The Secret of Nebra Sky Disk

In 1999, three grave robbers were combing through a forest near Nebra, about 180 km south-west of Berlin, Germany, using metal detectors when they stumbled upon an extraordinary treasure. This area of the forest had yielded precious objects in the past since it contains some of Europe’s oldest human settlements. This time the robbers had unearthed two bronze swords, two hatchets, a chisel, some fragments of spiral bracelets and a shiny bronze disk with gold inlays. The most valuable among their find was the disk, and the robbers knew it. What they didn’t know was this precious disk is also one of the most significant archaeological finds of the century.

The grave robbers had found what is now called “the Nebra Sky Disk”, and according to UNESCO, it is “the oldest concrete depiction of cosmic phenomena worldwide.” The disk is 30 cm in diameter and weighs 2.2 kg. It’s blue-green patina and embossed with gold leaf symbols which appear to represent a crescent moon, the sun (or perhaps a full moon), and stars, including a cluster that is interpreted as the Pleiades.

The Nebra sky disk.

Two golden arcs along the sides were added later (one is missing) indicating the precise angle between the positions of sunset at summer and winter solstice at the latitude of the Mittelberg hill, where the Nebra Sky Disc was found. The final addition to the disk was another arc at the bottom surrounded with multiple strokes of uncertain meaning, often interpreted as “the sun boat” with numerous oars. About forty holes are punched all around the perimeter of the disk.

Each of the symbols on the disk are part of a complex European wide belief system. The sun is worshipped as the harbinger of life all across Europe. The moon was used as a symbol to mark the passage of time. The sun boat alludes to the mythology from this period which tell us that the sun during the night travelled by means of a solar boat. The Pleiades was used as an agricultural marker by farmers of ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece. It appeared in March and disappeared in October, so that farmers knew when they should do certain agricultural activities.

The Nebra Sky Disk brought all these symbols together in a portable format combining an extraordinary comprehension of astronomical phenomena with the religious beliefs of its period, that told archeologists for the first time what people were really seeing, perceiving and believing. It was such an extraordinary piece that it was initially believed it to be a forgery. But detailed scientific analysis revealed that the disk is at least 3,600 years old and is indeed an authentic and precious artifact.

The disk was prepared in four stages.

Ancient scholars have been mapping the stars for thousands of years. Old earthworks and megalithic astronomical complexes such as the Goseck circle and the Stonehenge proves that humans had knowledge of the stars and basic astronomical events like eclipses and solstices. But realistic star images did not appear until 1400 BC in Egypt, and these had always been considered to be the oldest known to man, until the discovery of the Nebra Sky Disk.

Perhaps the Nebra Sky Disk wouldn’t have aroused so much curiosity if it was found in Egypt or in Greece where civilization had attained a certain degree of sophistication during the Bronze Age. But the disk was found in the dark heart of Northern Europe which had a reputation of savagery. Here there were no great cities, no early forms of writing, no signs of philosophy. Instead, there are crude lumps of rocks arranged in mystifying monuments whose true purpose has not survived. Everything that archeologists had found here including swords, spears and axes indicate a primitive society. But the discovery of the Nebra Sky Disk forces us to change our understanding of how civilization may have come to ancient Europe.

Miranda Aldhouse-Green, professor of archeology at the University of Wales, told BBC: “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.”

The Nebra sky disk together with the objects found along with it


Chullpas of Sillustani

Sillustani is located 34 km northwest of the city of Puno, on the shore of beautiful Umayo Lagoon, in Peru. It is one of the many sites in the Puno area where ancient burial towers called chullpas are found.

Chullpas are tall funerary tombs constructed out of stone and clay, usually 2 to 4 meters high, but some may reach up to 12 meters. They were built during the 13th and 14th century by the inhabitants of the old Aymara kingdoms settled in the Bolivian Altiplano before the Incas, though there are similar constructions raised in Bolivia, Peru and northern Chile during the Inca period. Archeologists believe this structures were copied by the Inca after they occupied their territories.

