

Prof ERNST PERNICKA: It is important to try and get as, come as close to the spots, to the locations where the ancient miners actually obtained their ore. This is, this is the material that we can compare with the copper that was found in Nebra.

NARRATOR: But would this metal match the metal of the Star disc? Back in Professor Pernicka’s lab the origins of the Nebra disc could finally be revealed by scientific analysis. Copper contains a unique fingerprint by which it can be identified. This fingerprint is based on something called lead isotopes. These are radioactive atoms and they vary from location to location around the world. Professor Pernicka now used a mass spectrometer to identify the different fingerprints for ores from the Mediterranean and Europe. He then had to compare them with a tiny chip from the disc. First he registered the fingerprint of the Mediterranean copper.

Prof ERNST PERNICKA: The Aegean would plot here, and Cyprus would plot here.

NARRATOR: Then he marked where the fingerprint of the copper from the Alps came out.

Prof ERNST PERNICKA: The question is where does the Nebra disc plot, does it plot here or here? And the result is it plots right up here.

NARRATOR: The fingerprint of the Sky disc was the same as the fingerprint of the metal from the very heart of Europe.

Prof ERNST PERNICKA: These deposits here can not have provided the copper here for this disc. This is hundred percent sure.

NARRATOR: There was now no doubt, this ancient image of the stars was European. It seemed that in some ways European Bronze Age man really was as sophisticated as the civilisations of Egypt and the East. But now they had to figure out what did the disc mean to those Europeans who had made it? Professor Miranda Aldhouse Green thought she had the answer. An expert in Bronze Age religions, her starting point was that in those ancient times most pictures weren’t for decoration alone. They had a meaning, often a sacred meaning. And when she looked at the disc she gradually began to piece together a mosaic of religious symbolism.

Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: As we began to put the thing together it gets better and better.

NARRATOR: First there was the sun, worshipped at Stonehenge and all across Europe as the bringer of life.

Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: The sun is absolutely central to northern European Bronze Age religion. There’s a clear connection between the sun and life. If the sun disappears then life comes to an end. The next piece in the jigsaw, a crescent moon.

NARRATOR: The moon had been associated with cults from Germany to Scotland. It was used as a symbol to mark the passage of time.

Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: Time is something because inexplicable in the past. And if you can control time and if you understand time then you are a powerful, a powerful human being.

NARRATOR: And then of course there was the horizon band marking the sun’s sacred solstices in central Europe.

Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: We can see that what is represented is something which marks the summer and the little solstices at sunrise and sunset. So an immensely complex picture is beginning to build up.

NARRATOR: Alongside all these symbols from north and central Europe there was also the sun boat, found as far away as Egypt.

Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: We have mythologies from this period which tell us that the sun during the night travelled by means of a solar boat.

NARRATOR: And lastly of course there were the stars.

Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: Perhaps the most spectacular thing to see is the final piece in the jigsaw. And these are the Pleiades.

NARRATOR: The Pleiades was important in the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece. It appeared in March and disappeared in October, vital dates for Bronze Age farmers.

Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: We know from Greek writers that the Pleiades were used as an agricultural marker, so that farmers knew when they should do certain agricultural activities. So what the Nebra disc does is to tell people not only the right time to do it but it is the blessed time to do it.

NARRATOR: The sun, the moon, solstices, a sun ship, the Pleiades, five great religious themes. All had been glimpsed before in isolation or in ones or twos, spread out across Europe and the Middle East. But now it seemed that the makers of the disc had them all together for the very first time.

Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: Seeing them all together, that’s the important thing, I mean that was what was so mind blowing for me. You’ve got all together the sun and the moon and that, that by itself would have been exciting enough. But not only that but you’ve got symbol upon symbol piling on to this disc.

NARRATOR: In the dark heart of Europe an area traditionally seen as primitive and uncivilised, three thousand six hundred years ago it seems that a complex religion had taken root. Drawing on influences from across the known world.

Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: These symbols are all part of a complex European wide belief system. Whereby people looked at the heavens, worshipped them, worshipped the sun, worshipped the moon, aligned their monuments on the sunrise or the moonrise. And because Nebra has brought all these symbols together it tells us for the first time perhaps what people were really seeing, perceiving and believing. It’s not too presumptuous to make a comparison between this disc and a biblical text, the Old Testament. In a way the Nebra disc is a visible of that version of that kind of encoded sacred message that we find in the bible.

NARRATOR: So this was the great revelation of the Nebra Sky disc, it was a bible. Bronze Age European man had been able to codify his entire religious belief in a simple portable form. This could not have been the work of a primitive uncivilised people.

Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: We’re dealing with people who had tremendous ability, not only a technological skill, but also immense intellectual ability. They were able to conceive of their world, they were able to represent it. There is tremendous imagination here, and there is an ability to encode information and beliefs and pass them down from generation to generation.

NARRATOR: Here in the supposed dark heart of Europe something profound and complex was happening three thousand five hundred years ago: civilisation was dawning.

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