“Was this the first calendar? Mysterious 3,600 year disc that let ancient farmers track the seasons”
It has perplexed astronomers since being dug up in 1999.
The Nebra Sky Disc is thought to have been made during the Middle Bronze Age in around 1600 BC, and experts believe it could be the first ‘sky map’ ever created.
The bronze disc, about 32cm in diameter, has a gold inlay clearly representing the moon and/or sun and some stars.
HOW IT WAS FOUND – AND STOLEN
The disk’s recent history dates to 1999, when two looters using metal detectors discovered the artifact, along with several bronze weapons and tools, in a wooded area near the German town of Nebra, 100 miles southwest of Berlin.
Amateur archaeologists Reinhold Stieber and Hildegard Burri-Bayer tried to hawk the disk for $400 000 – and were seized by police officers in the basement bar of a touristy Swiss hotel.
After a short trial, the duo, along with the looters, were found guilty of illegally trafficking in cultural artifacts.
Experts believe the Sky Disc was a calculator to help Bronze Age people predict the best times for sowing and harvesting in spring and autumn.
It recorded the fact that when the Pleiades, a very obvious group of stars in the night sky which are a familiar sight in the northern hemisphere in winter, 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.
The Sky Disc was discovered in Germany in 1999 as part of a hoard also containing two bronze swords, two small axes, a chisel and fragments of spiral bracelets.
A small piece in wood found in one of the swords allowed scientists to date the hoard to around 1600 BC.
The disc was also used to determine if and when a thirteenth month — the so-called intercalary month — should be added to a lunar year to keep the lunar calendar in sync with the seasons. . . .
IF YOU know anything about the laws of conflict, you probably know that destroying or stealing the cultural and spiritual heritage of an enemy or an occupied land can be a war crime, especially if it’s done in a systematic way. That principle is laid out with ever-growing clarity in every modern document that aspires to set limits to the way people fight. You can find it in Abraham Lincoln’s code of conduct for the American civil war, in the Geneva Conventions, and in the statutes of modern war-crimes tribunals.
Still, that can seem like an awkward point to raise in situations where many other unspeakable things are happening. When the Pakistani Taliban is massacring children, should we also worry about the fact that it has physically eliminatedmany traces of the Buddhist heritage of its home region? During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, some locals were exasperated by media coverage of the shelling of old Dubrovnik by Yugoslav forces. Bad as it was, didn’t this cultural loss pale compared with the human suffering that was unfolding in the region? More recently, the built heritage of Mali and Syria has suffered terrible damage, but surely that is less significant than the killing and uprooting of human civilians?
In reality, the two kinds of atrocity can’t be separated. That point was made vividly in London this week at a House of Lords event organised by Elizabeth Berridge, a lawyer and peeress who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, and Walk of Truth (WOT) a Hague-based NGO which campaigns to protect spiritual and cultural treasures from crime and war. (Full disclosure: I gave some informal advice when WOT was set up in 2011.) Persecuting people and harming or grabbing the things they call holy are two misdeeds that have gone hand in hand throughout history. If anything the interconnection is getting closer.
Islamic State (IS), the ultra-zealous force which under various names has run amok in Iraq and Syria, makes no secret of its intent to wreck or appropriate places of worship, monuments and sites that belong to belief systems other than its own narrow reading of Islam. That contrasts with early Islamic history, in which there were some famous acts of self-restraint: Caliph Omar held back from offering Muslim prayers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, thus ensuring that it would remain a Christian place of worship. But no such spirit of self-limitation inhibits IS, for whom destroying the enemies’ holy things serves a double purpose. On one hand, it consolidates the group’s monopoly on power, by demoralising rival groups, and ensuring that they flee forever. On the other, cultural vandalism has a more immediate aim, that of raising money to fund further violence.
IS and similar groups either trade in antiquities themselves or license others to do so. Amr al-Azm, a scholar at America’s Shawnee State University, reported after visiting the area that IS was creaming off 20-50% of the proceeds of criminal looting. You can’t always distinguish between cultural vandalism in the name of religious zeal, and the more opportunistic kind. The result is the same: objects and images which are holy to some people are wrenched from the places where they were created and offered to auction houses and galleries in prosperous Western cities.
In the foreword to Catastrophe: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past, Gil J. Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, writes that “when we think of the awful consequences of war, the deaths of the soldiers and civilians always remind us that futures have been destroyed[.] But war in the third millennium AD has brought us an entirely new and different horror – the destruction of an entire past.”
In 2003, the world’s attention was focused on the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. The 15,000 stolen artifacts had, for the most part, been “scientifically excavated and carefully recorded and identified by trained professional archaeologists and museum staff.” Thus, there existed the scientific knowledge of their archaeological context, or a means to reconstruct “how an ancient civilization developed and functioned.”
Archaeological context refers to the “immediate material surrounding an artifact such as gravel, clay, or sand; its provenience or horizontal and vertical position within the material; and its association with other artifacts.” But once an artifact is ripped from the ground by looters and/or terrorists, context and association with other artifacts is irretrievably lost. In essence, the wholesale destruction of the artifacts being stolen or totally demolished results in a “creeping annihilation of an entire culture.”
As a result of the looting of the Iraqi National Museum, a web-accessible database was established to document the destruction and theft of the artifacts. The database is accessible here. Though “as many as 5,000 objects were reported to have been recovered[,]” other pieces will “remain difficult if not impossible to recover.”
Fast-forward to ISIS, that “JV” organization that Obama so nonchalantly dismissed. How is it being financed? What does an Islamic caliphate have to do with the wholesale destruction of historical and cultural artifacts? And are we seeing an instant replay of Nazi looting of museums less than a hundred years later vis-à-vis Islamic jihadists?
According to the Guardian, in June 2014, the seizure of 160 computer flash sticks that “included names and noms de guerre of all foreign fighters, senior leaders and their code words, initials of sources inside ministries and full accounts of the group’s finances” was a key discovery into the workings of ISIS.” Amazingly, in a mere three days, “ISIS [had] seized control of Mosul and Tikrit.” Before Mosul, ISIS cash and assets were $875M. After ISIS robbed banks and looted military supplies, total cash and assets rose to $1.5B.
ISIS’s massive cash flow comes from the “oilfields of eastern Syria which it had captured in 2012, the smuggling of raw materials pillaged from the crumbling state, as well as priceless antiquities from archaeological digs.”