World's oldest map of the stars to go on show in UK for first time at the British Museum

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World's oldest map of the stars to go on show in UK for first time at the British Museum
Nebra sky disc, Germany, about 1600 BC. State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták.

LONDON.- The world’s oldest map of the stars will go on display for the very first time in the UK at the British Museum next year. It will be a major highlight of a new special exhibition on Stonehenge which will open at the Museum in February, the first details of which are announced today (Monday 18 October).

The ‘Nebra Sky Disc’ is 3,600 years old and is the oldest surviving representation of the cosmos anywhere in the world. The 31cm (12-inch) bronze disc features a blue-green patina with inlaid gold symbols thought to represent the sun, moon, stars, the solstices and the constellation of the Pleiades. It was discovered buried in the ground in 1999 near the town of Nebra in Saxony-Anhalt in the east of Germany and will be loaned to the British Museum from the collection of the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle. The UK will be only the fourth country the disc has travelled to, and its display in London will be the first time it’s been loaned internationally for 15 years.

It will go on show in The world of Stonehenge (17 February – 17 July 2022), the UK’s first ever major exhibition on the history – and mystery – of Stonehenge. The show will see hundreds of objects brought together from across Britain and Europe, telling the spellbinding story of one of the world’s most famous landmarks.

Also on display in the exhibition will be an extremely rare 3,000-year-old sun pendant, described by the British Museum as the most significant piece of Bronze Age gold ever found in Britain. One side shows a stylised sun – a rare and hugely significant addition to the art and iconography of Bronze Age Britain. Solar symbolism is a key element of Bronze Age cosmology and mythology across Europe, but before the discovery of this pendant it was very rarely seen on objects found in Britain.

It was discovered in May 2018 by metal detectorist and retired engineer Bob Greenaway in Shropshire. It had been cushioned in the peaty soil of the Shropshire Marches for three millennia before the finder, who had been metal detecting for 25 years, came across this find of a lifetime. He has remarked that "when I found it, my eyes nearly popped out of my head." It is only the second ever object of this type found in Britain: the other – now lost – was discovered near Manchester in 1722 but was last recorded in 1806 before disappearing from sight.

Measuring 3.6cm high and 4.7cm wide, the pendant was brought to the British Museum where it went through the legal Treasure process and was recorded as part of the Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. It was acquired by the British Museum last year for £250,000 with help from Art Fund and the American Friends of the British Museum, and is currently being displayed for the first time, close to the find spot, at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery as part of the British Museum’s National Programmes. It will be seen publicly in London for the first time in the Stonehenge exhibition before a tour of venues across the country from autumn 2022.

Neil Wilkin, curator of The world of Stonehenge at the British Museum, said: “The Nebra Sky Disc and the sun pendant are two of the most remarkable surviving objects from Bronze Age Europe. Both have only recently been unearthed, literally, after remaining hidden in the ground for over three millennia. We’re delighted that they will both be key pieces in our once-in-a-lifetime Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. While both were found hundreds of miles from Stonehenge, we’ll be using them to shine a light on the vast interconnected world that existed around the ancient monument, spanning Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe. It’s going to be eye-opening.”

Built 4,500 years ago around the same time as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, Stonehenge is the world’s most extraordinary ancient stone circle and is one of the most recognized sites on the planet. Yet much about it is still shrouded layers of uncertainty, speculation and folklore. This exhibition will bring the story of the monument into focus, revealing that prehistoric Britain was a place of big ideas, commerce and travel, rather than a shadowy land of mystery.

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