How we can fix ancient history

Hello. My name is KG and I want to talk to you about history and timelines. You see, I like to study history, but I don’t like the timeline that everybody uses, the Christian timeline. Look at it:

How stupid is this? Why do we count years from the middle of history? Why, for the first 3 millennia of history, do we count them backwards? What is that all about? Do you think historians who first started using the Christian timeline, tried to pick a system that would present history in the best possible way? No. They simply adopted the most popular year numbering system there was at the moment without giving it a second thought.

By the way, this is not some political or anti-religious rant. Some people say, that because not all people are Christians, we should have a calendar reform and replace the Christian timeline with a system where years would be reckoned from some universally relevant event. I couldn’t care less about that. I also don’t care whether you use BC or BCE, AD or CE. There is only one feature of the the Christian timeline that I’m not happy with, and that is the countdown part where for 3 millennia of history we count years backwards. 

And I only view this problem from the point of view of a student of history. I ask myself, if my goal is to learn ancient history, is a timeline with a countdown the best tool for the job? Up until very recently the answer to that question would be: it is the only tool, so who cares whether it’s good or bad for presenting history when there is no alternative to it.

Well, something has changed very recently. Now there is an alternative to counting years backwards. And it is not some conceptual thing. This is not just an idea of a new timeline. You can actually use it right now, at least on Wikipedia. But with time there will be more and more history resources (websites, ebooks) where you’ll be able to use the timeline I’m talking about here. 

The system that I use is actually not a full-blown timeline but rather it is just a period of time. I call that period the Old Era. The name is not important though. You can call it anything you want. 

What is Old Era? It’s just 10,000 years before Christ that you count in chronological order.

It consists of 10 millennia or 100 centuries. And the recorded history in this system looks like this:

Let’s zoom in to see years:

In most real use cases year numbers in the Old Era are so big that you can’t possibly confuse them with anything in the Common Era. So, most of the time you don’t even need to specify what era you are talking about. 

For example, you can say that Julius Caesar was murdered in 9957 (no need to add ‘OE’). And years OE work fine with years AD (or CE). For example, you can say that Augustus reigned in 9974 – AD 14.

For exact formulas for converting years, decades, centuries, and millennia from BCE to OE see this article.

You may think that this timeline looks weird or even ugly. But there is a way to view it as a beginning of something beautiful. I like to imagine that what we call the Common Era will end after 10,000 CE and a new era will begin. And then the next one 10,000 years later. And so on.

It’s not important whether humanity actually converts to such a system after 10,000 CE or not, because we’ll never know. The point is, if you think the system is ugly, that’s your choice, but you can also view it as something beautiful. 

And if you think that restarting the year count every 10,000 years is weird, it’s not. Let me give you a few analogies. Every year consists of the same 12 months. Every month starts numeration of dates anew. For example, the day that follows January 31st is February 1st, not February 32nd. Every day starts at 0:00 AM and consists of the same 24 hours. Also, think about hours, minutes and seconds. These are all repeatable units of time, and we use them all the time. 

Measuring time on a larger scale is not any different. In the far future people will have to use some kind of modular system or else year numbers will simply become too long and unreadable. Of course, there can and will be some absolute system, but you won’t have to use it all the time, only when you really need to. 

Is this a calendar reform proposal?

No. I’m talking about something much more realistic. 

There has been a number of calendar reform proposals. You can read about them in this Wikipedia article. Although I came up with my timeline independently, my timeline is actually identical to one of those timelines proposed in the 20th century. 

I believe, the timeline itself is not important. Far more important is how you make it usable. And for some reason people still think that a calendar reform is the only way you can do it. But if you think about it, what would an official calendar reform do for us? First of all, there is nothing official about the Christian timeline to begin with. Especially about the BC part of it. There is no law that tells you you can only use the Christian timeline when you study history. 

And even if we could somehow have some document signed by all the governments in the world, that would make Old Era official (whatever that means), how would you enforce it? Would you throw historians in jail for not using the Old Era? They would simply continue using the Christian timeline. 

