TWO amateur treasure hunters who sold bronze age artefacts found on a mountainside to buy a stereo system have stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological finds in history, writes Allan Hall in Berlin.
Experts say they are certain the haul, which included a circular disc depicting the heavens with sun, moon and stars, is at least 3,600 years old.
This shows Europeans had a rudimentary knowledge of the solar system and its influence on our lives far earlier than previously thought. Harald Meller, an archaeologist, said: "This ranks as one of the 20 most important finds of all time, up there with the tomb of Tutankhamun and the discovery of Otzi the iceman in the Alps.
"The find gives us a whole new puzzle to figure out. It depicts a journey through the heavenly bodies, examples of which are well known in ancient Egypt but not in the middle of Europe and not at this time."
The disc, weighing 2kg and 38cm across, arrived back in the hands of the state of Saxony via a circuitous route. The two amateurs who found it in the Kyffhuser range at Sangenhausen in east Germany in 2000 took photographs of it - along with bronze amulets, spear tips and two swords - and went on a sales trip.
They approached several dealers and sold it to one for just 10,000, which they said they would use for a new stereo system each and a "few beers".
Then the dealers went hawking it. Wilfried Menghin, museum director for Berlin, said: "They showed me photos and wanted a million marks [333,000]. I was interested but I had my suspicions about its veracity and whether or not it was theirs to sell."
Soon the police became involved: when the dealers tried to sell the disc for 500,000 in the lobby of a Swiss hotel last month, the purchasers turned out to be police officers and the would-be sellers were arrested. The plate now resides with the archaeological department of the city of Halle.
Mr Meller said: "The real puzzle is to where this plate comes from: who made it, what kind of people were they."