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The Myths of Reality

making time

Bob Trubshaw

'Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.'
'Very deep,' said Arthur, 'you should send that in to Reader's Digest. They've got a page for people like you.'
Douglas Adams The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

'We do not tell time, time tells us'
Chumbawomba Anarchy album 1994

'What is time' If no one asks me about it, I know; if I want to explain it to the one who asks, I don't know.'
St Augustine, Confessions Book XI

'There is no history without dates.'
Levi Strauss 1966 cited in Bradley 1991: 209

According to one interpretation of the Bible, the world has just celebrated its 6000th birthday. Back in the seventeenth century the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher (1581–1656), deduced from Biblical evidence that the world was created in 4004 BC [1]. To the significant number of fundamentalist followers of Biblical 'Creation Science', mostly in the USA, this is all that needs to be said about the timescale of the world and human society.

Those of us who do not believe in 'Creation Science' live within a more complex but just as fanciful concept of time. This article explores the way modern Western society has created concepts of time as chimeral as those of 'Creation Science'.

The creation of chronologies – especially those based on absolute dates – is of quite recent origin. The concept of time used in chronological studies needs to be differentiated between, on the one hand, the way time is marked by human experience and, on the other hand, how abstract time is measured. Abstract time consists of equal segments, endlessly repeated. Experienced time creates 'recurrent moments', which together comprise the relationship to the past which makes up the 'traditions' of a society.

There has been much philosophising about time. Aristotle thought of time as an attribute of the external world. Kant saw time (and space) not as an external medium within which people moved, but as an ordering device of the human mind. Subsequently Heidegger contended that time is not simply a mental ordering device, but an aspect of bodily involvement with the world. However, more recent thinkers such as Ricouer and Bourdieu have suggested that, however 'objective' time may at first appear, human perception and experience of time is story-like. From such narratives the identities of individuals and groups emerge. [2]

The making of modern time

Europeans generally think of time as natural, real, moving, precise and accurate. Time is the basic 'unit' of clocks and calendars. Yet here lies a problem. Calendars have generally been based on celestial events – but the units used to express the passage of time lead to variable and seemingly arbitrary results. European calendars attempt to correlate days and months with the seasonal year, as well as imposing a seven day week. But, as we all know, it is not possible to relate lunar-based months with the solar cycle. As a result, calendars have needed almost continual readjustment – even the four-year cycle of 'leap years' needs the odd 'exception' to keep things precise.

The problems also arise at the 'smaller scale' of timekeeping relating to hours and minutes. Before mechanical clocks were invented, there was no reliable way of measuring short durations. The flowing of water, sand or mercury provided a measure of longer durations, but none could be kept moving at a suitably continuous and even pace to measure short durations. It was the Church, in an endeavour to regulate prayer, which patronized the development of the mechanical clock, although the invention was soon taken up by the royal courts and then the bourgeoisie. But not until the wider processes of change in the nineteenth century did modern concepts of chronology come to the fore.

With the Industrial Age 'standard time' became part of everyday life. The advent of factories required adherence to formalised working hours. Above all, the spread of the railway network required a standard national time – previously there were numerous 'local times', which could differ by many minutes. To ensure railway passengers did not miss connections, the railways brought about a standardisation of time throughout Britain. By the mid-nineteenth century a formalised 'abstract time' had become intrinsic to most people's lives. Given the obsession with time now shown by denizens of Western culture, we should not forget that such habits are really still rather a novelty. (See Thompson 1993: Ch.6 for an excellent discussion of the invention of modern notions of time in late eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain.)

The broadest concepts of time were also being recreated in the nineteenth century. Newton had studied time as an attribute of physics. Linneaus's families of plants and animals implied a time-dimension (although the evolutionary implications were only appreciated after Darwin). But Archbishop Usher 's chronology only began to be questioned with the work of pioneer geologists such as Sir Charles Leyell (1797–1875). His major work, The Principle of Geology appeared in 1830. Based on a remarkably astute pioneering scrutiny of the evidence from fossils and sequences of rock strata, Leyell showed that the rocks were a result of a sequence of events over a much longer timescale than anyone had previously considered. It is said that Leyell's work was a key influence on Charles Darwin, who set off on his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands in 1831. As an aside, it is worth noting that Darwin 's theory of evolution in the natural world was only mimicing the very strong bias towards 'progressive evolution' in contemporary politics and society.

By the time Darwin's On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859, antiquarianism was well-established. These mid-nineteenth century antiquarians were contempraneous not only with the heated debates about Darwinism but also with the establishing of standard time in factories and railways. It is inevitable that these same antiquarians began to adopt an 'evolutionary' approach to the development of human society. They initially distingushed broadly between the Romans and the 'British' who lived here before them, and the Anglo-Saxons who occupied the 'Dark Ages'.

