The Nebra sky disc has been a mystery since it was found. What kind of object is it? Some believe it has been used as an astronomical instrument. But could it in fact have formed the central part of Achilles’s shield?
By Malena Lagerhorn.
In 1999 two German treasure hunters, Henry Westphal and Mario Renner, found a strange bronze object in the town of Nebra in German Saxony-Anhalt. The object, called the Nebra sky disc, is a bronze plate weighing 2.2 kilos and measuring about 30 cm in diameter. The Nebra sky disc is decorated with gold: the sun in its path across the sky, the moon and the stars, probably the Pleiades. The disc was first sold on the black market but is now exhibited in the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle.
Initially it was believed that the Nebra sky disc was a forgery. Today scientists agree that it is authentic and it has been dated to the Early European Bronze Age, around 1,600 BCE. But what kind of object is it? And what do we really know about the culture that created the Nebra sky disc?
For long scientists believed that the ability to work metal came to Northern Europe from the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. But that theory has been proven wrong. The “iceman” Ötzi, who lived about 5,300 years ago, had a copper ax made of metal from the Alps. As early as 4,500 years ago people were trading gold between England and Ireland. The smith who created the Nebra sky disc used copper from the Austrian Alps and tin and gold from Cornwall in England. Nowadays scientists even speak of the “Copper-Stone Age”. It is well known that the Viking Age was a flourishing period in Northern Europe. But long before that, more than 2,000 years earlier, there was an enigmatic culture in Northern Europe that may have been at least as impressive.
The climate during the Late Stone Age and the Early Bronze Age in Northern Europe was much warmer than today. Southern Scandinavia was almost as warm as the Mediterranean is today. Denmark and Scania in southern Sweden were largely cultivated or covered by pastures. In Denmark there are 45,000 burial mounds from the Bronze Age. The Danish scholar Saxo Grammaticus, who also lived during a period of warmer climate at the end of the Viking Age, wrote that once upon a time, far more people must have lived in Denmark. He could see ancient burial mounds and stone heaps from the clearing of fields, which in his time were found deep in the forests, but that once must have been lying in the open landscape. The Danish National Museum exhibits an impressive collection of Bronze Age objects, including the Trundholm sun chariot and the Viksø helmets.
Do Homer’s Poems the Iliad and the Odyssey tell about the Nordic Bronze Age?
But what do we really know about this rich and mighty period? The Nordic Bronze Age left no written sources, except for rock carvings. Or did it? In 1995 the Italian nuclear physicist Felice Vinci put forward a theory in which he places the story in Homer’s classic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in the Baltic region. It may sound unlikely that Homer’s heroes were Scandinavians. But already in ancient times, people debated whether the events in the Iliad, and above all, in the Odyssey, actually took place in Greece, provided that the poems describe historical events. It is primarily Homer’s geography that differs from the Mediterranean Sea. The ancient scholar Plutarch wrote that Calypso’s magical island Ogygia was five days’ sail from England. The Roman Tacitus claimed that Odysseus founded a city in northern Germany. Vinci has analyzed hundreds of geographical, topographical, and climatic data in Homer’s poems and has concluded that they are more consistent with a northern position than with Greece. He also places the events further back in time, to 1,600-1,800 BCE, that is, to the same period that archaeologists have dated the Nebra sky disc. Anyone who has seen the movie Troy will remember Brad Pitt as Achilles, running around and sweating in a landscape that resembles a desert. But if you read the Iliad or the Odyssey you discover that Homer actually describes a cold and foggy landscape.
For the modern reader of the Odyssey, it is easy to see that the hero’s wanderings must have taken place in the far north. In book 10, lines 91-95, Homer tells:
Where shepherd calls to shepherd as one drives in his flocks
and the other drives his out and he calls back in answer,
where a man who never sleeps could rake in double wages,
one for herding cattle, one for pasturing fleecy sheep,
the nightfall and the sunrise match so close together.
(translated by Robert Fagles)
A country where the nightfall and sunrise almost meet each other must be close to the Arctic Circle. If so, we are far from the Mediterranean Sea. Close to this region Odysseus meets the horrific monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Charybdis is a water vortex that swallows water three times a day and spews it out equally as often. Since the tidal effect is weak in the Mediterranean, we are once again far from that area. In fact there is only one good candidate to Charybdis in Europe and that is the maelstrom off the Norwegian coast, at the Lofoten Islands, which, as is well known, is north of the Arctic Circle. Vinci believes that Odysseus’s adventures describe the dangers that are found along the Norwegian coast, such as tides, currents, and strong winds. Odysseus himself, and all the fair-haired Achaeans that Homer depicts, are in this northern Homeric world Danes, or Danaans as Homer also calls them.
