Measuring and keeping time

At the root of all cultures is a need to organise the immediate and more distant future in order to survive. One of the most fundamental ways of doing this is through the observation of natural phenomena such as the seasons and the ensuing animal migration and the movement of the sun, moon and stars. 

The seasons

Swimming reindeer

For prehistoric people, autumnal reindeer migration was an important time in their calendar. Not only were the reindeer at their fattest and with their thickest coats, but they also had to cross rivers, which made them easier to hunt.

This small mammoth tusk carving was made almost 13,500 years ago, during the Ice Age, and shows two swimming reindeer. The smaller female at the front is wearing the distinctive autumn coat, shown through delicate carved strokes. Such objects indicate the awareness of the cycles of time that were vital for this community’s survival. 

This awareness of the seasons can be found in all cultures throughout history. Many tribes of the North American Plains kept a recWinter countord of their history through ‘winter counts’. These were a series of pictures, each representing the most important event of a given year. This cloth records 119 years between 1785 and 1901. 

Establishing our place in time

Once a society has met its immediate needs of food, shelter and clothing, it usually attempts to place itself within a sequence of time based on a historical or mythical date.  There could be several reasons for this, such as establishing a dynastic lineage or justifying one’s position through a link to the past.

For example, the AD date around which much of the modern world is structured is actually not based upon a specific historical date: the date of the birth of Christ cannot be pinpointed precisely. All time structures, such as calendars, are simply an agreement between those who live by it.  

For centuries, Christian societies followed the calendar set by the Church. Frequently, saints’ days became the markers for certain events and these were widely referred to by the whole of society. People in Britain, for example, paid their taxes on ‘Lady’s Day’ each year (25 March). 


Genealogies are also a way of creating a recognisable structure, both for the past and the future. For the Maori in New Zealand (Aoteroa), links to one’s ancestors are the means of integrating the past with the present and the future. The whakapapa, or genealogical staff, prove the status of the owner by recording eighteen of their ancestors through carved notches. 

Keeping time

Clocks are one of many ways of indicating time, but for many cultures other objects are more relevant for measuring it accordingIslamic quadrant to their needs.

These needs might be, for example, prayer times, either Islamic or monastic.

Islamic prayers are performed at certain moments during dawn and dusk, and when the shadows reach a certain length.  Astrolabe quadrants were one of many types of instrument used to observe these phenomena in the past, through measuring the height of the sun. Nowadays this is calculated by computer. 

Practically every aspect of modern life is based around time, even if we as individuals are unaware of this.

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