The history of calendars means that people creating and using methods for keeping track of days and larger divisions of time covers a practice with ancient roots.

Archeologists have reconstructed methods of timekeeping that go back to prehistoric times at least as old as the Neolithic.

The natural units for timekeeping used by most historical societies are the day, the solar year and the lunation. Calendars are explicit schemes used for timekeeping.

The first historically attested and formulized calendars date to the Bronze Age, dependent on the development of writing in the Ancient Near East. The Sumerian calendar was the earliest, followed by the Egyptian, Assyrian and Elamite calendars.

A larger number of calendar systems of the ancient Near East appear in the Iron Age archaeological record, based on the Assyrian and Babylonian calendars.

This includes the calendar of the Persian Empire, which in turn gave rise to the Zoroastrian calendar as well as the Hebrew calendar.

Calendars in antiquity were usually lunisolar, depending on the introduction of intercalary months to align the solar and the lunar years.

This was mostly based on observation, but there may have been early attempts to model the pattern of intercalation algorithmically, as evidenced in the fragmentary 2nd-century Coligny calendar. Nevertheless, the Roman calendar contained very ancient remnants of a pre-Etruscan 10-month solar year.

The Roman calendar was reformed by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE. The Julian calendar was no longer dependent on the observation of the new moon but simply followed an algorithm of introducing a leap day every four years. This created a dissociation of the calendar month from the lunation.

In the 11th century in Persia, a calendar reform led by Khayyam was announced in 1079, when the length of the year was measured as 365.24219858156 days.

Given that the length of the year is changing in the sixth decimal place over a person’s lifetime, this is outstandingly accurate. For comparison, the length of the year at the end of the 19th century was 365.242196 days, while today it is 365.242190 days.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced as a refinement of the Julian calendar in 1582 and is today in worldwide use as the de facto calendar for secular purposes.

Prehistory

A number of prehistoric structures have been proposed as having had the purpose of timekeeping (typically keeping track of the course of the solar year). This includes many megalithic structures, and reconstructed arrangements going back far into the Neolithic period.

In Victoria, Australia, a Wurdi Youang stone arrangement could date back more than 11,000 years, with some estimates dating it to be more than 20,000.

This estimate is based on the inaccuracy of the calendar, which is consistent with how the Earth’s orbit is thought to have changed during that time. The site is found near the world’s oldest known site of permanent aquaculture.

A ceramic artifact from Bulgaria, known as the Slatino furnace model, has been pronounced by local archeologists and media to be the oldest known calendar representation, a claim not endorsed in mainstream views.

A mesolithic arrangement of twelve pits and an arc found in Warren Field, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, dated to roughly 10,000 years ago, has been described as a lunar calendar and was dubbed the “world’s oldest known calendar” in 2013.

The Oldest European calendar is found near to Vukovar in modern-day Croatia. It is a ceramic vessel bearing inscribed ideograms of celestial objects.

Ancient Near East

The ancient Sumerian calendar divided a year into 12 lunar months of 29 or 30 days. Each month began with the sighting of a new moon.

Sumerian months had no uniform name throughout Sumer because of religious diversity. This resulted in scribes and scholars referring to them as “the first month“, “the fifth month” etc.

To keep the lunar year of 354 days in step with the solar year of 365.242 days an extra month was added periodically, much like a Gregorian leap year.

There were no weeks in the Sumerian calendar. Holy days and time off from work were usually celebrated on the first, seventh and fifteenth of each month. In addition to these holy days, there were also feast days which varied from city to city.

Babylonia and Persia

Although the earliest evidence of Iranian calendrical traditions is from the second millennium BCE, predating the appearance of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, the first fully preserved calendar is that of the Achaemenids.

Throughout recorded history, Persians have been keen on the idea and importance of having a calendar. They were among the first cultures to use a solar calendar and have long favored a solar over lunar and lunisolar approaches.

The sun has always been a symbol in Iranian culture and is closely related to the folklore regarding Cyrus the Great.

Old Persian calendar

Old Persian inscriptions and tablets indicate that early Iranians used a 360-day calendar based on the solar observation directly and modified for their beliefs.

Days were not named. The months had two or three divisions depending on the phase of the moon. Twelve months of 30 days were named for festivals or activities of the pastoral year. A 13th month was added every six years to keep the calendar synchronized with the seasons.

