I was at home one day with my teenaged daughter when she suddenly groaned out loud and tossed a weighty textbook across the room. The book was The Eternal Paradigm or Our Ceaseless Meandering or whatever it is they name AP World History books these days. She does not share my love of history, this child of mine; among many subjects at which she excels in school, it is just about her least favorite. I think a love of our past is something you have to mature into. I recall lots of kids, back when I was young, who loved math or science, literature or art, but I don’t remember anybody who just loved history.
What was giving my daughter fits this day was trying to remember dates, particularly dates before Christ, which, thanks to an almost purposely myopic dating system, run backwards. I couldn’t help but sympathize. How many poor students, scratching their heads over a lesson about ancient Egypt or Babylon, have worked to wrap their heads around how years BC–before Christ–run backwards, while years AD–Anno Domini–run forward. Sure, the birth of Christ was a watershed in the history of Western Civilization, but let’s face it, this numbering system was put in place by people who thought the rapture was imminent, and actually keeping track of the years until then was of minor importance. Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian Monk born in AD 470 (and whose Latin name means, seriously, something like ‘Little Dennis’) came up with the idea. Accuracy was out the window almost before he got started, since nobody believes any more that they knew the right year for the birth of Jesus back then. Nor did he think to add a year zero between 1 BC and AD 1, so counting the centuries has always been a trial, remembering that AD 2000 was the last year of the 20th century and such. We now know that the rapture has been–at least–postponed by a few millennia, and we should have tossed this system out with the theory of spontaneous generation and the earth-centric universe.
More recent scholars have chosen to use the abbreviations BCE, which means ‘before the common era,’ or ‘before the current era,’ and CE, for common or current era, though one can choose to say Christian Era if one is so inclined. Years BC and AD are identical with years BCE and CE. Some people think using BCE and CE smacks of contemporary political correctness, which they hate, since being sensitive to other people’s beliefs is distasteful to Americans. But the fact is, the abbreviations were first used as early as 1856 CE. What I find troublesome about them is that they only deal with the religious issue–they do nothing to make historical dates clearer. They don’t resolve the problem of running backwards then forwards, or of skipping a year zero, which still confuses people all the time. (Here’s a toast to everyone who mistakenly celebrated the end of the millennium in 1999!)
But my problem with historical dates is but the tip of the iceberg: there’s also the problem of scientific dating. In my research for The Varied God I have read a lot of science. Okay, so it has been archeology and anthropology mostly, some geology and geography. As Sheldon Cooper would say with a derisive snort, Not real sciences. But I have become comfortable enough with terms like palynology and osteology, and with techniques like midden floatation and radio-carbon dating that I can read a journal article straight through without running to a dictionary. But one of the most persistent problems for me, and I’m betting for many people who study these sorts of things, is the simple keeping track of time.
While historical years are dated one way, scientific years, measured by radio-carbon dating and dendrochronology and whatever else scientists get up to, have their own confusing nomenclatures. Popular these days is the abbreviation BP, which means ‘before present.’ Present, in this system, is 1950 AD (or CE), since that was the year radio-carbon dating was first used.
When dates get even older, some prefer to use the MYA abbreviation, or ‘million years ago’–as in ‘the Cambrian era ended 488 MYA.’ Sometimes they just use a simple MA, which means the same thing. There is even the use of BYA–and you can guess what that means.
The worst part of this problem comes when scientific dates, those hoary and inconceivably ancient times in prehistory, begin to tickle up against history, as in the times of what we call the Neolithic Revolution. The Neolithic, by many accounts, began around 11,500 BP, an ancient date, to be sure, but it is also perhaps easier to understand as 9488 BC (BCE). 11,500 BP sounds terribly remote, but 9488 BC, not so much. This is the beginning of human cultures and civilizations, just a few millennia short of the inception of Mesopotamian and Egyptian culture, which will be measured in years BC or BCE. Couldn’t we cut out the BPs here so we can wrap our heads more easily around the timeline?
Part of the problem is that the BC and AD dates are usually documented, while the scientific dates are mostly estimates–based on the best science we have, but estimates just the same. Often dates are expressed using the old ‘±’ sign, which means plus or minus a few years. This leads to some confusion, especially when we are talking about fairly recent human developments. They might say ‘samples of emmer wheat show signs of domestication as early as 10,500±.’ It almost becomes meaningless. As someone pointed out recently, we could say ‘McDonald’s restaurants first appear in 1960±,’ and it would look like they were all created at the same time. Do dates expressed this way have any meaning?
I would say that somebody needs to work out a good system that will cover all these things. It can’t be that hard. What is hard is getting everyone to use it. A 1975 law was meant to set the United States on the conversion path to the metric system: you can see how well that worked. The change to digital TV was like pulling teeth. So I don’t hold out much hope that keeping track of dates will get any easier any time soon.