And Troy? Where was the city where the famous battle took place? In the second half of the 1800s the German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann undertook excavations at Turkish Hisarlik and found an impressive prehistoric city, which he thought was Troy. However, close to nothing in Hisarlik – city walls, date of age, archaeological finds, the landscape – are consistent with Homer’s description. The city that Homer describes was much more primitive. The city wall consisted of an earth rampart with pilings and the warriors were often equipped with stones and stone slings rather than with weapons of bronze. Vinci places Troy in southwestern Finland close to the small village of Toija.
Why are no stories of Troy and Odysseus’s wanderings preserved in Scandinavia? The climate became gradually colder during the Bronze Age and in the beginning of the Iron Age it was colder than it is today. Vinci believes that the countries were depopulated and that people migrated southwards. But the stories are not completely missing from the Nordic countries. Among others, Saxo Grammaticus and especially Snorri Sturluson describe both the battle and chieftain Priam’s descendants.
Achilles Dresses for the Battle of Troy with an Ornamental Shield
When the Troyan chieftain son Paris and his men abduct beautiful Helen and steal her treasures, Helen’s husband Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon gather a coalition of chieftains around the Baltic Sea to attack Troy. One of the accompanying chieftains is Achilles, who participates in the battle with his fifty ships. Achilles comes from Phthia, an area in Estonia according to Vinci. Initially Achilles refuses to join the battle. But when his dear brother in arms, Patroclus, is killed by the Trojan hero Hector, Achilles becomes beside himself with wrath and dresses for battle. Since he has loaned his own armor to Patroclus he dons some sort of ornamental armor that the god Hephaestus has forged.
Homer devotes 125 lines in the Iliad to describe Achilles’s divine metal shield. We know from other verses in the Iliad roughly how the shields were made. The leather-smiths used several layers of leather, with an uppermost, somewhat smaller, layer of bronze in the centre. Homer describes Achilles’s shield from the centre and out to the edge, beginning with the uppermost central layer, where most layers are joined, and then describes the underlying layers that form circles around the uppermost and smallest layer. The centre of the shield is decorated with the sky and the world of the gods. On the next layers, the viewer can see people and towns, farming and cultivation. On the last and largest layer of tin the viewer can see the River Ocean, Oceanus, that flows in the ocean and surrounds the world, like the layer of tin surrounds the shield. Oceanus has not been located in the Mediterranean. Vinci argues that it must be the Gulf Stream. In the Iliad, book 18, lines 565-571, we can read how Hephaestus forges Achilles’s shield:
There he made the earth and there the sky and the sea
and the inexhaustible blazing sun and the moon rounding full
and there the constellations, all that crown the heavens,
the Pleiades and the Hyades, Orion in all his power too
and the Great Bear that mankind also calls the Wagon:
she wheels on her axis always fixed, watching the Hunter,
and she alone is denied a plunge in the Ocean’s baths.
(translated by Robert Fagles)
The description immediately calls to mind the Nebra sky disc. Could the disc have constituted the center plate of an ornamental shield?
Also Hamlet, or Amlet, had an Ornamental Shield
Not least in Denmark archaeologists have found Bronze Age helmets and weapons that could hardly have been used in combat, but rather at ceremonies. However, no ornamental shields have been found. Could such shields have been used? Again, it is Saxo Grammaticus who describes an ancient tradition that may give us a clue. Saxo Grammaticus writes about the Danish prince Amlet, who was the prototype for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Amlet visited Britain and brought with him an ornamental shield. Saxo Grammaticus writes, translated from Latin into Danish:
Han fik sågar fremstillet et skjold, hvorpå alle hans bedrifter i rad og række lige fra hans tidligeste barndom var skildret i udsøgte billeder.
(Gesta Danorum, translated by Peter Zeeberg)
In English (translated by the author):
He even had a shield made, on which all his deeds where depicted in a row, from his earliest childhood, in exquisite images.
It thus seems there was a custom from ancient times where shields were used as ornamental objects. Could the Nebra sky disc have constituted a part of such a shield? A shield like the one Homer describes when Achilles attires himself in the divine armor forged by Hephaestus?
There are scientists who have drawn parallels between the Nebra sky disc and Achilles’s shield, but so far no convincing evidence has been presented. The same goes for other theories about the use of the disc, for example that it was an astronomical instrument. But Vinci’s theory puts the Nebra sky disc in a new light.
Vinci’s theory has gained more acceptance in Italy in recent years, and to some extent internationally, but it is still not very well known. What Vinci particularly stresses is the need for a multidisciplinary approach to better understand our history. Further archaeological excavations may reveal whether Homer’s poems really describe an ancient Nordic Bronze Age world. But perhaps Vinci’s comment about Achilles’s shield is correct:
“With the description of this shield, Homer has left us an extraordinary document of Early Bronze Age civilization in the north and its Weltanschauung, its ‘worldview’ – a most worthy closure to our reconstruction of the lost world of the Achaeans.”
(The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales, Felice Vinci)
Copyright Malena Lagerhorn.