Zoroastrian calendar

The first calendars based on Zoroastrian cosmology appeared in the later Achaemenid period (650 to 330 BCE). They evolved over the centuries, but month names changed little until now.

The unified Achaemenid Empire required a distinctive Iranian calendar, and one was devised in Egyptian tradition, with 12 months of 30 days, each dedicated to a yazata (Eyzad), and four divisions resembling the Semitic week.

Four days per month were dedicated to Ahura Mazda and seven were named after the six Amesha Spentas. Thirteen days were named after Fire, Water, Sun, Moon, Tiri and Geush Urvan (the soul of all animals), Mithra, Sraosha (Soroush, yazata of prayer), Rashnu (the Judge), Fravashi, Bahram (yazata of victory), Raman (Ramesh meaning peace), and Vata, the divinity of the wind.

Three were dedicated to the female divinities, Daena (yazata of religion and personified conscious), Ashi (yazata of fortune) and Arshtat (justice).

The remaining four were dedicated to Asman (lord of sky or Heaven), Zam (earth), Manthra Spenta (the Bounteous Sacred Word) and Anaghra Raocha (the ‘Endless Light’ of paradise).

Classical Greece

The Greeks, as early as the time of Homer, appear to have been familiar with the division of the year into the twelve lunar months but no intercalary month Embolimos or day is then mentioned.

Independent of the division of a month into days, it was divided into periods according to the increase and decrease of the moon. Thus, the first day or new moon was called Noumenia.

The month in which the year began, as well as the names of the months, differed among the states, and in some parts, even no names existed for months, as they were distinguished only numerically, like the first, second, third, fourth month, etc.

The ancient Athenian calendar was a lunisolar calendar with 354-day years, consisting of twelve months of the alternating length of 29 or 30 days.

To keep the calendar in line with the solar year of 365.242189 days, an extra, intercalary month was added in the years: 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, 19 of the 19-years Metonic cycle.

See About the structure of the Attic Calendar The Athenian months were called Hekatombion, Metageitnion, Boedromion, Pyanepsion, Maimakterion, Poseidon, Gamelion, Anthesterion, Elaphebolion, Munychion, Thargelion, and Skirophorion.

The intercalary month usually came after Poseidon and was called second Poseidon. See also: Athenian Calendar. A reconstruction of the Attic Calendar is given by Academy of Episteme.

In addition to their regular, “festival” calendar, the Athenians maintained a second, political calendar. This “conciliar” calendar divided the year into “prytanies“, one for each of the “phylai“, the subdivisions of Athenian citizens.

The number of phylai, and hence the number of prytanies, varied over time. Until 307 BC, there were 10 phylai. After that the number varies between 11 and 13 (usually 12). Even more confusing, while the conciliar and festival years were about the same length in the 4th century BC, such was not regularly the case earlier or later.

Documents dated by prytany are frequently very difficult to assign to a particular equivalent in the Julian calendar.

The table of Greek Olympiads, following the four-year cycles between the Olympic Games from 1 July 776 BC, continued until the end of the 4th century AD.

The Babylonian Era of Nabonassar, beginning on 26 February 747 BC, was used by the Greeks of Alexandria. It was later known in the Middle Ages from the works of Ptolemy.

Hellenistic period

The Greek calendars were greatly diversified by the Hellenistic period, with separate traditions in every Greek state.

Of primary importance for the reconstruction of the regional Greek calendars is the calendar of Delphi, because of the numerous documents found there recording the manumission of slaves, many of which are dated both in the Delphian and in a regional calendar.

The Macedonian Era of the Seleucids, which began with the conquest of Babylon by Seleucus Nicator in 312 BC. It became widely used in the Levant. The Jews knew it as the “era of contracts“, and used it in Europe until the 15th century.

The Roman Republican calendar numbered years based on the sitting consuls. References to the year of consulship were used in both conversation and official records.

Romans from the same family often had the same praenomen, which sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish them, and there were two consuls at any one time, each of whom might sometimes hold the appointment more than once, meaning that it was (and is) necessary to be well educated in history to understand the references.

The Romans had an eight-day week, with the market-day falling every eight days. It was called a nundinum or ‘nine-day’ in inclusive counting.