Chullpas were built to bury tribe leaders and the noble, sometimes along with their extended families and even close friends. The bodies of the dead were placed in fetal position and wrapped in llama’s hide sacks, woven blankets or plaited straw, along with their possessions, food and offerings. Sometimes a small opening was made in the towers facing the east where it was believed the Sun was reborn by Mother Earth each day.

Although the corpses were not mummified, but in the dry environment created by the closed tomb, they survived for centuries. Grave robbers have long since removed their contents, although the towers are still well preserved and worth visiting. While chullpas are not unique to Sillustani and are found across the Altiplano, this site is considered the best and most preserved example of them.


The Great Salt Desert Dasht-e Kavir

Dasht-e Kavir, also known the Great Salt Desert, is a large desert lying in the middle of the Iranian plateau, about 300 kilometers east-southeast of Tehran. The desert is about 800 kilometers long and 320 kilometers wide, and composed of mud and salt marshes (kavirs). Tens of millions of years ago, this region was occupied by a salt-rich ocean that surround a small piece of continent in what is now central Iran. As the ocean dried up, it left behind a layer of salt as much as 6 to 7 kilometers thick.

Over time, the layer of salt was buried under a thick layer of mud. But salt has a fairly low density — lower than the layer of mud and rocks underneath which the salt layer lay. So it started pushing up through the overlying sediment and eventually, over millions of years, the salt broke through and formed domes. The salt domes of Dasht-e Kavir are probably some of the best examples of this geological phenomenon.

Geologists have identified about 50 large salt domes in this region. Some of the domes have been eroded away by wind and rain exposing its cross-section.

Although it looks like a hard surface, the salt crust is only a few inches thick, below which lies soft grease-like mud the Iranians called “Charbeh” that is extremely difficult to get out of if one were to get stuck. Because of this travelling in Dasht-e Kavir is extremely dangerous. The soil is sterile and not suitable for cultivation. The desert is almost uninhabited and only partly explored. Human settling is restricted to scattered oases, where wind-blocking housing constructions are raised to deal with the harsh weather conditions. Some live in the hills and the surrounding mountains. Wild sheep, camels, goats and Persian leopards also live in the mountainous areas.

An aerial view of the eroded salt dome in the Dasht-e Kavir.

Salt flats in a low point of the Dasht-e Kavir.

Strong dry winds have dried the surface of this salt river into a web of hair-like salt crystals. Their orientation preserves a record of the wind as it blew across the surface.

The surface of a dry salt lake in the Dasht-e Kavir shows signs of a hail or rain storm that pitted its surface.

 NASA Landsat 5 satellite


The Meeting of Waters - Encontro das Aguas

About 10 kilometers from the inland city of Manaus in northern Brazil, the black Rio Negro river, which flows through the city, meet the sandy colored Amazon River, but the water doesn’t mix immediately. Instead, they flow side by side for 6 km, an occurrence known as ‘the Meeting of the Waters’ or Encontro das Águas in Portuguese. The phenomenon occurs at several places throughout the Amazon and on elsewhere on the planet, but nowhere as dramatically as here. It is one of the main tourist attractions of Manaus.

Rio Negro is the largest tributary of the Amazon and the world’s largest black-water river. The name “Rio Negro” itself means “Black River”. The color comes from the presence of dissolved decaying vegetable matter that leached into the water as the river flowed through the rainforest and swamps. A black water river has high acidic levels, and very little sediment. The waters of the Amazon, on the other hand, is thick with sand, mud and slit giving it a brownish appearance.

Because of their different constituents, both rivers have different water density, speed and temperature due to which they are reluctant to mix. The cooler, denser, and faster waters of the Amazon and the warmer, slower waters of the Negro form a distinct boundary. Six kilometers downstream, the turbulent eddies driven by the faster-moving Amazon eventually mix the two, as they merge to become the Lower Amazon River.

Several dozen tour companies offer boat trips to the exact spot where the rivers meet. The best time to take tours is between January and July when the rivers are swollen with water. These tours are typically combined with a highly packaged tour of the Janauary Ecological Park where one can observe and take pictures of the aquatic plant water lilies.