Remember when everyone was freaking out about the Mayan calendar coming to an end and it possibly signifying the end of times. For many reasons I was not phased.
Primarily, the end of their calendar just meant that the person writing it (in this case carving glyphs) got tired and had to stop. Which when you think about it is still kinda impressive since the Mayan calendar spanned a couple thousand years into the future.
Second, the Mayan civilization wasn’t a unified political entity so who knows if they were even on the same page about what year it was when they started recording time.
And even before that, the civilizations of the America’s often depended on oral histories, passing down events through stories and song. So as a region, it might be fair to say they didn’t have a continuous grasp on time.
What I’m getting at is that it’s easy enough to record time in your own life. Such as, in how many days do I have my meeting with so and so? Or how many days ago did I see my mom?
But collectively, we are hard pressed to agree what time it is. Due to certain events taking place across the globe, the recording of time has sometimes been put on the back burner for the sake of survival and safety.
Cave men might have painted certain events on cave walls, and this definitely is some form of historical ear marking, but it’s not the detailed time ticking we are used to in the modern day.
The history of history
Historians often explain the existence of chronologies with the invention of different kinds of writing. In this they are certainly right. The ability to have and to hold information, allows us to pass it on to the next generation with increasing precision. Though people still have to interpret events.
Especially tricky is that most times when violence breaks out, like war, the winner often writes the history in a very self involved passionate way. Which makes the true retelling of events a murky process.
But no matter what anyone does, a calendar begins by someone arbitrarily throwing down a year 1.
It could be the year the pharaoh took power, the end of a great migration, or when the war ended. Basically, some dudes get together and essentially say, okay BEGIN NOW!
Which for the recording of time is essentially essential. It must begin at some point. But everyone should also admit that there definitely was many years that came before where no one was keeping track.
Take the ancient Egyptians for example, who recorded the passage of time with hieroglyphics on papyrus paper. But they still did not have a handle on how many days it took for the Earth to rotate around the Sun. Nor did their calendar match up with the solar calendar of our system. They just began at some point, with no clue about everything that came before a certain watershed moment where they started keeping track.
It took a long time before we determined that there was 365 actual days in a year, and that the best way to divide them up was months with roughly 30 days. The formation of the week of 7 days was probably more about work schedules than about being reasonable, but hey it works, 5 days on, 2 days off.
The Catholic clock
For modern western civilization, that watershed moment where everyone looked to each other and agreed “Time begins now!” was the end of Jesus Christ’s life.
And thus the involvement of the Catholic church for many centuries in the tracking of time, and the evolution of knowledge, including histories.
For reasons, I have a problem with this.
One, at the onset of christianity, there was much turmoil in the world and the story of Jesus Christ was disseminated via word of mouth. So who really knows when Jesus actually ascended to the heavens because by the time Saint Peter got the church up and going, an ancient version of broken telephone had been going on for ‘God’ knows how long.
Secondly, but continuing on the same thought, this broken telephone of the story of Jesus was passing through human mouths and ears. Ever hear of the term ‘human error’, it means that if given the chance we are for sure going to fuck up.
I have no confidence that the passing of certain information about Jesus went unaltered as it moved along. It’s not like they had the bible yet, so there was no materials to refer to if you wanted to double check your sources.
But whenever it was that they started recording history in relation to Jesus and writing the bible in general, they certainly just….started. Not knowing if the figures they had been presented with were accurate or not, but it was what they were working with so we’ll cut them a break.
So they started, and this went on for some time, until…the god damn dark ages (or more correctly known as the middle ages).
A time so shitty, nothing progressive happened at all. Art, politics, and science all just stagnated. The worst part is that the crusades happened during this period and the church and the political entities of the day threw all their might into fighting Islam.
Not only that, but there was the plague. The turnover within the church must have been staggering. Like the google offices of its period, people came in to do a job, died, or moved on to greener pastures and undoubtedly there was some doubling up of work in the transition. Better yet, someone could have totally dropped the ball at their first day on the job as church record keeper and forgot to carry the 1 in the columns marked ‘days since Jesus’.
It kinda goes back to what I mentioned earlier. Human error during this period must have been staggering. First their entire society was plunged into chaos by wars that would never end. Second, there was no way to confirm their information about dates had not been tampered with or altered.
Additionally, at the time, civilization was broken into clear segments, sure Europe was where it was Jesus O’clock, but in North Africa or the Middle East, Islam was the name of the game.
These disconnects make it very hard for historians to get on the same page about what happened during this period. Many Christians were in the Mid-East fighting, and at other points in time Muslims were in Spain, but it’s not likely they were writing home. I don’t believe this time period had a reliable mail service.
To write down the story of the crusades in the heart of what is the dark ages, depended on Christians coming home and telling their stories as accurately as they could. And for this, history is depending on the very flexible, and malleable human memory.
“Was it six days? Four days, or five? It all happened so fast! I have no clue other than it happened….or did it” – Forgetful Crusader
And then there’s the interpretation of the person who puts down the information, or the use of ambiguous language. Like writing down that something happened about a week’s time ago. Was it seven days or not?
A lot of stuff happened during the dark ages, but we will never be sure of when it happened exactly in relation to now. We can only agree that it happened before now and that’s that.
When is it time for time?
If we throw out the Jesus O’clock approach, when is it that we should actually say that time started?
Is it the beginning of our solar system, life on earth, days since the big bang? What is the true beginning and can we actually grasp it.
Physicists and astronomers have been working for some time now to decipher the workings of our universe and unfortunately, the answers we get range wildly.
Essentially, scientists say that the age of our solar system is roughly 4.5 billion years old, not exactly, but approximately. It’s this kind of approximation that means we as a civilization just have to arbitrarily ‘start’ a calendar.
I personally wouldn’t mind having a calendar that begins with the big bang, but because really there’s no way of knowing when the real beginning of everything started, we have no choice but to be arbitrary.
If we look back on the events that have shaped history, and some of them I mentioned here, I have no doubt in my mind that a few years here and there didn’t make it onto the books.
Human error, broken telephone, a disconnect between segments of society recording history, ambiguous reporting of time and the resulting interpretation of historians all have contributed to a situation I have no faith in.
Is it really 2019? Fuck if I know.
I do know that my smartphone that gets it’s information from satellites say’s its 2019…So I guess that’s good enough for right now.