A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Perceptions of time through the ages
Time envelops and defines our world. We try to save time; we hate to waste time; we say we'll make time for some favorite activity. We say that time flies when we're having fun and slows to a crawl when we're not. Many of us are paid by the hour; Internet and phone companies bill by the minute; advertising time is sold by the second. Yet just a few centuries ago, our ancestors would have worried little about minutes and not at all about seconds. The way we conceive of time has varied greatly across the millennia and from one ancient culture to another--from those who tracked the sun and stars with stunning accuracy to those who barely acknowledged the existence of past and future. In some cases, time's fingerprints can be seen in the archaeological record--in clocks and calendars, observatories, and monuments. But it is also reflected in more subtle ways--in the religions we practice, the rituals we follow, and even the words we speak. Perceptions of time have shaped the lives and minds of everyone who has lived on this planet, in every culture and in every age.
By the time the first civilizations emerged from the shadows of prehistory some five thousand years ago, our species had developed a fascination with time's most visible natural cycles. All of the great ancient civilizations boasted intricate calendars inspired by the regularity of the heavens--the daily motion of the sun, the monthly waxing and waning of the moon, the annual parade of the seasons.
Dan Falk is a science journalist based in Toronto. His first book, Universe on a T-Shirt: The Quest for the Theory of Everything, was published this winter by Arcade Publishing.