We don’t need a calendar reform. We need texts about history (websites and ebooks) where OE dates are used instead of BC dates. You create such texts by making BC-dates detectable programmatically. They will look the same, so people who use Christian timeline will still be able to use them, but you now have an option to use OE dates instead. You can even use any other timeline. Once the dates are detectable you can find them all and apply any conversion formula to them.

Now let me show you what I have accomplished already on Wikipedia.

“Old Era on Wikipedia” Chrome extension

Please, download this extension. It translates BC/BCE dates into OE dates on Wikipedia. This is a screenshot that shows what it looks like: 

The extension translates almost all dates BC. If it doesn’t translate a date because that particular date lacks an actual “BC” label, remember that you can always just add missing BCs on Wikipedia. It’s almost always appropriate to do so, and most likely nobody will ever revert such edits. 

For the cases where you can’t add a “BC” I currently use a server to store the positions of such dates so that they can be translated anyway. But in the near future I plan to propose a machine-readable markup on Wikipedia for such dates. If everything goes as planned, over a relatively short period of time we’ll be able to make every BC-date translatable by just editing Wikipedia pages. No server external to Wikipedia will be needed any more. 

How to use this extension

First, learn a few OE dates of some major historical events by heart (anchor dates). Then you can just read a bunch of Wikipedia articles with translated dates. And when you encounter an OE date, try to correlate it with other OE dates that you already know instead of wondering what BCE year that would be. Avoid translating OE dates to BCE dates in your mind. 

Master the Old Era dates just like you would master a foreign language. It takes some effort, but much less effort than learning an actual language would. Theoretically it can take you just one day, but more realistically it will take you a few days of reading for 15-30 minutes per day. Then it will click in your mind and using the Old Era dates will become super comfortable.

Why would anyone want to use the Old Era?

The only reason why I personally use the Old Era is that I want to feel how ancient history sort of accumulates with time. You can’t have this feeling while using the Christian timeline even if you think you can. 

There is this opinion that I’ve encountered on the internet more than once, that ultimately, no matter what starting point you choose for a timeline, it won’t change the actual history that has already taken place, and therefore it doesn’t matter what timeline you use. 

Well, as someone who can see history both ways, I will say that nothing can be further from the truth. It’s like saying that, because both “1234” and “MCCXXXIV” notations mean the same number, they are both equally convenient to use in arithmetic operations.

History may not change, but your perception of history does change depending on what timeline you use.  In my experience, what the backwards system of years BC does to my perception of history is it makes history seem like a fairy tale to me. Like something almost unreal. And I think the reason why this happens is because when you view ancient history using BC years, you unknowingly focus on how long ago this or that event happened. It’s a constant reminder that says: “these ancient people lived a long time ago, and because of it they are not at all like us”. While in reality ancient people were people like you and I who just lived a bit earlier. 

The Old Era, on another hand, lets me truly put history into perspective. Every date in the Old Era is an accumulation of all the preceding history up to that date. Let’s take, for example, Alexander the Great, who lived in the 97th century, or more precisely in 9645-9678.

For you these numbers may not mean much. But I may recall that the Golden age of Greece was in the 96th century. That Greco-Persian wars took place in 9502-9552. I can recall some dates of important events, like the battle of Marathon (9511), or the battle of Thermopylae (9521). Then there was Peloponnesian war (9570-9597) and so on. And now, when I think about Alexander the Great, I can feel that all that stuff that happened before him is contained in, say, the number 9645 (the year Alexander was born).

If you are weirded out by the shier magnitude of the dates that I use, think for a second what they represent. In case of Alexander, what these big numbers tell me, is that Alexander lived in a world where civilisation had already existed for thousands of years. Doesn’t it make sense to represent this fact by using big numbers?

The attitude that you should have

Think of the ability to easily use the Old Era dates as a superpower that you can acquire in a short period of time. Just like you can learn to throw playing cards or juggle 3 balls.

