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Historical Timelines: Strategies for Interpretation

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about strategies for interpreting historical timelines. We will also learn how to find connections between world, American, and local historical events.

What Are Historical Timelines?

Maybe you've heard about time periods like the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, or the Roaring Twenties. Maybe in your mind you have a very clear idea of what it was like during the Roaring Twenties, for example. You might be thinking of organized crime, wild parties, and new innovations like the automobile. The Roaring Twenties is an example of what we would call a historical period. Historical periods are timeframes that are categorized because of commonalities. For example, the Great Depression took place throughout the 1930s, and we all know what characterized this period. You got it! Unemployment, poverty, and economic depression. The decade that came after it, the 1940s, was quite different. This decade was characterized by World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. There are many different historical periods: the Enlightenment, the Victorian Era, and many, many, others.

When we piece these periods together chronologically we have what we call a timeline. A historical timeline is kind of like a map of history; it is a way to show the sequence of historical periods. A historical timeline will show what periods took place within a given timeframe of history, and what periods came before it and after it. So for example, if you were looking at a timeline of U.S. History II (which begins after the Civil War), it would be laid out something like this: Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, World War I, the Inter-war Period, World War II, the Cold War, and the Global Age.

How Do We Interpret Timelines?

The issues surrounding interpreting timelines are sometimes complex. See, to a degree, historical periods can be subjective. Historians don't always agree when a particular period ends and when the next one begins. Because of this you will find differences in timelines. Some timelines list key dates and events, while others do not. Some timelines deal with a specific event or period. For example, a World War II timeline would only include key events within the World War II era. Also, some timelines deal only with the history of a particular nation or group. For example, a timeline of French history or Peruvian history.

This timeline shows Peruvian history from the ancient period to the present.
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Or, timelines may be more comprehensive and show the interactions between multiple geopolitical regions throughout world history.

This 1769 timeline depicts the influence and power of various kingdoms and empires.
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When reading a timeline we have to remember the difference between the B.C. and A.D. periodization. B.C. stands for 'Before Christ,' while A.D. stands for the Latin phrase 'Anno Domini,' which means 'In the year of our Lord.' In this periodization scheme, the birth of Christ marks the division between the two periods. The B.C. period measures time moving from the birth of Christ backwards, while the A.D. period begins at year 0 and moves forwards. The year 2000 thus represents 2000 years since the birth of Christ.

Historical Context

When reading timelines and studying history, it is important to be mindful of historical context, or the total environment in which historical events take place. We should also be mindful of how events are related. Historical causation refers to cause and effect in regard to historical events. Some periods were brought about by events in previous periods. Certain events are connected to other events by a cause and effect relationship.

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