A History of Time and Ancient Calendars

by Niclas Marie

An Early egyptian calendar in the Karnak temple located near Luxor, about 500 km south of Cairo.

The ancient Egyptians used a calendar similar to our current timekeeping system. It included one year equal to 365 days in length. Each year included 12 months. The Egyptians divided each month into 30 days; however, at the end of every year there existed five additional days. Egyptologists believe the early Egyptians created the calendar more than 5,000 years ago and the calendar was eventually reformed; organizations and festival planners in Egypt continue to use it still today.

The Sumerian Calendar

Sumerian Star Chart 3300 BC
Sumerian Star Chart 3300 BC.

The citizens of Sumer-an ancient civilization that existed in modern-day Iraq-also used a calendar that included 12 months. Sumerian citizens tracked 354 days each year. Occasionally, they added an additional month to the calendar to account for the remaining 11.25 days in the year. This is an example of an early leap year. Unlike other calendars, the Sumerian calendar did not have a uniform or consistent naming system for the included months.

The Mayan Calendar

The Mayan Calendar
The Mayan Calendar

No calendar in history has sparked more controversy than the Mayan calendar and it is estimated that the system dates back to at least the fifth century BCE. Archaeologists do not believe the calendars components originated in the Mayan civilization, although historians credit the Mayans with bringing the calendar to its level of sophistication. The Mayan calendar used cycles to keep track of time. One of the most studied is called the Long Count. Mayans used this specific count to record significant dates over an extended period. One of the Mayan calendar's many cycles-one that lasted 5125 years-was the center of debate in 2012. Thousands of people believed that once the cycle ended the world would, too.

The Athenian Calendar

Statues of Zeus & Hera
The Sacred Marriage Day of Zeus & Hera

The Athenian calendar, also known as the Attic calendar, was used primarily in Athens. Similar to much of ancient Greek history, calendars during the time varied based on their locations and the citizens who used them. The Athenians used three calendars: democratic, agricultural, and festival. The importance of each calendar was different for each individual. People lived their days using a calendar that most influenced their lives.

Similar to other ancient calendars, the festival calendar included 12 months. Each month was tied to the cycles of the moon. Citizens used the democratic calendar to manage citizenship and the administration of the city. The Athenians used the agricultural calendar to manage the seasons. This calendar provided significant aid during the farming season.

The Julian Calendar

Statues of julian & Hera
Swedish calendar page for February 1712

The Julian calendar was used widely around the world until the Gregorian calendar was adopted. Its original purpose was to revise a calendar implemented by Julius Caesar. Much like the other ancient calendars, this calendar used 12 months to divide 365 days per year. The reformation process was complicated. For starters, the original Roman calendar did not include 365 days. Consequently, the Julian calendar had to compensate for this and choose a new start for each calendar year. Furthermore, the creators of the calendar made a mathematical error, which resulted in a three-year leap day as opposed to four years. Over the years, the Julian calendar became increasingly inaccurate. Consequently, the Gregorian calendar was adopted.

About the author

is the founder and CEO of TimeCenter Online Scheduling and lives in Helsingborg, Sweden. He loves to code beautiful and simple web apps, and occasionally enjoys a game of blitz chess.

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