How we can fix ancient history

My name is Karen Grigoryan (he/him; and my first name sounds like “current” without a “t”). I’m a programmer from Russia. Also, I’m a student of history. What I mean by that is that I like to read about history in my spare time. I mostly read articles on Wikipedia. Sometimes books. 

There is one thing I hate about history though. And it is the Christian timeline. 

What I specifically don’t like about it, is the countdown part where, for more than 3 millennia of history, years are numbered in descending order.  It’s not that I don’t understand how these numbers work. For me, it’s about how this arrangement makes me perceive ancient history. I don’t want to always focus on how long ago this or that event happened. Instead, I want to feel how ancient history accumulates with time. Just like history does in the Common Era. 

So I came up with a solution. You may think that to fix the timeline a calendar reform is needed. But this is not the case. As you will see, this is more a technical problem than it is a political one. Now I will show you the timeline that I personally use. But keep in mind that what I’m presenting here is primarily a technical solution, not necessarily the specific timeline. 

There are some very good reasons for why my timeline looks the way it looks, and we will discuss them. But in the end of the day, if you don’t like the timeline that I use, my technical solution will eventually enable you to use your own timeline. The point is, we don’t have to argue about the timeline. Just read on even if you don’t quite like the timeline that I use.

My timeline is actually not a full-blown timeline but rather it is 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 and 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 that you are talking about years in the Old Era. 

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 the 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. It’s not more weird than, for example, January 31 being followed by February 1. 

You don’t get confused even though 1 is smaller than 31, because you know that these two days belong to two different months.

Is this a calendar reform proposal?

Absolutely not. Although I do have a proposal (actually I have two proposals) of which I’ll talk below, it has nothing to do with officially replacing Christian calendar with a new year numbering system.  

There have been a number of calendar reform proposals in the 20th century. You can read about them in this Wikipedia article. Actually, let’s talk about them a bit, so we can see how my proposal is different from anything that has ever been proposed before.  

Other proposed calendars

Holocene Calendar was proposed by Cesare Emiliani in 1993. He placed the beginning of the calendar epoch between years 10,001 and 10,000 BCE. That would change not only the dates before Christ but also the dates in the Common Era. For example, year 2021 would become 12021. 

Calendrier nouveau de chronologie ancienne (CNCA) was proposed by Gabriel Deville, in 1924. It was not different from the one later proposed by Cesare Emiliani.

There was yet another proposal, by E. R. Hope in 1963. Among other things he proposed pretty much exactly what I’m talking about here: a separate era of 10,000 years before Christ. He called it Anterior Epoch.

The problem with all those proposals is that they all called for some sort of official, global reform of the calendar, and the probability of such a reform ever taking place is very low. 

What sets my proposal apart from all the previous proposals is that mine is actionable. It means you can actually do something useful with the Old Era right now, as opposed to just passively wishing for some global calendar reform that will probably never take place. 

Here is my proposal

I propose that you learn to use the Old Era, just like I use it. How do I use it? Let’s say, everything I know about the part of ancient history that happened before Common Era, I know in that system. I have a Chrome extension that translates BCE dates in Wikipedia articles for me. This is a screenshot that shows what it looks like. 

Download the extension and use it. 

Also, there is a visual timeline project that I’ve developed that you can use as well. There you can choose to use the Old Era timeline. 

Basically, what I want you to do is 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. 

I want you to 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?

For me, 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. People had lived in cities for thousands of years before Alexander was born. 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. 

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 some scientific theory that can be proven or disproven.

I’m talking about perception of history. It’s as if I was talking about tastes. Here is an analogy. Imagine that I have a delicious apple. And I want you to taste it, because I want you to appreciate how good my apple is. Now imagine that you refuse to taste my apple.

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 have the decency to taste it. 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 diagrams on this page and thinking about the concept of the Old Era doesn’t count as mastering it. You have to fully internalise the new system and be super 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 if 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 (and I live in Russia), 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 create an FAQ page at some point where I will answer all such questions. 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 (over time) will provide 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. You want to be able to nicely translate millennia BC, so the starting point has to be a whole number of millennia away from the starting point of the Christian timeline. That’s non-negotiable. Another limitation is the shier amount of CE/AD dates you can find around the internet. You’d need thousands of years to translate them all, so why even bother? With dates BC we are talking about just years of work for one person! It’s still years and we’ll need to figure out how to make it happen (probably through crowdfunding), but at least it seems doable. 