Most of the regional Hindu calendars are inherited from a system standardized in classical Hindu astronomy as adopted via Indo-Greek transmission in the final centuries BCE and reformed by Gupta era astronomers such as Āryabhaṭa and Varāhamihira.

China

Before the Spring and Autumn period (before 770 BC), the Chinese Calendars were solar calendars. In the so-called five-phase calendar, the year consists of 10 months and a transition, each month being 36 days long, and the transitions 5 or 6 days.

During the Warring States period (~475-220 BC), the primitive lunisolar calendars were established under the Zhou Dynasty, known as the six ancient calendars.

The months of these calendars begin on the day with the new moon, with 12 or 13 months (lunations) in a year. The intercalary month is placed at the end of the year.

In Qin China, the Qin calendar was introduced. It follows the rules of Zhuanxu’s calendar, but the month’s order follows the Xia’s calendar.

Ancient India

Timekeeping was important to Vedic rituals, and Jyotisha was the Vedic era field of tracking and predicting the movements of astronomical bodies in order to keep time, in order to fix the day and time of these rituals.

This study was one of the six ancient Vedangas, or ancillary science connected with the Vedas – the scriptures of Hinduism.

Hindu calendar, sometimes referred to as Panchanga, is a collective term for the various lunisolar calendars traditionally used in Hinduism.

They adopt a similar underlying concept for timekeeping, but differ in their relative emphasis to moon cycle or the solar cycle, the names of months and when they consider the New Year to start.

The ancient Hindu calendar is similar in conceptual design to the Jewish calendar but different from the Gregorian calendar.

Unlike Gregorian calendar which adds additional days to lunar month to adjust for the mismatch between twelve lunar cycles (354 lunar days) and nearly 365 solar days, the Hindu calendar maintains the integrity of the lunar month, but insert an extra full month by complex rules, every few years, to ensure that the festivals and crop-related rituals fall in the appropriate season.

The Hindu calendars have been in use in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times and remain in use by the Hindus in India and Nepal particularly to set the Hindu festival dates.

Early Buddhist and Jain communities of India adopted the ancient Hindu calendar, later Vikrami calendar and then local Buddhist calendars.

Buddhist and Jain festivals continue to be scheduled according to a lunar system in the luni-solar calendar.

Roman Empire

The old Roman year had 304 days divided into 10 months, beginning with March. However, the ancient historian Livy gave credit to the second early Roman king Numa Pompilius for devising a calendar of 12 months.

The extra months Ianuarius and Februarius had been invented, supposedly by Numa Pompilius, as stop-gaps. Julius Caesar realized that the system had become inoperable, so he affected drastic changes in the year of his third consulship.

The New Year in 709 AUC began on 1 January and ran over 365 days until 31 December. Further adjustments were made under Augustus, who introduced the concept of the “leap year” in 757 AUC (AD 4).

The resultant Julian calendar remained in almost universal use in Europe until 1582, and in some countries until as late as the twentieth century.

Marcus Terentius Varro introduced the Ab urbe condita epoch, assuming a foundation of Rome in 753 BC. The system remained in use during the early Middle Ages until the widespread adoption of the Dionysian era in the Carolingian period.

In the Roman Empire, the AUC year could be used alongside the consular year, so that the consulship of Quintus Fufius Calenus and Publius Vatinius could be determined as 707 AUC (or 47 BC), the third consulship of Caius Julius Caesar, with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, as 708 AUC (or 46 BC), and the fourth consulship of Gaius Julius Caesar as 709 AUC (or 45 BC).

The seven-day week has a tradition reaching back to the ancient Near East, but the introduction of the “planetary week” which remains in modern use dates to the Roman Empire period.

Christian Europe

For the first six centuries since the birth of Jesus Christ, European countries used various local systems to count years, most usually regnal years, modeled on the Old Testament.

In some cases, Creation dating was also used. In the 6th century, the Christian monk Dionysius Exiguus devised the Anno Domini system, dating from the Incarnation of Jesus.

In the 8th century, the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede the Venerable used another Latin term, “ante uero incarnationis dominicae tempus” (“the time before the Lord’s true incarnation”, equivalent to the English “before Christ”), to identify years before the first year of this era.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, even Popes continued to date documents according to regnal years, and usage of AD only gradually became common in Europe from the 11th to the 14th centuries. In 1422, Portugal became the last Western European country to adopt the Anno Domini system.

