Telling Time in Ancient Times

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  • 0:01 The Importance of Telling Time
  • 0:49 Lunar Phase Cycle
  • 2:52 Creation of Calendars
  • 5:00 The Sundial
  • 5:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson will explore the concepts of time and telling time in ancient history, including the lunar phase cycle, the calendar, the sundial, and how ancient people viewed time compared to us.

The Importance of Telling Time

Do you know what time it is? Maybe it's tool time or peanut butter jelly time. Of course, telling time isn't just for TV shows and songs. It's about day-to-day work, play, and even survival. We measure and want to know what time it is so we can get to school when we need to or finish something for work before a given deadline.

Ancient people were just as aware of the passage of time as we are today. They may not have had atomic clocks, cell phones, or even grandfather clocks to help them with this, yet they still managed to time important days coinciding with religious events or matters of survival, like when to plant a crop.

How they did this varies from one place to another, and we'll explore some interesting concepts related to telling time in ancient history.

The Lunar Phase Cycle

It is suspected that way back in Paleolithic times, people kept track of natural, regular cycles as a way of noting time. By the way, the Paleolithic period is more commonly known as the 'Old Stone Age.'

So, what natural, regular cycles would be used by ancient people? Well, as an example, the changing phases of the moon were likely to have been employed early on for telling time or, at the very least, anticipating certain events or moments for a certain activity. Therefore, the lunar phase cycle would allow lots of different advantages that could be, in a manner of speaking, timed.

For example, some people would wait for a big full moon to travel out at night. Seafarers could time the oceanic tides with the phases of the moon. Further still, some communities developed rituals, folk practices, and beliefs that were related to the lunar phase cycle.

As you can tell, observations of celestial bodies and their motions, including that of the moon, planets, and our sun, weren't really used as a way to give out exact units of time, like minutes or hours. Instead, time was tracked in a very different way.

Regular cycles allowed ancient people to have a sense of temporality that could, by all means, regulate important rituals or activities necessary for survival. But this does not imply that an exact unit of time was measured through these astronomical periodicities.

To further delineate this concept, we must appreciate the fact that while today time is a linear concept (separate from observable natural phenomena like the regular cycle of the moon) and is a concept with a past, present, and future, it was likely not seen this way long ago.

Instead, time was circular, not linear. It was viewed as an infinite repetition of regular cycles. Of course, some ancient people, like the Maya, employed both linear and circular concepts of time.

The Creation of Calendars

As people evolved and civilizations began popping up around the world, there was more time for people to engage in intellectual pursuits. This allowed individuals and cultures to construct more advanced ways to measure, mark, keep track of, and anticipate time. One big leap forward was the creation of a calendar.

Ancient people all over the world had different calendars and different ways of creating them in order to try and date everything from religious rituals to when a business transaction should take place. Without a specific date, it would be kind of hard to tell a business partner where and when to meet someone to broker a deal.

One type of calendar that was created is known as a horizon calendar, a calendar developed by monitoring the position of the sunrise on successive days against different distant landmarks. For example, the peaks and valleys of mountain ranges could've been used to watch for where the sun rose that particular day, then the next, and in a month's time, and so forth down the line. Such calendars were used in central Mexico and with Native Americans, like the Hopi, in what is now the United States.

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