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Insider: Sky Disk on Trial Volume 58 Number 6, November/December 2005
by Ulrich Boser

(Juraj Lipták/Landesamt für Archäologie Sachsen Anhalt) [LARGER IMAGE]

Soon after being recovered in a Hollywood-style sting operation in 2002, the Nebra sky disk became an archaeological superstar, featured on the cover of National Geographic and the focus of a blockbuster museum exhibit in Germany. With its glittering array of gold-leaf celestial illustrations, the 3,600-year-old bronze disk was hailed as the earliest known diagram of the heavens and the most important archaeological discovery of the twenty-first century ("Star-Crossed Find," News, January/February 2003). But last year a German archaeologist claimed that the dinner-plate-sized disk was a fake, starting a shrill and often surreal battle over the artifact's authenticity that has rocked Germany's archaeological establishment.

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. While the plunderers were given suspended sentences and put on probation, Stieber and Burri-Bayer appealed. And at that point in September 2003, no one disputed the disk's authenticity.

A year later, Regensburg University archaeologist Peter Schauer wrote a letter to a German newspaper, claiming that the artifact was a fake and that the ancient-looking green patina had been created by a modern mixture of acid and urine. Newspapers as far away as Taipei played up his assertions with headlines of "fraud" and "fake," and Stieber and Burri-Bayer's defense lawyers called on Schauer to testify in the appeals trial, reasoning that if the disk was a fake, then the pair couldn't be guilty of trafficking in valuable cultural objects.

But Schauer's appearance in the witness stand ended up putting the field of archaeology on trial largely because his research practices were so unorthodox. He had never examined the artifact before making his claim, nor did he ever publish his findings in a peer-reviewed journal. "There were over 30 archaeologists sitting in the audience, and they didn't know if they should laugh or cry at the things Schauer said," says Anja Stadelbacher, spokeswoman for the Halle Institute for Archaeological Research in Germany, where the disk is currently located and where it underwent an exhaustive battery of tests that appear to support the artifact's authenticity. The disk's gold inlays can be traced to a Bronze Age mine in Austria, and a nearly inimitable mixture of hard crystal malachite covers the artifact. Saxon Anhalt state archaeochemist Christian Wunderlich has also tested Schauer's urine and acid theory, and his research can show that it is unlikely to have created the disk's slow-growth malachite veneer.

Nonetheless, archaeologists faced an uphill battle in disputing Schauer's claims, because the German legal system allows defendants to appeal almost every factual statement--and there were nearly a hundred hearings debating the disk's findspot. "The court must listen to every story, no matter how strange," says Harald Meller, director of the Halle Institute. "Remember the [O.J.] Simpson process? It is like that. Everyone was convinced that [Simpson] was guilty--like we all believe this disk is real."

Still, Schauer stands by his claims, arguing that the faked corrosion is visible in photos of the disk. He also insists that he has support within the archaeological community. Schauer says that he will publish his findings next year in the German journal Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt. "Then I hope my hidden colleagues will come out of the bushes," he says.

Yet Schauer might not be the most unusual figure in the case. Since 2003, defendant Burri-Bayer has been publishing Ursula LeGuin-like fantasy novels that revolve around a magical sky disk. In fact, while her lawyers argue that the disk is a fake, her website presents the artifact as authentic, detailing how she once handled "the sky disk, the archaeological sensation of Germany."

At the time ARCHAEOLOGY went to press, both sides had rested in the case, but no verdict had been reached. But most German archaeologists believe that the public relations damage to their field--and the disk--has already been done. "We look like we are a bunch of crazies and don't know what we are talking about," says Wunderlich.

In the future, Wunderlich believes archaeologists should rely more on material science to examine artifacts. "We need to show how much science is behind what we do," he says. (Descriptions and photographs of the scientific testing performed on the Nebra sky disk are available, in German, on the Halle Institute's website.) Even so, he adds, "I know a few people will never believe that the disk is real. It will be like the people who think the moon landing was a fake. It's impossible to change everyone's mind."

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America