Notes about Discussing Time
- BCE stands for Before the Common Era, referred to in some writings as BC, meaning Before Christ.
- CE stands for Common Era, referred to in some writings as AD, which stands for Anno Domini, the Latin translation of Year Lord, or Year of Our Lord. Lord, in this case, refers to Jesus. CE and AD both refer to time after the year zero, the years after Jesus was born (though historians do not know exactly when he was born).
- The letters “ca,” “ca.” or just “c” before a date stand for the Latin word circa, which means around, near, or in this case, approximately. For example: the entry about Captain John Smith on Wikipedia lists the dates of his life as, “c. January 1580 – 21 June 1631.” Historical data does not reveal the precise day of Smith’s birth – only the month and year he was born. More precise data exists to prove that John Smith died on 21 January 1631.
- “fl” is an abbreviation of the Latin word florit, which means flourished. For example: Marinus of Tyre (fl c 110 CE). All historians know about Marinus is that he was writing documents in 110 CE. They do not known when Marinus was born or died.
- CE and AD both refer to time after the year zero, the years after Jesus was born (though historians do not know exactly when he was born).
- The use of first century, second century, etc. can be confusing. The second century covers the years numbered 100 to 199, not 200 to 299, as some people think. For example, sixteenth century refers to the years with 15 at the beginning: 1500 to 1599.
- When we label time before the year zero, we count backwards. For example, seventh century BCE covers the years 699 to 600 BCE, and the third century BCE covers the years 200 to 299 BCE.
- A millennium is a thousand years. Third millennium BCE covers the years 2999 to 2000 BCE.
- We will use the term ancient to mean cultures that existed before the destruction of Ancient Rome. That occurred about 400 years after Jesus was born [approximately 410 CE]. Put another way, Ancient Rome was the last of the ancient civilizations. The Middle Ages were the years between the time when the ancient civilizations flourished and the Renaissance, which started about 1300 CE. All of these time markers are vague. There is no precise beginning of the Renaissance. There is no precise fall of the Roman Empire. We only use these years to mark transitions in an attempt to make history easier to understand and remember.
- Today we use the Gregorian Calendar named after Pope Gregory XIII. It is sometimes referred to as the Western or Christian Calendar. Until 1582 CE, most Europeans used the Julian Calendar, named after Julius Caesar, who died in 44 BCE. For complicated reasons having to do with calculating the date of Easter – and naming the calendar after a Christian instead of a pagan – the Catholic church reformed the calendar in 1582. Protestant countries did not change the calendar until later. England did not make the change until between 1750 and 1752. The difference between the two calendars is ten days. The start of a new year was shifted to January 1 instead of March 1. Today, when we read the date “April 1, 1500” on an old document, we need to translate it to “April 11, 1501.” If we see the date “March 21, 1560,” we need to translate that to “April 2, 1561.” Don’t worry about this too much. We will do the translation for you when it is important.
Radiocarbon Testing for Dates
Radiocarbon dating cannot date how old a stone is. In other words, the test cannot tell us the age of the stones used to build the pyramids in Egypt. To figure out when the pyramids were built, scientists test carbon that people left behind at the time they built the structures. For example, scientists can test the carbon from kitchen fires, human and animal remains, or other organic substances.
The purity of the specimens being tested is often difficult to determine. The person doing the testing cannot always tell if the specimens were left behind when the site was first built. If a tomb was robbed or uncovered by grave-diggers between the time it was built and the time it was tested, organic material left by the robbers might foul the data. If you visit Stonehenge today and you leave behind the remnants of the cheese and tomato sandwich you were eating while you were visiting, then scientists 5000 years from now might date Stonehenge by the date of the tomato is your sandwich.
The point is, most data, even when obtained through carbon testing, is approximate.
Now, let’s get this show on the road. The Knowledge of the Ancient World