Even if you think it’s a useless superpower, it’s so easy to acquire it, that you can just do it anyway. Just to see what exactly I’m talking about here. And you have nothing to lose. Nobody says that if you learn a bunch of the Old Era dates, you’ll be stuck with them forever and will be unable to use BCE dates ever again. 

Another way to think about it is to treat mastering the Old Era as an experiment. A couple of analogies come to my mind when I think about it. First one is about experiments with upside down goggles

Another analogy is the so called backwards brain bicycle. There is a popular video about it on Smarter Every Day YouTube channel. Maybe you’ve seen it. 

Think about why anybody would do such experiments. Even beyond doing scientific research, isn’t it just fun to experience a change of perspective?

Compared to these experiments the Old Era ‘experiment’ has a twist to it. In the two examples above they take something normal and revert it: make the image your eyes receive upside down, or take a normal bike and redesign it to make the wheel and the handlebar turn in different directions. But here we have an opposite situation: the entire world uses a backwards picture of the ancient history and you have an opportunity to see the “forwards” picture in your head. Isn’t it interesting to see what it would feel like?

Also, would you say that people who perform such experiments are crazy? Would you write an angry letter to Destin Sandlin (the owner of Smarter Every Day channel) saying something like this:

“Entire world has already agreed upon what a bicycle should look like. Nobody needs your stupid backwards brain bicycle!”

Literally all of the criticism I get, comes from people who can’t wrap their heads around the fact that I’m not proposing a calendar reform.

Reasons for misunderstanding the Old Era

One of the reasons some people may not understand me, is because it’s almost impossible to understand the value of using the Old Era without actually using it. What I present here is not an idea or a concept. I don’t ask you to think about my idea for a minute and then tell me your opinion. In fact, I’m not even interested in your opinion until you’ve mastered the Old Era. 

I want to share an experience of using the timeline, not the idea of the timeline. Here is an analogy. Imagine that I have a delicious apple. And I want you to taste it. Now imagine that you refuse to taste it.

You may say that, in your opinion, all apples taste the same, so there is no reason for you to taste my apple. Or you may ask me to first prove to you that my apple is indeed delicious before you even think about tasting it. Or you may start criticising the taste of my apple right away without tasting it.

All of that would be crazy on your part. In my view, if you want to criticise my apple you should at least taste it. Otherwise I can’t take your criticism seriously. And it’s not like I’m asking for too much. Tasting an apple costs you next to nothing. You may do it even if you truly believe that my apple can’t possibly be as good as I say it is.

Just like you can’t judge the taste of an apple without actually tasting it, you can’t judge the Old Era without first mastering it. You won’t be able to fairly compare it to the Christian timeline. You’d just be weirded out by the unfamiliarity of OE dates.

Just looking at images on this page and thinking about the concept of the Old Era doesn’t count as mastering it. You have to internalise the new system and be comfortable using it.

Why you probably don’t see how dumb the countdown is

You may think that numbering years of history in descending order is not very problematic. Some not very nice people on the internet have even suggested that perhaps I had a problem understanding negative numbers, because it was just so obvious to them that there was no problem at all with using years BC. 

There are two possible reasons why you may not see any problem with counting years of history backwards. The first one is this: if you are like most people, you simply don’t know ancient history. That means you don’t really use BC dates. I know you think you do use BC dates, but I use the word ‘use’ in a very narrow sense. For me using BC dates means reading them, thinking about them, talking about them. Ask yourself a question: how often do you read about ancient history? If not too often, then you don’t really use BC dates, let’s be honest. And in that case how would you know whether BC dates are good or bad for presenting ancient history? The system may be incredibly stupid and you wouldn’t know about it, simply because you don’t use it. 

The second reason is this. Maybe you are very knowledgeable about ancient history, and you do actually use BC dates pretty often. But you still wouldn’t see any problem with BC dates simply because you have nothing to compare the Christian timeline to. Everything is known in comparison. Here is a cool quote:

He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

What Goethe said about languages can be applied to timelines as well. If you don’t have an alternative to the Christian timeline you wouldn’t know how bad the Christian timeline actually is for presenting history. So, here is another reason for you to master the Old Era: to learn something new about the Christian timeline. 

