Hanns, the custodian of the hotel shakes our hands warmly. There are no other guests so he is delighted to tell us we have been ungraded to a better room. Our window looks out on a typical German street of apartment blocks, the walls now warmly lit red in the setting sun. Halle an der Saale gets its rhythmical name from the briny salt springs that were once the town’s mainstay but Hanns is wondering what has brought two British tourists 3 hours on the slow train from Berlin to his little town.
When I explain that we have come all the way from Cornwall to visit Halle’s museum his belly shakes with laughter. “Fifty years I have lived in this town” he says “and I have never been to the museum – maybe next year I’ll go”.
Halle is a beautiful town, there was clearer plenty of money to be made in salt. The cobbled market square is surrounded by 16th century houses and in it’s centre looming above the yellow trams is the grand ancient clock tower. The town is also a town of music having connections to both Handel and Bach, as the next day as I walk the narrow streets in the direction of the museum I notice that the buskers are of a particularly high standard.
Halle’s State Museum has one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of prehistory artefacts in Europe. In the hills near by more than 1000 prehistoric barrows (ancient burial chambers) have been identified. The museum houses some 15 million items, but I have come all this way just to see one. The Nebra Sky Disc.
Sometimes wonderful and utterly unique pieces of our past are discovered that throw our understanding and admiration of our ancestors into a whole new light. These objects speak to us somehow. The first time I saw a photograph of the Nebra Sky Disc I was star-stuck but when I learnt of its connection to Cornwall I just had to go and see the real thing up close.
Despite the museum’s international reputation on the day we arrive there are very few visitors besides ourselves. As we enter a group of elderly German tourists politely applaud their guide and shuffle back to their tour bus, a class of local schoolchildren are eating their pack-lunches on the grass outside while the security guards chat with each other and wander slowly between floors. It is all cool marble and glass inside, a welcome relief from the sweltering summer heat outside. I am ashamed to admit that I am so excited to finally be there that I walk straight passed the cases containing thousands of precious items and head straight for one gallery.
The room as you enter it is initially pitch black, I feel as if I am stepping into a void. As my eyes adjust a starry sky of glistening stars appears and as I take it all in I realise I am looking at the Milky Way silently revolving above my head.
Moving deeper into the room the sky disc comes into view, it is the only lit object and the only source of light. It is wonderful in the fullest and most complete sense of the word.
The disc put simply was a kind of calendar and map of the night sky. There are stars, a crescent moon and a full moon (or sun). The cluster of stars at the top right of the disc represents the Pleiades constellation which appears in the sky in the spring and possibly denoted when it was time for planting of crops.
The two gold arcs that run along the edge of the disc (one is now missing) are set at a 82 degree angle which it is believed indicates the angle between the sunsets of the summer and winter solstices in the precise area in Germany where the disc was found. There is also a theory that the number of stars represented denotes how many years had to pass before the ancients had to make adjustments to their calendar – like our leap year from what I understand.
And then of course there is the golden boat. The myth of a boat which carries the sun and the moon across the sky is an idea which has permeated other cultures – particularly the Egyptians – but this one predates any other.
The Nebra Sky Disc is completely unique, nothing else like it has ever been found.
Peering through the the glass at the reverse of the disc I can clearly see the marks the maker produced hammering it into shape maybe as much as 4000 years ago. It is roughly 30cm in diameter and made of bronze and gold. It’s exact age is uncertain but we know it was buried around 3600 years ago and that during it’s life it was remodelled and reused in a number of different stages while still in use.
The disc’s connection to Cornwall lies in it’s creation. Analysis of the metals used shows that the tin in the bronze came from Cornwall and the gold used to form the stars and moons was from the Carnon valley, just a few miles from Truro. If you visit the Royal Cornwall Museum you can see many of the gold finds from the area, including a nugget of gold from in the Carnon valley – the largest found in the county.
To me this thought is magical, that something so beautiful and so important both then and now started life – if only in part – in Cornwall. And that idea opens up so many other questions – Where was the disc made? Who mined that gold? Who transported to Germany? Why was it buried and lost for so long?
When I leave Halle’s museum I have a huge smile on my face, I can’t wait to tell Hanns that it was worth it, worth the drive to London, the flight to Germany and the two slow trains it had taken to get there!