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Chronocentricity and Other Vested Interests

Unreliable Dates in Ancient Chronology

"We should "come clean" with our world civ students and admit that we have no real idea about the relationships that existed between the civilizations of the ancient world - that its all speculation, myth draped in the shabby mantel of speculation and called TRUTH."
- Bill Schell, Murray State University
Although the Earth revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis at a pretty constant speed, the calendar isn't so reliable. In an earlier feature I looked at the general history of the calendar and how people made adjustments to the differences among solar, lunar, and sidereal time. This feature is more specific, addressing availability of data and methods of dating.

When the media represents "this day in history," events from antiquity are rare. See for yourself: check the following links for several days. Rarely will you see a date from before the landing of the pilgrims.

In the U.S. this can be partly explained by the same patriotism that makes two hundred years of US history dominate the primary and secondary curriculum.
"It implies that things that are far away (either in time or distance) are less important. It also feeds the parochial prejudice of American civic religion. American history has traditionally suffered from an exaggerated sense of self-importance."
- Rob & Cyndy Shearer Why Teach Ancient History (article originally at www.greenleafpress.com/articles/a_ancien.htm)
Another explanation for the shortage comes from a lack of verifiable dates. As David Meadows writes:
"matters of figuring out calendrical equivalencies ... have filled scholarly papers for generations and often an equivalent date simply is a matter of educated guesswork."

Chronological Upheavals

  • James

    In Updating the Centuries of Darkness, Peter James discusses scholarly arguments and recent archaeological evidence lending support to his once revolutionary re-dating of the "Dark Age" in the Mediterranean based on Egyptian chronology:
    "...every strand of evidence we examined - from pottery chronologies to royal inscrip-tions - argued against the existence of such a long Dark Age. In short, the evidence seemed to argue that Late Bronze Age civilisation did not end c. 1200BC but more likely around 950BC."
  • Dreyer

    James shortens Egyptian history:

    "We found that Egyptian history could in fact be shortened by as much as 250 years.
    but British Museum's Vivian Davies reports on the newly discovered origin of writing in Egypt, a discovery that adds an extra dynasty, a Dynasty Zero, to the Egyptian timeline.
    "The findings emerged from a discovery made by a German expedition, headed by Günter Dreyer, of the German Archaeological Institute, which revealed a dynasty of kings before the First Dynasty. Traditionally, the history of what is one of the world's greatest civilisations has been divided into 30 dynasties. But a new dynasty, which reigned in about 3250BC, and which has been named Dynasty 0, has been found at Abydos. Archaeologists have discovered hieroglyphics there dating from 150 years before the First Dynasty."
    -Sunday Times 9/14/98
  • Schell

    Bill Schell (in the same thought-provoking correspondence quoted at the beginning) questions other conventional dates:
    "Why should the Myceneans learn to write their Greek language in using the Minoan Linear script (c. 1450 BCE by the standard chronology), lapse into total illiteracy for 600 years, and then become literate again using the phoenician writing system?"

    "Then there are the troubling "after-glows" of the Hittites and other peoples that burst forth centuries after the supposed close of the main civilization, and scarabs and other artifacts found so far out of expected stratigraphy that scholars can only label them as heirlooms (unconvincingly)."

Date Determination

  • Bible

    Some historians try to use the Bible to determine dates. Such methods often lead to heated controversy (even without the evolution vs creationism debate), especially when Biblical chronologies are accepted as complete, accurate, and without overlap.
    "Moses did not write this [Gen. 5 and 11] so that we could sit down with our calculators and figure the date of creation. His purpose is not strictly chronological. And if his purpose is not strictly chronological, there is no need for a complete list of all the people in the family tree."
    - Fred G. Zaspel
    Zaspel argues that aside from the rare fixed date in the Bible, events can't be pinned down. Specifically, he argues semantically that the word begat refers to ancestors as well as fathers and even the term father is fraught with ambiguity since it, too, refers to male predecessors.
  • Archaeology

    NYU's Rita Wright explains that for archaeologists, there are two types of dates, relative and absolute. Relatively speaking, an object buried deeper in the ground is assumed to be older than one buried closer to the surface. Absolute dating usually involves radio-carbon dating which has at least a 50 year margin of error.

  • Paleography/Synchronicity

    For documents, style and content provide clues. From a collection of papyri dated to the same prefecture, monarch, or other major figure, not only do we know approximately when they were written, but we can find similarities in word choice and styles of expression and lettering that permit us to make educated guesses about the date of other, less immediately identifiable artifacts.

    For cross-dating in archaeology, see About.com's Archaeology Guide's feature, A Few Cautionary Notes

This Date in Ancient History

Given the sometimes arbitrary nature of date assignment, those of us who have events calendars often must make guesses. Even so, there is a remarkable shortage of events from Greek history. Part of this has to do with Olympiad-based years. But while we might be unsure of exactly which year we're referring to (and with Roman chronology we similarly have to contend with dating by consular period), that fails to explain our ignorance of the exact day on which specific festivals were held. David Meadows after explaining the difficulties calculating dates from a lunar calendar and conflicting theories on Greek dates, arrives at a functional system in "This Day in Ancient History." Seasonal Festivals of the Greeks and Romans from Biblioteca Arcana dates the festivals to major solar events.

Ancient Roman events were dated by the consuls of the year, which would be accurate if we had all the consuls, and if the Roman calendar hadn't been so unreliable a timetable, subject to the not always timely interventions of the priests, until Caesar fixed it. Even then, it still needed fine tuning. 753 B.C. corresponds with the date the Romans thought Rome was founded, but even this starting point isn't reliable. One other caveat: the Roman year didn't always start in January.

See:

  • "Calendrica II: Date Equations from the Reign of Augustus," by Alexander Jones. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 129, (2000), pp. 159-166.
  • "The Imperial Nundinal Cycle," by Chris Bennett. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 147, (2004), pp. 175-179.
  • "The Pattern of the Days in Ancient Rome," by M. S. Broughall. Greece & Rome, Vol. 5, No. 15 (May, 1936), pp. 160-176

Time and Calendar pages on this site

On This Day in Ancient History - Index
Ancient Eclipses - Understanding eclipses was the first step towards science.
The Calendar - How do you juggle solar, lunar, and celestial calendars?
The Calendar - Online resources about the calendar, including the Mayan and Aztec calendars.
Timelines and Tables - Timelines for ancient civilizations around the world.

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