Steadily antiquarianism evolved into archaeology. The pre-Roman era opened up into a vista of Iron Age, Bronze Age and Neolithic (new stone age) people preceeded by Paleolithic (old stone age) people. Soon a Mesolithic (middle stone age) was interposed. By the 1930s archaeologists were considering that each of these cultures was the result of successive waves of 'invasions' from somewhere outside – usually to the east of Europe. Along with many other interpretations of the pioneer archaeologists of the twentieth century, the 'invasion theory' has been shown to be bunkum. Nevertheless, the process of creating and recreating ever-more finely differentiated epochs of prehistory continues to this day.

While antiquarians now appear as mere collectors, modern archaeology appears to have established a more searching investigation of the past. This is comforting as it suggests 'development ' and 'progress' in the discipline. As Barrett (1994: 86) notes, such 'progress ' is a false premise based on Western ways of thinking about time. As I will show later in this article, if we take away the imaginary 'time line' then the implicit 'progress' is no longer there.

The history of the present

During the twentieth century historians also began to develop more sophisticated approaches to the past. It is all too easy for an historian to project present-day interests onto a past epoch. This error is often associated with claims that examples of interests in earlier times had something of their present-day significance.

Another error of historical analysis is really the other side of the same coin. This is the kind of history which finds the seed of some present interest at some distant point in the past and then shows how everything that happened in between is either part of this onward march, or is left in the backwaters. Everything is given a meaning and a place – whether central or peripheral.

To overcome both these false approaches, Michel Foucault developed what he termed 'writing the history of the present'. Foucault and his followers explicitly begin their approach to a historical study with a diagnosis of the current situation. From this unabashed contemporary orientation they attempt to recognise where the particular aspect of interest first arose, how it took shape and gained importance. What the Foucaultian historian is avoiding is any projecting of current meaning back into history. (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982: 118-9)

The long duration

Important as this revisionism of historical approach has been, it does not require any great rethinking of the concept of time. In contrast, Fernand Braudel suggested that the past could be approached on three 'levels' – and each 'level' requires a different approach to the study of history.

At the lowest level is the 'long duration', which operates at the scale of environmental change, the history of civilizations; and stable world views. Braudel's middle level is 'social time', which deals with the history of particular groups of people – perhaps the way most of us associate first with studies of social and economic history. It is also the shortest period of time which prehistorians can reliably study.

The third level is that of individual time, which Braudel called 'the history of events'. Its scope is that of narrative and political history. Braudel's tripartite approach is generally known as the 'Annales school' and remains somewhat controversial among historians. Although a neat scheme of structuring, few archaeologists have attempted to apply the ideas to prehistory (cf. Bintliff 1991; Knapp 1992). One of the handful to do so is John Barrett in his Fragments from Antiquity: An Archaeology of Social Life in Britain (1994).

Reflecting on the discovery of the 'ice man' at Oetzal, Barrett observes:

    ... the death of a single mountain traveller around 3000 BC can do no more than exemplify the routines of a population whose activities were determined by structures of social economic organization operating within some given environmental context.
    (Barrett 1994: 2)
Indeed, modern archaeological writing produces generalised histories, not of 'people ' but of 'processes'. According to Barrett, this leads to a false dualism between a long-term 'structural' history and the short-term 'event' (Barrett 1994: 3).

The complexity of time

Barrett also discusses different aspects of how time interweaves with our perception of the past. He notes that visitors to major prehistoric sites such as Avebury encounter the monuments through time – the time it takes to walk around the site. This is quite different from the armchair experience where an archaeologist's textual description collapses the experience of the place into a plan which can be observed in a single moment (Barrett 1994: 12).

The tourist also experiences the history of a place in an unnaturally compressed time depth. Major prehistoric monuments such as Avebury and Stonehenge were built up over hundreds, even thousands, of years. The same remark could be made of the older cathedrals of Europe. What we encounter today is devoid of any obvious time depth but has merely a 'simultaneous oldness'.

Indeed, the more we look at 'archaeological time', the more complexities emerge. Allow me to collage together several ideas from disparate parts of Barrett's work:

    Multi-period monuments are not a sequence of monument types as if constructed by placing one monument upon another. They arose as the consequences of reworking certain categories of space and architectural form.
    (Barrett 1994: 53)
Time is linked to space. For instance, the distinction between 'home' and 'workplace' leads to an allocation of time to the movement between each locale. (Barrett 1994: 72-3)

Rituals are a specific 'use' of time. Rituals demark time, such as seasons or birth/death.

