Since ancient times, stargazers and astronomers have employed different models to describe the way in which time was harnessed to space, and dreamed about the possibility of seeing the universe in a way that could lately be described as cinematographic.

The recent discovery of the Nebra Sky Disk, which dates to the Bronze Age, around 1700 BC, has astonished archeologists. The 32-centimeter-wide (12.6-inch) bronze disc with gold-leaf appliqués representing the sun, the moon, the stars, and what appears to be a mythological “solar boat,” is the oldest visual representation of the cosmos known to date—two-hundred years earlier than the oldest known images found in Egypt. 

Nebra Sky Disk.

The symbols in the Nebra Star Disk “are all part of a complex European-wide belief system… whereby people looked at the heavens, worshipped them, worshipped the sun, worshipped the moon, [and] aligned their monuments on the sunrise or the moonrise,” explains Miranda Aldhouse Green, Professor of Archaeology at Cardiff University.  “And because Nebra has brought all these symbols together it tells us for the first time perhaps what people were really seeing, perceiving and believing.”(1)

“The explanation of the disc's purpose sheds new light on the astronomical knowledge and abilities of the Bronze Age people, who used a combination of solar and lunar calendars as important indicators for agricultural seasons and passage of time,” adds Harald Meller, State Archaeologist of Saxony-Anhalt.(2)

In ancient Greece in the 5th century BC, Parmenides of Elea, in turn, was widely read as having a view of the universe where time and space constituted a four-dimensional unchanging block, which some later described as cinematographic. (3) Einstein, in considering time as a fourth-dimension, was accused of providing a view of the universe which was both Parmenidian and cinematographic.(4) In Einstein’s (as well as Parmenides’s) theories, argued the philosopher Henri Bergson, the world “seemed like a screen upon which the cinematography of the universe would be run off”.(5)

Throughout recorded history, “a number of different pictorial techniques for depicting the unfolding of time in visual terms had been widely employed [by scientists],” writes Jimena Canales. “Most prominently, these included sequential images, blurred images (primarily of wheels and disks), slightly superimposed or side-by-side figures (often in single canvas or sheet), symbols of time or instantaneity (skulls, clocks, bubbles, and lightning) and bodily poses and severed body parts associated with direction and sequence (such as pointing, poking, pulling and jumping).”(6)

Most people, however, find the roots of cinematography in ancient technologies for entertainment and spectacle, not in science, adds Canales. Indeed, the Chinese are generally credited with inventing the proto-cinematic art form known as Shadow Play, or Shadow Puppetry, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD)--although examples of Chinese “cinema” spheres, found in the Museo del Precinema in Padua, Italy, have been dated even earlier, to 500 BC., and Plato, in his famous “Allegory of the Cave,” written in 380 BC, uses shadow play as a metaphor to distinguish between perception and knowledge.

Detail of a Chinese "cinema" sphere.

Some scholars date shadow play to the Paleolithic, emphasizing the role shadows played in re-animating cave art paintings. Whatever its true origin, Shadow Puppetry was subsequently spread by the Chinese, and later by the Turks and Egyptians, throughout much of the known world.

Jimena Canales, a professor at Harvard University, argues that the technical history of cinema is only one dimension of its evolution. "Scientists observe, develop theory and experiment,” she writes, “but first they redraw metaphysical boundaries, redefining the very meaning of what is considered to be human, nonhuman, and beast. They shape the contours and alter hierarchies between the social, the political, the historical and the natural.” (7)

Cinema as a technology was preceded, long before its genesis, by cinema as a desire--to capture the stars, to reproduce the world, and to share our dreams.

“Attention to desire,” she writes, “permits us to explore the complex relation between discourse and things, dreams and reality, without having to focus exclusively on one or the other. The differences between what ‘is’ (the technical), what ‘ought’ (the ethical), and what ‘could’ be (the fantastical) led scientific research into new, unexpected directions. We must remember… that the “technical reality” of objects is only one aspect of a denser set of meanings. To the “technical reality” of cinematography, we [must] add the components of desire and anticipation--of finding a camera to capture the world in its own image.” (8)


1. BBC. Secrets of the Star Disc – transcript. 2004.

2. Anderle, Beth. “The Mysterious Nebra Star Disc,” Archaeology@Suite101.

3. Lee, H. D. P. 1936. Zeno of Elea: A Text. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

4. Popper, Karl R. and William, Warren Bartley. 1982. The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism. Totowa NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

5. Bergson, Henri. [1922] 1972. “Dure´e et simultane´ite´: a propos de la the´orie d’Einstein.” In Me´langes, 58–244. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

6. Canales, Jimena. “Desired Machines: Cinema and the World in Its Own Image,” Science in Context, 24(3), 329-359. Cambridge University Press.

7. Canales, Jimena.

8. Canales, J. Science in Context. op. cit.