Actually, I have an analogy for how the entire world fools itself into thinking that counting years of history backwards is not that big of a deal while in reality this countdown to Jesus, as I call it, is just monumentally stupid.

The glasses analogy

This analogy is my personal story of how I started wearing glasses. Please, bear with me. In the end I will connect it with our discussion of timelines.

I started wearing glasses not so long ago. Actually, I started wearing them too late, because for many years my eyesight was already bad enough to justify wearing glasses. I just wouldn’t start. Why? Because I didn’t know how bad my eyesight actually was. 

I thought it was OK. I knew it wasn’t perfect but it had never occurred to me to do something about it. When your eyesight gradually gets worse over time you don’t have reference points. You have nothing to compare it to, because you don’t necessarily remember how good your eyesight was, let’s say, 10 years ago. And little inconveniences, like objects at a distance looking blurry, and having to squint to see them better, become your new norm. 

It’s as if there was a law of physics, that says: objects that are far away are blurry. And you don’t even question it, simply because that’s what you see. It’s part of your reality.

The only problem that my brain registered as an actual problem is that often I couldn’t see bus numbers at a distance. Here, where I live, along with normal busses we have these stupid little busses called ‘route taxi’ that you have to stop by raising your hand. But you need to see the bus number while the bus is sufficiently far away, so that you can stop it early enough to give the driver time to safely slow down. 

If you raise your hand too late you risk missing your bus. If you really don’t want to miss your buss, you stop the bus even if you are not sure that it’s your bus. But then you look kind of stupid if you stopped the wrong bus and refused to board it. Both of these scenarios happened to me often enough to realise that I had a problem.

Because at that time the idea of wearing glasses was still foreign to me, the solution, that I came up with, as funny as it may sound, was to buy a monocle. 

The idea was that I would carry it in my pocket. And I would use it only when I’m at a bus station and there is an approaching bus. I would take out my monocle, look at the bus number through it and then immediately put the monocle back into my pocket. 

Basically, I thought that my vision was OK, and I just needed to fix this little blurry-bus-number problem. It’s funny to think about it now. By the way, I didn’t end up buying a monocle because I wasn’t able to find one at the time. And then I started wearing glasses. 

Here is how it happened. Once, when I was visiting my parents, my mother gave me some cheap glasses to try on that I don’t even know where she got from. She’s a bit of a hoarder so she has some random stuff lying around the house.

When I put them on, it turned out that by happy chance they had exactly the right optical parameters for me. I found out that I could watch the TV without squinting. Then I started wearing them outside and discovered that things don’t have to be blurry no matter how far away they are.

Basically, that’s how I started wearing glasses. Later I purchased new glasses to replace the cheap ones. 

Now, glasses come with a list of disadvantages:

  • They make me look older
  • They are just another thing in my life that I have to deal with
  • They often fog up when I wear a face mask.

But the benefit of seeing clearly far outweighs all these disadvantages. And so I put my glasses on every time I go out. 

Let’s connect the dots. What does this story have to do with timelines of history? Well, obviously, the glasses is a metaphor for the Old Era. The Old Era ‘glasses’ allow you to see history better.

What does putting on the glasses mean? It means you master the Old Era. You internalise it. You become super comfortable with using it. Just looking at the images of the timeline on this page, and thinking that you understand the concept, is not enough. It would be like looking at some glasses and saying “I understand how glasses work” as opposed to actually putting them on and seeing the world through them.

And just like I fooled myself into believing that my eyesight was OK for years, pretty much everybody fools themselves into believing that there is nothing wrong with numbering years of history backwards. In the meantime there are certain inconveniences that everybody notices. Many people would admit that this countdown thing is a bit unintuitive. Often they point out the fact that, since there was no year zero in the Christian timeline, the calculations of timespans between BCE and CE dates can be tricky. These little issues remind me of how I thought that the only problem with my eyesight was that I had difficulty making out bus numbers at a distance. 

