At dawn on the morning of April 14, 1561, citizens in Nuremberg, Germany, awoke to what was later described in a local news flyer as “a very frightful spectacle.” Perhaps disturbed from their slumber by the strange noises coming from overhead, they stumbled out of their houses to discover unidentifiable objects in the sky, engaged in what appeared to be an aerial battle. The entire event was memorialized in a broadsheet (the sixteenth-century equivalent of a newspaper) that still exists today in the Zurich Central Library.
The broadsheet account includes a famous woodcut illustration depicting the incident. The library also displays a woodcut of an almost identical sighting in Basel, Switzerland, in 1566. The woodcut advised people to “repent for their sins” and interpreted the extraordinary events as signs from God. Many of the witnesses used religious imagery to explain the objects they had seen, describing crosses flying in the sky—an image strikingly reminiscent of Emperor Constantine’s famous vision of a fiery cross, which inspired him to declare Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Though we may tend to think of UFO sightings as a distinctly modern phenomenon, incidents like the sighting over Nuremberg are shockingly common—going all the way back to antiquity, from Roman orator and senior senator Marcus Tullius Cicero’s account of witnessing a bright spherical object appearing in the sky and then dividing into several smaller spheres, to Christopher Columbus’s recording of a UFO sighting in the log books of the Santa María, to nineteenth-century Japanese testimonies of encounters with a strange craft, which seem to link to one of the single most documented sightings of all time—the late-twentieth-century incidents in Rendlesham Forest, halfway around the globe in the United Kingdom.