    Rituals carve out regions of time:space; they are bracketed off from other regions of social discourse by a structure which ... is primarily concerned with a social transformation between 'relatively fixed or stable conditions'.
    (Barrett 1994: 80; quoting Turner 1967: 23)
Hunter/gathering societies have a different relationship to time than, say early agriculturalists. Even agricultural societies differ greatly between, say, 'long fallow' and 'short fallow' societies. '[T]o move from place to place is to move along the cycles of time [and is] in contrast to observers who watch the cyclical renewal of the seasons working themselves out upon that portion of the land to which they belong.' (Barrett 1994: 147).

Defining the other defines ourselves

It is perhaps inevitable that ethnographers emphasise the 'Otherness' of non-western societies. Yet, the same process also more clearly defines their own society. As Said has discussed at length (1991), Europeans have a complex concept of the Orient. Indeed, the Orient is one of the West's deepest and most recurring images of the Other. Yet that last sentence also embodies one other aspect of the Orient – however poorly defined the term, it is habitually used in contrast to 'The West ' – the Europeans who created the term 'Oriental'. No one from 'The Orient ' would normally refer to themselves as 'oriental'; rather they may consider themselves to be Japanese, Thai, Egyptian, etc. – and more probably would label themselves in terms of ethnic or religious subgroups.

In creating the Orient a large number of writers – as diverse as poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, administrators – have accepted the underlying distinction between east and west as the starting point for epics, novels, elaborate theories, political narrative and whatever else. These writers implictly 'define' the Orient in terms of dominant Western ideas. The cycle is a vicious one, as the underlying Western ideas then become reinforced by the constructed contrast with the Orient. By regarding the Orient as 'Other', orientalists of whatever endeavour implicitly help to define the West.

Making people primitive

In a similar way 'temporal otherness' was emphasised by early ethnologists. They played down the on-going changes among 'primitive' societies and regarded them as almost 'outside' of time. This was followed by a scheme in which past cultures as well as living societies were placed along an evolutionary 'time line'.

    Civilization, evolution, development, acculturation, modernization (and their cousins, industrialization, urbanization) are all terms whose conceptual content derives, in ways that can be specified, from evolutionary Time. They all have an epistemological dimension apart from whatever ethical, or unethical, intentions they may express. A discourse employing terms such as primitive, savage (but also tribal, traditional, Third World, or whatever euphemism is current) does not think, or observe, or critically study, the 'primitive'; it thinks, observes, studies in terms of the primitive. Primitive being essentially a temporal concept, is a category, not an object, of Western thought.
    (Fabian 1983: 17–18)
As with archaeology and history, the ways in which conceptualizations of time inform anthropological thought and discourse are enormously complicated. Anthropologists' use of time has been to distance those who are observed from the observer. Now and here contrast with the increasingly 'savage' there and then (Fabian 1983: 25; 27; 111–3 and Gosden 1994: 4).

While objects dated at 2000 BC or events in AD 1865 are irrevocably past, it is not valid to place 'primitive' societies in a 'typological past'. Fabian considers this 'typological past' to be a commonly-held illusion. Instead, he distinguishes between events which are synchronous/simultaneous (sharing physical time); contemporary (sharing abstract time); and coeval (which covers both).

The field diaries of ethnographers often reveal a 'coevalness' – but this is discarded in the published anthropological literature (Fabian 1983: 28–33). Since Fabian's book was published at least some ethnologists have begun to acknowledge that 'primitive' societies are not fossils from 'the past', but in all respects contemporaneous with our own [3]. Indeed, rather than a linear conception of time, a few anthropologists are regarding time as complex – akin to maps which can be 'read' in many directions, not simply along one axis.

I would like to give two examples. The first is a description of the Navaho native American craftswoman who

    ... instead of standing on a straight ribbon of time leading from the past to some future point, stands in the middle of a vortex of forces exerted in concentric circles upon her by her immediate family, her extended family, the clan, the tribe, and the whole living ecological system within which she lives and functions... Time surrounds her, as do the dwelling place, her family, her clan, her tribe, her habitat, her dances, her rituals.
    (Toelken 1996: 277)
The second example is from the nomadic tribes of the Mongolian steppes who follow an annual cycle of pastures, requiring frequent changes of camp site. Nevertheless, these people have a strongly-developed sense of the centre – but not a fixed 'place', rather wherever they halt to camp becomes the centre. It is thought of as the hearth in the tent, with its vertical column of smoke or the central tent pole supporting the roof. This axis mundi links to the deified sky – the power above all powers and the only deity regarded as eternal.