In 1267, the medieval scientist Roger Bacon stated the times of full moons as a number of hours, minutes, seconds, thirds, and fourths (horae, minuta, secunda, tertia, and quarta) afternoon on specified calendar dates. Although a third for 1⁄60 of a second remains in some languages, for example, Arabic ثالثة, the modern second is further divided decimally.

Rival calendar eras to Anno Domini remained in use in Christian Europe. In Spain, the “Era of the Caesars” was dated from Octavian’s conquest of Iberia in 39 BC. It was adopted by the Visigoths and remained in use in Catalonia until 1180, Castille until 1382 and Portugal until 1415.

For chronological purposes, the flaw of the Anno Domini system was that dates have to be reckoned backward or forwards according to as they are BC or AD.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“in an ideally perfect system, all events would be reckoned in one sequence. The difficulty was to find a starting point whence to reckon, for the beginnings of history in which this should naturally be placed are those of which chronologically we know least.”

For both Christians and Jews, the prime historical date was the Year of Creation or Annus Mundi. The Eastern Orthodox Church fixed the date of Creation at 5509 BC. This remained the basis of the ecclesiastical calendar in the Greek and Russian Orthodox world until modern times.

The Coptic Church fixed on 5500 BC. Later, the Church of England, under Archbishop Ussher in 1650, would pick 4004 BC.

Bulgar calendar

The Bulgar calendar was a calendar system used by the Bulgars, a seminomadic people, originally from Central Asia, who from the 2nd century onwards dwelled in the Eurasian Steppes north of the Caucasus and around the banks of river Volga.

In 681 part of the Bulgars settled in the Balkan peninsula and established Bulgaria. The main source of information used for reconstruction of the Bulgar calendar is a short 15th-century transcript, which contains 10 pairs of calendar terms, the same dating system is found in a marginal note of a manuscript from the 10th c.

According to the reconstructed calendar, the Bulgars used a 12-year cyclic calendar similar to the one adopted by Turkic peoples from the Chinese calendar, with names and numbers that are deciphered as in Bulgar language.

Mesoamerica

Of all the ancient calendar systems, the Maya and other Mesoamerican systems are the most complex. The Mayan calendar had 2 years, the 260-day Sacred Round, or tzolkin, and the 365-day Vague Year, or haab.

The Sacred Round of 260 days is composed of two smaller cycles: the numbers 1 through 13, coupled with 20 different day names: Imix, Ik, Akbal, Kan, Chicchan, Cimi, Manik, Lamat, Muluc, Oc, Chuen, Eb, Ben, Ix, Men, Cib, Caban, Eiznab, Cauac, and Ahau.

The Sacred Round was used to determine important activities related to the gods and humans: name individuals, predict the future, decide on auspicious dates for battles, marriages, and so on.

The two cycles of 13 and 20 intermesh and are repeated without interruption: the cycle would begin with 1 Imix, then 2 Ik, then 3 Akbal and so on until the number 13 was reached, at which point the number cycle was restarted so 13 Ben would be followed by 1 Ix, 2 Men and so on. This time Imix would be numbered 8. The cycle ended after 260 days, with the last day being 13 Ahau.

The Vague Year of 365 days is similar to our modern calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days each, with an unlucky five-day period at the end.

The Vague Year had to do primarily with the seasons and agriculture, and was based on the solar cycle. The 18 Maya months are known, in order, as: Pop, Uo, Zip, Zotz, Tzec, Xuc, Yaxkin, Mol, Chen, Yax, Zac, Ceh, Mac, Kankin, Maun, Pax, Kayab and Cumku.

The unlucky five-day period was known as Uayeb, and was considered a time which could hold danger, death and bad luck.

The Vague Year began with the month of Pop. The Maya 20-day month always begins with the seating of the month, followed by days numbered 1 to 19, then the seating of the following month, and so on. This ties in with the Maya notion that each month influences the next.

The Maya new year would start with 1 Pop, followed by 2 Pop, all the way through to 19 Pop, followed by the seating of the month of Uo, written as 0 Uo, then 1 Uo, 2 Uo and so on.

These two cycles coincided every 52 years. The 52-year period of time was called a “bundle” and was similar to a modern-day century.

References:

*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.