Mar 5, 2009

Calendars....Not Just Wall Decorations

Celestial bodies — the Sun, Moon, planets and stars have provided us a reference for measuring the passage of time throughout our existence. Ancient civilizations relied on the movement of these heavenly bodies through the sky to determine seasons, months and years.

We know little about the details of time keeping in prehistoric eras but wherever archaeologists find records and artifacts, they usually discover that in every culture, some people were preoccupied with measuring and recording the passage of time. Ice-age hunters in Europe over 20,000 years ago scratched lines and gouged holes in sticks and bones, possibly to count the days between phases of the moon.

Five thousand years ago, Sumerians in the Tigris-Euphrates valley in today's Iraq had a calendar that divided the year into 30 day months, divided the day into 12 periods (each corresponding to 2 of our hours) and divided these periods into 30 parts (each like 4 of our minutes). We have no written records of Stonehenge, built over 4000 years ago in England, but its alignments show its purposes apparently included the determination of seasonal or celestial events, such as lunar eclipses, solstices and so on.

The Egyptians were the culture to formally divide their day into parts something like our hours within their yearly calender. Obelisks (slender, tapering, four-sided monuments) were built as early as 3500 B.C.E. and their moving shadows formed a kind of sundial, enabling people to partition the day into morning and afternoon. Obelisks also showed the year's longest and shortest days when the shadow at noon was the shortest or longest of the year. Later, additional markers around the base of the monument would indicate further divisions of time.

Who knew that the humble beginnings of the calendar was to evolve to where it is today! It's easy to just glance at our decorative calendars pinned to our walls and never really think of the metamorphosis that they have undergone.... carrying us along and into the twenty-first century.

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