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The History of Timekeeping: Calendars

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Part I: The Birth of Calendars

We’re still not sure exactly what time is. We know it can be “bended”, eluded and some even go as far as to believe it can be traveled. While these theories get the attention of modern day researchers, throughout history, the main challenge researchers faced wasn’t to find ways to escape time, but rather to keep track of it.

Keeping track of time is the cornerstone of agriculture – the foundation of settled civilization – because it relies on the ability to predict the seasons and the climate. Furthermore, citizens of advanced civilizations, characterized by days filled with tasks, don’t just need to keep track of the months, but also of the smallest time units of the day. These needs have driven innovators throughout the dawn of man to develop ingenious time keeping techniques and devices.

In this series of posts, we will cover the great milestones that were reached during this timeless journey to keep track of time. In this particular post, we’ll start at the beginning. We’ll take you all the way from the very first record of an attempt to keep track of time, up to the point where highly accurate calendars were used.


First Known Timekeeping Techniques

According to several scientists from Harvard University, the earliest record of any sort of time keeping method dates back to approx. 30,000 years ago! After studying an ancient animal bone, which was found in central Europe and had some odd carvings on it, a researcher named Alexander Marshank claimed that these carvings were in fact a sophisticated lunar calendar. If this theory is true, it indicates that the ancient European culture had a deep understanding of the way the moon “behaves” over a period of time.

The engraved marks on the Blanchard bone

Ancient Calendars

Going forward, to approx. 3000 BC, we now see a world already filled with relatively technologically advanced civilizations, each with its own calendars.The first example of such methods can be found in the UK, at Stonehenge, which according to many archeologists was built 5,000 years ago. While most of us have heard of the site, no one knows exactly what was its purpose, although there are speculations.

On the longest day of the year, June 21st, the sunrise solstice can be seen from between Stonehenge’s two most eastern pillars. On the shortest day of the year, December 21st, the sunset solstice can be seen from between the opposite stones.This unique alignment of stones suggests that Stonehenge was in fact an accurate calendar, which helped the ancients to keep count of seasonal cycles.

Another great example of an ancient time keeping technique can be found in the Babylonian calendar. It was a lunisolar calendar, with years consisting of 12 lunar months and divided into 7-day episodes, AKA weeks. Furthermore, the Babylonians viewed every seventh day as a spiritually unique day. Some believe that this time perception have later on influenced Judaism, which in turn influenced Christianity and later on Islam. Thus, shaping the modern perception of time.

stones

Another type of ancient calendar is the solar one, such as the one the Egyptians started to use at approx. 3,000 BC. While many calendars that were used during that era were based on phases of the moon, the Egyptian calendar consisted of 365 days, divided into 12 months, each made of 30 days, plus 5 days at the end of the year. Pretty close to what we have today!

Much later, at about 46 BC, Julius Caesar had realized that the Roman version of the calendar was inoperable (it consisted of 10 months). It is believed that after returning from traveling Egypt, he decided to adopt a solar calendar very similar to the Egyptian one. Due to Roman’s governing of practically all of Europe, the Julian calendar remained in almost universal use in the continent until the end of the medieval ages.

The growth of these “modern” civilizations, which were already developed enough to rely on the idea of “work hours”, have set the stage not just to the development of calendars, but also of techniques to divide even the days themselves into the smallest units. Thus, leading to the invention of the first “clocks”. But this will be discussed in our next post…

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