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Object Lesson

Berlin Gold Hat: Bronze Age calendar of the gods

The Berlin Gold Hat is an object full of mystery. Acquired by the Neues Museum in the 1990s, this functioning calendar was created around 1000BC.

Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons, Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0

The Berlin Gold Hat is an object full of mystery. First put on sale in an international arts auction in 1995, no one knows exactly where it came from. The best guess is that it was acquired through some sort of illegal excavation in the 1960s, likely in southern Germany. The Neues Museum had to think hard before they bought the object, but ultimately they decided it was too precious an artefact to let fall into private hands.

Calendar of the gods

For people living 3,000 years ago – no electricity, no light pollution – the sun, the moon and the stars had an incredible significance. The people who made this object tracked the heavens in great detail. An analysis of the Berlin Gold Hat reveals that it was not simply an object conveying status – it appears to be a lunisolar calendar that calculated the sun’s movement in the sky relative to the stars.

Following its concentric circles, the progress of the sun and moon can be recorded over 57 months, and you can even mark leap years and Metonic cycles: the period of 19 years after which the moon appears in precisely the same shape and placement in the sky.

The sun god

Such a precious object would have held huge religious significance. The motif on the peak of the hat forms a sun. The first evidence of people worshipping recognisable gods with fixed attributes dates back around this time in the late Bronze Age. Another item from this period found in Serbia shows a small anthropomorphic idol riding a chariot pulled by ducks: this may be the earliest known depiction of the sun god Apollo. And the people who made this hat could have also worshipped a pantheon of gods with separate personalities like those we know from Greek mythology.

This figurine may be the earliest known depiction of the sun god Apollo. Photo: Petar Milošević

A changing world

The Berlin Gold Hat belongs to a family of three other similar gold hats, all found in Central Europe. The signs of damage down the centre show that it was likely flattened at some point. Another of these objects – the Golden Hat of Schifferstadt – was found standing upright in a special chamber covered with stones.

These objects were not buried with priests or kings, but rather, they were deliberately placed in a horde with other prized objects. But why cast aside such a precious object of ritual significance? It may be that a change in the belief system led the object to lose its symbolic power, and it was ceremonially discarded.

The Golden Hat of Schifferstadt. Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons

The hat is 74.5 cm tall and magnificent, but it’s not heavy. It only weighs 490 grams. In the Neues Museum, they also have tools such as a small anvil and various metal punches with concentric rings, with which this object was likely manufactured.

To fashion it, a very careful temperature would have been maintained: above 750°C to soften the material, but below 1,064°C, the melting point. The entire object was forged from a single piece of gold and it is as thin as paper, displaying a level of sophistication beyond the ability of almost any modern goldsmith.

  • You can see the Berlin Gold Hat for yourself at the Neues Museum, where it’s exhibited as a centrepiece of the Bronze Age collection (third floor, room 305). Get more info here.