Made some 3,600 years ago, the world’s oldest known map of the night sky is coming to London to go on display in the British Museum early next year.

The Nebra Sky Disc is a 12-inch bronze disc that was discovered in East Germany in 1999 and features a blue-green patina with inlaid gold symbols thought to represent the sun, moon, stars, the solstices and the constellation of the Pleiades.

The disc is normally on display at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, but will leave Germany for the first time in 15-years, as the centrepiece of a new exhibition at the British Museum about Stonehenge, which opens next February.

The arrival of the disc will not be without some controversy though as it was discovered by illegal treasure hunters, and more recently, some scholars are disputing how old it is, some suggesting that might be not Bronze Age but merely Iron Age, or might even be a fake. Of course, for an exhibition, that just adds to the excitement — are we looking at something made 3,600 years ago, or just 36 years ago?

State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták

The exhibition it’s appearing in is however about something very British — Stonehenge — and the exhibition will bring hundreds of objects from across Britain and Europe to tell the story of the famous stone monument, and the people who lived when it was built.

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. Discovered in May 2018, it will be seen publicly in London for the first time before going on a tour across the country later next year. 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.

Bronze Age sun pendant, 1000–800BC (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

The suggested reasons why Stonehenge was built are many and varied, and one of them is that it’s some form of an astronomical observatory, hence the display of the Nebra Sky Disc, although there are plenty of other suggestions as to why Stonehenge exists, some rather more scientific than others.

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.

A hint of the size of the exhibition can often be found in the choice of the room a museum says the exhibition is going in. This exhibition will be in Room 30, which is the largest of their temporary exhibition spaces, so it’s going to be a big display.

Tickets for the exhibition, The world of Stonehenge, will go on sale in December.

As an aside, it’s not that well known, but you can “hire” Stonehenge for a private visit that includes going in among the stones themselves. Having done it myself, it’s a remarkable experience.

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