Keeping Track of Time

Keeping track of time has been a human endeavor since the dawn of humanity and arguably before our species became anatomically modern circa 190,000 years ago. As a species we are not alone in living our lives by the ebb and flow of time. All species are affected by the patterns of Earth’s cyclical movements in concert with our sun and moon, rendering changes in behavior caused by night and day, waxing and waning of the moon and predictable annual seasons. Human cultures have been marking the passage of time in both linear and cyclical systems, depending on the cosmological and socio-religious established conventions adhered to by each population.

As we move into a new year and a new decade, I’m intrigued by how our collective consciousness and indeed social organization is fundamentally dependent upon keeping track of time, both on a day-to-day level, as well as our place within the broader context of historical time. On December 31st the majority of the world’s population will count down the seconds before midnight and celebrate the birth of a new year, 2010, and the beginning of the second ten-year count of 21 one-hundred year counts. Known as the Gregorian calendar this long count of time has become the internationally accepted civil calendar used to keep track of time.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced by the Roman Catholic Pope, Gregory the thirteenth, after whom the calendar was named, by a decree signed on 24th February AD 1582. The use of the notion AD, Anno Domini, is based on the beginning of the long count calendar at the year zero, or the traditionally held year of birth of Jesus Christ. Because of the widespread indoctrination of Catholicism across the world during the Middle Ages and the necessity to codify a universally acceptable day for Easter (the resurrection of Jesus), this calendar became the international de facto standard of recording time. Over time as countries began to adopt the calendar they had to account for differences between the earlier Julian calendrical system and were forced to skip forward in time between ten and thirteen days to make up the discrepancy. In this regard the British Colonies in what would become the United States lost eleven days when they adopted the Gregorian system on Thursday, September 14th 1752.

Source: Cambridge University

However, the Gregorian calendar is not a universally followed system of timekeeping. Today there are at least forty calendrical systems still in use worldwide. These are unique to each cultural and religious community and tend to be lunisolar (movement of the sun and moon) in principle. For instance the Islamic calendar is based on a lunar system of tracking time, where a crescent moon heralds a new month. Hence, the use of the crescent moon in Islamic symbolism. The first year of this calendar coincides with when the prophet Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina in Saudi Arabia, known as Hijra (AH anno Hegirae). This corresponds in Gregorian terms to the year AD 622. Therefore, 2010 in Gregorian terms is actually the year 1431 AH according to the Islamic calendar.

Archaeologically we can look to a number of “archaic” calendrical systems and astronomical observation structures that mark significant changes in seasons, namely the summer and winter solstice and/or spring and autumnal equinox. For example, I recently visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Newgrange, in the Boyne River Valley (Abhainn na Bóinne) of Co. Meath, Ireland. This impressive passage tomb built around 5,000 years ago by Bronze Age farmers is in essence both a mortuary tomb, but also a seasonal clock. As the sun rises on the eastern horizon during the winter solstice, a shaft of light shines through a window box at the front of the tomb, through the twenty meter long passage and illuminates the internal cruciform chamber. This event would have had important ritual significance for knowing when to begin planting crops and celebrating religious ceremonies.

The early civilizations of Central and South America had their own way of keeping track of time. The Mayan’s for example conceived of time as cyclical and established a complex system of tracking time. This Long Count calendar combines a day (k’in) into twenty days (winal). Eighteen winals make one tun. Twenty tuns are known as a k’atun. Twenty k’atuns make a b’ak’tun. Therefore, much like wheels inside increasingly larger wheels, each cycle records the passage of time. Many think the year 2012 is the end of the Mayan Calendar, but this is incorrect. It just means the end of the 13th b’ak’tun (394 solar years) and the beginning of the 14th b’ak’tun.

We’ll probably never know for sure when humans first started recording time. Very likely it is forgotten in the oral traditions of bygone generations and has receded into the ethereal mists of dreamtime, much like the aboriginal Australian notion of deep time. What we can say for certain is that to keep track of the time is culturally dependent and it is the clock by which we can set the rhythm of our daily lives. So when the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, remember that our concept of knowing the actual time is all relative.

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