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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: Empires of Time - Calendars Clocks and Cultures by Anthony Aveni

Book Review:
  Empires of Time
 Calendars Clocks and Cultures
by Anthony Aveni

 Horology is what you call the study of the measuring of time.  My sense is that the bulk of horology is devoted to the mechanics of time measurement- "Watch and clock escapements," "Wheel and pinion cutting."  Those kinds of subjects.  The technical/mechanical aspects of time measurement.

  Empires of Time is something different- grounded more in history, archaeology and anthropology than horology.  Empires of Time is more about the why's of time, and why humans all over the world have learned to tell time as a necessary component of complex cultures and the resulting civilizations.

  The clearest link between the keeping of time and the invention of complex civilization is the importance of the calendar in the timing of planting crops for agricultural purposes.   Since agricultural and civilization basically appeared at the same time, the keeping of time was quickly adopted by whomever was in charge to buttress whatever claim they made to power.  This happened among tribes people and ancient civilizations alike.

  The measurement of time was very important to simply feeding large populations, but it was so important that it quickly gave rise to the use of time as a metaphor/symbol/etc. "Our" conception of time i.e. "Western" time is typically ascribed to the Greeks, but the Greeks themselves were privy to the developments in the East- where the Babylonians had created a complex study of astrology with religious significance.

  Greek time keeping developed about the shared human interest in knowing when to plant crops. Aveni devotes ample space to Hesiod's Works and Days, which is itself one of the oldest written works in Greek.  Works and Days is basically a farmers almanac written in verse.  Aveni also devotes substantial time to the Mayans who are the sine qua non of time obsessed civilizations.  Aveni also discusses the Incans and the Aztecs, and I found those portions of the narrative most compelling.

  Aveni also weaves in examples from sub-civilization "cultures" like that of Islanders from the Indonesian archipelago and African tribesmen. My take away from Empires of Time is that there are DEFINITELY universal, human rhythms of time that are central to our commonality as a species.  One excellent example is the day/night cycle, and the coming and going of the tides.  For periods beyond the day you get into the difficulties of horology proper, specifically the issue of an accurate calendar.  The irregularity of the "year" period as it related to days and months is basically THE question of calendar studies, and Aveni covers it for sure.  Here, the Western solution is the "correct" one.

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