In reality the little issues with the Christian timeline are not that important and are just symptoms of a bigger problem. The bigger problem with counting years of history backwards is that it distorts your perception of history. I think, it is the worst thing we could have done to our history. 

Is it really that easy?

You may be wondering, if it is really as easy to master the Old Era as I say it is. Wouldn’t mastering the Old Era dates mean relearning the entire history? Yes, it really is that easy. And no, you don’t have to relearn the entire history.

If we could visualise our knowledge of history while also visually dividing that knowledge into the knowledge of dates and the knowledge of everything else, we would get something that looks like this image:

Dates don’t take that much space in your mind. And when you think about history you don’t use them that often. Try to remember any historical movie. Did they bombard you with dates every minute of that movie? No. They just told you the story, probably not using dates at all. Take any book on history. Unless it’s some kind of encyclopaedia, even books on history don’t use that many dates. Herodotus, for example, doesn’t use dates at all. 

And this is what my knowledge of history looks like:

The point is, dates of historical events are just a tiny part of your overall knowledge of history. And so, if you want to learn the OE dates, you don’t need to re-read books or re-watch movies. You just install my Chrome extension, and then skim through a bunch of Wikipedia articles to get the dates for the parts of history you are currently interested in.

At this point you may have some questions

Usually people ask questions like:

“What significant historical event happened in 10,000 BCE?”

“Why do you leave history divided into two eras? Why not just use Holocene Calendar and translate all the dates, not only BCE dates?

“How do you number years before 10,000 BCE” 

And so on.

I plan to answer all such questions in different articles on this websites. For now the answer to all these questions is this: just download the extension already and start using the Old Era. You will see that many of your questions will disappear over time. 

These questions (if you have any of them) are indicative of the fact that you still don’t quite understand what is being proposed here. I propose a tool that helps you put ancient history into perspective. It consists of the concept of the Old Era and accompanying it technical solution that provides you with a ton of literature that contains OE dates. You don’t need a calendar reform to start using the Old Era. You don’t need anyone else to use it. You can be the only person in the world who uses the Old Era and still benefit from it.

And by the way, how the Old Era looks, where it starts and why it ends after 10,000 years instead of just continuing indefinitely into the future, is not based on my personal tastes. All of this is based on the limitations that objective reality imposes upon us. But that’s a topic for another article. 

When presented with the Old Era project, people on the internet often distract themselves with all the wrong questions. They see problems and issues where there are none. Don’t ask questions. Just download the extension and start using it. You’ll understand everything in just a few days.

Links

Providing alternatives to dates BC/BCE in electronic texts using pattern recognition and machine readable markup – this is a white paper that describes how the project works technically.

For this project’s updates follow this Twitter account

A visual timeline of history can be found here. Follow this Instagram account for that project’s updates. 

I open sourced my Chrome extension. You can find the source code here. By the way, if you don’t like my timeline and want to use another one, the easiest way to do so, is to fork my repository and tweak date-conversion formulas. 

Besides chrome extension I’m going to create a gadget on Wikipedia with the same functionality. You will be able to install it in the settings of your Wikipedia account. And it will work anywhere: in any browser, and also on mobile devices.

If you want to talk to me about my project, you can write me an email.

Also, I’m going to start a WikiProject on Wikipedia dedicated to making Wikipedia more friendly to programs like my extension. So, I’m looking for volunteers. The work will consist mostly in adding missing BCs to Wikipedia articles. There will be a software tool that will facilitate this job. I’m working on it right now. 

Of course, you can add missing BCs on your own, whenever you see some dates that are not being translated by the extension. But I want to make things a bit more official by creating an actual WikiProject and for that I’ll need at least 5 people. They will sign their names on the project page and preferably they should be somewhat active, so that the WikiProject doesn’t get archived for inactivity. 

So, if you want to help, write me an email.