The way these Mongolians use their land means that time and space are interwoven – with time being experienced more as a 'spiral' as places are revisited each year. What is fascinating is that 'The time axis, which is universal, and thus locates each household at the centre of the cosmos, is the axis mundi.' (Humphrey 1995: 142-3). It would take an article longer than this to demonstrate that this spatio-temporal axis mundi reappears frequently in the traditional European ways of thinking.

Folklore and time

Indeed, ethnology is not just about 'primitive' societies. It also encompasses the study of our own culture and customs. And, if one is looking for different approaches to the idea of time, where better to look than European folklore?

As Robert Layton has outlined (1996), folklore is an alternative way of representing space and time. This may involve such dramatic contrasts as between the mundane world and the Otherworld, or it may reflect different ways of approaching space and landscape. Most certainly, folklore is radically different from modern Western thinking when it comes to representing time and other 'processes'. Think of how prehistoric earthworks and burial monuments are given such anachronistic names as Grim 's Ditch and Devil's Dyke, or Giants' Graves and Wayland's Smithy. Early antiquarians bridge this process when they followed 'local customs' of referring to Iron Age hillforts as Roman or Viking camps.

More specifically, as Tolan-Smith notes (1997: 7), there seem to be two time-scales operating in traditional western Europe – a domestic time-scale measured in generations and a 'mythical time-scale' which is, paradoxically, timeless.

As a final comment, perhaps such 'paradoxical' traditional ideas on time are, in fact, closest of all to the way modern physicists see time. For them, time is not an immutable forward progresion but one factor in a space-time model of relativistic causality and determinism. Perhaps the cosmology of modern physics is close to mythological cosmology after all?


My thanks to John W. Dougherty for his detailed comments on Fabian's work and to Robert Layton for sending a copy of his notes for the summing up of the TAG96 session on archaeology and folklore.


1: The date was not reached on the basis of mathematics but based of the idea that the six days of creation were equivalent to the 6000 years the world was expected to endure i.e. 4000 before the birth of Christ and 2000 after, and that the rather curious four years were added because of Herod 's death and the presumption of Jesus' birth in 4 BC. Because of these extra four years, the sixth millennia was completed in 1996.

2: For more discussion of these introductory remarks see Bradley (1991: 209–210), Gosden (1994: 1–12) and Thomas (1996: 31–41; 50–55).

3: Fabian's criticisms of anthropological research have since been criticised and developed by others; see for instance Robert Bettinger Hunter-Gatherers, Archaeological and Evolutionary Theory (Plenum 1991) and Adam Kuper The Invention of Primitive Society (Routledge 1988).

bibliographical references

BARRETT, John C., 1994, Fragments from Antiquity: An Archaeology of Social Life in Britain, 2900–1200 BC, Blackwell.
BINTLIFF, John (ed), The Annales School and Archaeology, Leicester U P.
BRADLEY, Richard, 1991, 'Ritual, time and history', World Archaeology, Vol.23 No.2 p209-219
DREYFUS, Hubert L. and Paul RABINOW, 1982, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Harvester Wheatsheaf.
FABIAN, Johannes, 1983, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, Columbia U P.
GOSDEN, Christopher, 1994, Social Being and Time, Blackwell.
HUMPHREY, Caroline, 1996, 'Chiefly and shamanistic landscapes in Mongolia' in Eric Hirsch and Michael O'Hanlon (eds) The Anthropology of Landscape, Oxford U P.
KNAPP, A.B. (ed), 1992, Archaeology, Annales and Ethnohistory, Cambridge U P.
LAYTON, Robert, 1996, Discussion on archaeology and folklore session, TAG 96 Conference, Liverpool (unpublished).
LEVI STRAUSS, C., 1966, The Savage Mind, Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
SAID, Edward W., 1991, Orientalism, Penguin (1st publ. RKP 1978).
THOMAS, Julian, 1996, Time, Culture and Identity: An Interpretive Archaeology, Routledge.
TOELKEN, Barre, 1996, The Dynamics of Folklore (2nd edn), Utah State UP
TOLAN-SMITH, Christopher, 1997, 'Landscape archaeology' in C. Tolan-Smith (ed) Landscape Archaeology in Tynedale, Department of Archaeology, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
THOMPSON, Edward P., 1993, Custom and Culture, New Press.
TURNER, Victor, 1967, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Cornell U P.

Originally published in At the Edge No.7 1997.

An updated version of this article appears as a chapter in Explore Mythology


copyright © Bob Tubshaw 1997

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