These limitations leave us with a very small number of possible options, of which the least weird one is the Old Era that contains 10,000 years and is separate from the Common Era.  

And since I’m not talking about a calendar reform I don’t really need to answer irrelevant questions like: “How do you number years before 10,000 BCE”. It’s like asking: “How do you use February to denote dates in January? Can we say that January 31st is February -1st?” Some questions simply don’t deserve an answer.

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.

My second proposal

My first proposal was addressed to you personally. My second proposal is addressed to all the people who have already mastered the Old Era. 

Did you know that it is technically possible to make BCE dates on the Web translatable with simple HTML markup? Let’s take, for example, Wikipedia. Yes, you can translate dates on Wikipedia right now using my Chrome extension. But what if I told you that this functionality can be implemented on Wikipedia itself.  Or on any other site. Or in e-book readers, so that you could translate dates in e-books.  

And once the BCE dates are translatable you can choose how (or even if) you want to translate them. That’s why, in my mind, the question of the starting point of the timeline is not important at all. Instead of arguing about it we can just make the BCE dates translatable and then anybody can view history using the timeline they like best. And the vast majority of people will not even notice anything. They’ll continue using BCE dates. 

Basically, I propose that we mark-up all the BCE dates on the Web. That will give us an option to use other year numbering systems including the Old Era. I know exactly how to do it technically. It’s possible not only technically but also in terms of the resources needed for such a project. You may think that marking up BCE dates on the entire Web is an insurmountable amount of work. Yes, it will take a few years. But it won’t take a lifetime. The reason is: there is not that much literature that contains dates BCE.

For example, out of 6,4 million articles in English Wikipedia only about 60,000 contain dates BCE. Less than 1%! That’s if we count by articles. If we take into account the fact that the vast majority of those 60,000 articles contain only a few BCE dates, while pretty much all of the articles on Wikipedia contain a noticeable amount of CE dates (simply because books in bibliography section in each article have publish dates), the ratio between the amounts of BCE and CE dates becomes much smaller than 1%. The amount of BCE dates starts to look like a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of CE dates.

I talk about my second proposal in more detail in this article.

What to do next?

In case you haven’t quite figured it out yet, I want you to go ahead and download this Chrome extension. Then open some articles on Wikipedia and read them. Not all articles are translated yet. As of November 2021, only about 1300 are translated out of 60,000 articles that contain BC dates. Here is a list of all the translated articles. Pick any of those. 

Your goal is to learn to be comfortable with OE dates. Actually, before reading Wikipedia articles, I’d recommend you to familiarise yourself with the new timeline by focusing on millennia and centuries. Start with millennia. Just memorise some facts about them. For example, you can note that the great pyramids of Egypt were built in the 8th millennium, Hammurabi lived in the 9th millennium, Roman Republic existed in the 10th millennium. Look at the images of timelines on this page and take some events from those images. Add other events you find important. 

Do the same with centuries. You don’t have to do all the centuries, just a few of them. For example, you can memorise the fact that Alexander the Great lived in the 97th century and that Julius Caesar lived in the 100th century. 

Importantly, you shouldn’t try to convert the OE dates back to BC dates. Just like you don’t speak a foreign language while constantly translating words from that language back to your native language in your mind, you don’t use the Old Era always translating dates back to the Christian timeline. Connect the OE dates to the events of history, not to corresponding BC dates.

Reviews

I’ve opened the comment section below. The purpose of this section is to collect reviews. Imagine that the Old Era is a product that you’ve purchased on the internet. After using it for some time you can leave a review of that product on its website. The idea is to show that I’m not the only one who uses the Old Era. If you like this project, leaving a good review here is a great way to support it. Just make sure you’ve mastered the Old Era first. 

Only favourable reviews are accepted. If you want to tell me how wrong I am or you just don’t understand something and have questions, write me an email. I don’t promise to answer you, but I may address your questions or arguments in one of my future articles. 

And finally, if you like the Old Era project, and you want to discuss how we can develop it together, I have created a subreddit where we can discuss this project. Again, we won’t be discussing whether I’m wrong or right. We only discuss ways to develop this project. 

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