Amazing Ancient Inventions – Part 1

3. Ancient Timekeeping

3.1 Calendars

All calendars began with people recording time by using natural cycles: days, lunar cycles (months), and solar cycles (years). Ancient peoples have attempted to organize these cycles into calendars to keep track of time and to be able to predict future events of importance to them, such as seasons (e.g. the annual Nile flood in ancient Egypt), eclipses etc. The main problem was that these natural cycles did not divide evenly.

A calendar is a system of organizing time. It is used for social, religious, commercial, or administrative purposes. Timekeeping is done by giving names to periods of time, typically days, weeks, months, and years. Periods in a calendar (such as years and months) are synchronized with the cycle of the sun or the moon (ancient astronomers also used planet Venus and/or star Sirius) .

The astronomical day had begun at noon ever since Ptolemy chose to begin the days in his astronomical periods at noon. He chose noon because the transit of the Sun across the observer’s meridian occurs at the same apparent time every day of the year, unlike sunrise or sunset, which vary by several hours. Midnight was not even considered because it could not be accurately determined using water clocks. Nevertheless, he double-dated most nighttime observations with both Egyptian days beginning at sunrise and Babylonian days beginning at sunset.

The Babylonians were the first to recognize that astronomical phenomena are periodic and apply mathematics to their predictions.

Early people could either try to stay in sync with the moon, perhaps making months alternating combinations of 29 and 30 days, with special rules to re-sync occasionally with a solar year by adding leap months (such as the Jewish or Chinese calendar) or abandon lunar cycles and concentrate on the solar year (such as the Ancient Egyptian calendar of 12 same-sized months).

Calendars in Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptians are credited with the first calendar of 12 months, each consisting of 30 days, comprising a year. They added 5 days at the end of the year to synchronize somewhat with the solar year. By making all their months an even 30 days, they abandoned trying to sync with lunar cycles and concentrated instead on aligning with the solar year. The Egyptians recognized that this calendar didn’t quite align with a actual year. Since the traditional Egyptian calendar of 365 days fell about one-fourth of a day short of the natural year, the ancients assumed that the helical rising of Sirius would move through the Egyptian calendar in 365 x 4 = 1,460 Julian years (that is, one Sothic peniod).

The earliest Egyptian calendar was based on the moon’s cycles, but the lunar calendar failed to predict a critical event in their lives: the annual flooding of the Nile river. The Egyptians soon noticed that the first day the “Dog Star,” which we call Sirius, was visible right before sunrise was special. The Egyptians were probably the first to adopt a mainly solar calendar. This so-called ‘heliacal rising’ always preceded the flood by a few days.

They eventually had a system of 36 stars to mark out the year and in the end had three different calendars working concurrently for over 2000 years: a stellar calendar for agriculture, a solar year of 365 days (12 months x 30 + 5 extra) and a quasi-lunar calendar for festivals. The later Egyptian calendars developed sophisticated Zodiac systems. According to the famed Egyptologist J. H. Breasted, the earliest date known in the Egyptian calendar corresponds to 4,236 B.C.E. in terms of the Gregorian calendar.


Among their other accomplishments, the ancient Mayas invented a calendar of remarkable accuracy and complexity. 

The Maya calendar was adopted by the other Mesoamerican nations, such as the Aztecs and the Toltec, which adopted the mechanics of the calendar unaltered but changed the names of the days of the week and the months.  The Maya calendar uses three different dating systems in parallel, the Long Count, the Tzolkin (divine calendar), and the Haab (civil calendar). Of these, only the Haab has a direct relationship to the length of the year.

The length of the Tzolkin year was 260 days and the length of the Haab year was 365 days. The smallest number that can be divided evenly by 260 and 365 is 18,980, or 365×52; this was known as the Calendar Round. If a day is, for example, “4 Ahau 8 Cumku,” the next day falling on “4 Ahau 8 Cumku” would be 18,980 days or about 52 years later.



Antikythera Mechanism

One of the most astonishing inventions related to calendar is so called the Antikythera Mechanism.

In 1901 divers working off the isle of Antikythera found the remains of a clock-like mechanism 2,000 years old. The mechanism now appears to have been a device for calculating the motions of the sun, the moon and planets –  an arithmetical counterpart of the much more familiar geometrical models of the solar system which were known to Plato and Archimedes and evolved into the orrery and the planetarium. The mechanism is like a great astronomical clock without an escapement, or like a modern analogue computer which uses mechanical parts to save tedious calculation.

