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The Bronze Age relic known as “The Nebra Disk” was one of the most significant archaeological discoveries just before the end of millenium, in 1999. Believed to be made around 17th century BCE, the disk is thought to be designed as a kind of “astronomical clock” by the priests of a Bronze Age central European sun-cult. Now some archaeologists suggest another point, not contradicting this generally accepted view but questioning the “function” of the disk after a very serious natural catastrophe changed the circumstances of the Ancient World.

The mega eruption of the Thera volcano in Santorini island around 3600 years ago, not only shook most of the Bronze Age civilizations and cause some of them to collapse (Minos and Harappa) or fall into a serious crisis (Egypt and Babylonia), but also changed the climate conditions harshly all over the world. A “volcanic winter” caused by the ash clouds that covered the sky, deeply affected the lives of millions of people: Contaminated waters caused by the acid rains and sulphur (remember the Exodus story, which said “there were blood on rivers in all Egypt”); crop failures which resulted famines on many agricultural lands; unusually cool summers and deadly cold winters.

On the other hand, archaeologists suggest, this event should have affected the ancient astronomers too. The sky was covered with a cloud layer for as long as 25 years which made the sun, the moon and the planets unobservable in the night sky. How could these facts affect the priestly cults and their observatories or astronomical tools around 1,600 BCE? Did the Nebra Disk and likes become useless for a long period? The story below, questions these circumstances after the Thera eruption.

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A catastrophic volcanic eruption spewing huge clouds of ash about 3,600 years ago was behind the burial of the Nebra sky disk, one of the most spectacular archaeological finds in recent years, according to scientists at Mainz and Halle Wittenberg universities in Germany.

The Nebra Sky Disk.
The 3,600-year-old disk, discovered in 1999 near the town of Nebra in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, is the oldest known representation of the night sky. It is thought by some to have been used as an astronomical clock to determine when to add a thirteenth month synchronising the lunar calendar with the solar year.

The disk would be held against the sky, and when the position of the celestial objects matched those on the disk, the intercalary month would be added. Scientists said the disk became worthless after the eruption on the Mediterranean island of Thera – north of Crete and also known as Santorini – which ejected ash that obscured the sky all the way to Central Europe for 20 to 25 years.

Average temperatures dropped one or two degrees during this time.

‘There were cool, wet summers with devastating crop failures and exceptionally cold winters,’ said Francois Bertemes, a professor at Halle-Wittenberg University’s Institute of European Art History and Archaeology.

The changes were inexplicable to people of the Bronze Age, who were followers of a sun cult. Their faith in the gods was shaken, Bertemes remarked, and ‘they called the priests and (the priests’) rituals into question.’

Scientists said the 32-centimetre-diameter bronze disk, with gold-leaf appliques representing the sun, moon and stars, was desecrated as a cult object and buried as an offering to the gods – along with two swords decorated with gold, Bronze Age spiral bracelets and bronze axes – on then sacred Mittelberg hill.

‘The natural occurrences were almost certainly very bewildering to prehistoric people in Central Europe,’ said Frank Sirocko, a sedimentologist at Mainz University’s Geosciences Institute.

Sirocko and a team of researchers have analyzed the effects of weather and climate on human development for years. He has also looked into the Thera eruption.

‘It was surely a watershed in the Bronze Age and it’s no coincidence that use of the stone circles at Stonehenge ceased 3,600 years ago, and that the Nebra sky disk was buried,’ Sirocko said.