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  1. Gary Schoenung says

    Many of the “mysterious” accomplishments from our early recorded history were left over from an earlier age and simply taken advantage of and reused, sometimes for the original purpose and other times for something entirely different. The reason for that is because they didn’t have the slightest idea what to make of them either. This link is to a video I put together of a massive ancient irrigation system in South Africa covering hundreds of miles that was not reused, and there are presently no theories that I am aware of.

    I am looking forward to reading about any explanations for it.

  2. Elijah says

    I find the article shallow perpertrating and continuing fals concepts of 100 years ago. Breasted’s 4236bc is based on the date July 18 for Memphis when Thoth was on July 20 for 4245-4242bc and then July 19 for 4241-4238bc and July 18 for 4237-4234bc. However, shifting azimuth and shifting altitude from the sun was not accounted for and thats why Chicago’s Richard Parker in later encylclopedia made it quite clear that a Thoth 20 of 2782bc is to be revised to a Thoth 17 of 2770bc. If youre a Christian Hebrew adopted by Jesus you will then see how and why 2030bc July 17 is the true new year date which after Exodus became Persian Pamenot 1 after a 70-day absence of Sothis (May 8-July 17) that was 72-day at Ur (May 7-July 18) following Peleg’s death on May 6 which is why 365 days later Nahor Mes-Kalumdug and his (grand) son Haran (A-Kalumdug) poisoned themselves and four guards killing there 68 wives (exception Lot’s mother back in the city Harran preganant or nursing) to go to heaven to join Peleg as Christ the first leader into heaven. I shouldnt use the term Christ because christos comes from Xisuthros who is the spirit of Noah, and in true Genesis, Noah died on Christmas Eve almost 9 years after this suicide, and they claimed he was the Christ in heaven. The 365-day calendar did not exist before the Flood when years were 360 days. ALSO the word for 30-day “same-sized” months is civil month. A civil month is an artificial 30-day month.

  3. Chris Allan says

    If find it hard to reconcile the statement that the Egyptians could not build dams, but had no trouble building pyramids. Is it possible that a more advanced people lived on earth long ago, and were wiped out by some catastrophic event. All the old legends of flying machines etc. are just to detailed for them not to be based on actual events. Visitations by aliens is not necessarily the only explanation, an advanced people may have existed (Atlantis???) on earth in antiquity.

  4. Brenda Brown says

    Couldn’t it be that it was a little of both? I agree, nothings to say that early man didn’t know a lot more than we do today, and because of a major cataclysm, lost a large portion of their knowledge. I wonder if such an event took out a majority of our populace today, how many would know how to work with metals, make computers, build defence weapons, etc.? But at the same time, whose to say that some space race didn’t visit us in the ancient past and help us along? Why would that be so improbable? I think it’s highly likely.

  5. bill heaney says

    It is racism, no question about it, but is it wrong to think so? Using Occum’s Razor, the pyramids at Giza were built by people just like the one’s who live there now. If that is so, how did they lose their extraordinary building knowledge? There’s no modern building or monument in all of Egypt that can compare. It’s like they regressed. The inhabitants of the New World, in all of the Americas, didn’t have the wheel. Yet we are told they built the awesome pyramids attributed to them.
    The marvel regarding the cave art has nothing to do with the work itself, it is how they were able to do it in darkness. They find no carbon deposits on the ceilings in those caves with the extraordinary art. How is that possible?

    The recent archaeology find in Turkey, Gobekli Tepe[spelling?] is 12,000 years old, making the so-called Egyptian pyramids modern in comparison. Researchers have reported on finding petrified wood in and around the Giza monuments, hinting they are very much older, and modern dating has the Spinx much older.

    Ancient man was smart, but not all ancient men were as smart as we who read your books. That stone in Baalbek is proof that ancient man, the ones like those who live there now, could not have achieved that awesome skill. Look at that stone and explain it. Look at Nazca and explain how people without metal leveled those mountain tops. Come on, man, give me a break!

  6. says

    Interesting article. I look forward to more. . . . The prevalent and pernicious idea that our lowly caveman ancestors needed the godlike help of aliens to become “civilized” needs to be set aside. It isn’t provable. I believe civilization before the Cataclysm was, in some ways, more advanced than ours. By the way, I prefer “chronocentrism”–but either will work. Thank you.


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