Professor Christopher Cullen, director of the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, gave a lecture on the characteristics of ordering and arranging historical events typical for Chinese chronology. Under the title "Astronomy and chronology in Han dynasty: some issues and debates," Culler not only discussed the way ancient Chinese scholars tried to establish the dates of past events, but also the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project, a recent attempt to get the dates of the oldest dynasties fixed.
"The Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) saw the construction of the first fully worked out systems of mathematical astronomy in China." The famous Sima Qian 司馬遷 provided a list of the generations of the early dynasties without adding dates to them, because he already did not trust his sources. "Such systems were not only expected to predict future astronomical events, but also to 'retrodict' astronomical events recorded in ancient historical sources. As a result, debates about the validity of astronomical systems inevitably involved questions of chronology." Cullen used the writings of Liu Xin 劉歆 (c. 50 BCE - 23 CE) as an example of an early chronology project which dates the fall of the Xia dynasty in 1751 BCE. The Bamboo Annals would suggest 1558 BCE, and the recent chronology project, commissioned by the P.R. of China, dated the Xia conveniently from 2070 to 1600 BCE. Personally, I prefer seeing the Xia as the mythical dynasty of which its features, let alone exact dates, we will never know. Carbon-dating has been applied to some archaeological findings, but these only give an estimate, and moreover, might not even be really Xia, but instead Shang. Besides, even if these were Xia, that would not make it a dynasty, a civilisation with an hierarchical organisation and the application of metal.
Professor Barend ter Haar had an interesting hypothesis on the Xia controversy: he suggested that the Xia and Shang existed more or less simultaneously. When a list of the generations was set up during Han, these families were named one after the other, making seem that one came before the other, which does not necessarily need to be true at all.
Under the title "Historical chronology in traditional China," ter Haar also talked about the social aspect of the literati occupied with chronology. Only a very small number of people, the literati, were able to assign astronomical signs to events, and seeing that only a handful of copies existed of, for example Sima Qian's Shiji 史記, knowledge of these chronologies was not widespread.
A fascinating knowledge object that was shown was the compass: not just a needle in the middle to pinpoint the north, already a greatly influential invention, but also the circles and categories ordered around it, namely the Heavenly Stems, the Earthly Branches, the seasons and Solar Terms, etc. Yet again, only a small percentage of the population in Chinese society knew how to operate this invention. It concerned 'cosmic time' and the theory of Qi, the energy that flows in the universe, which can be attracted to and radiated from the human body. When studying the history of Chronology, one therefore needs to be conscious of the different perceptions of time.
Prof. Rosamond McKitterick of the University of Cambridge gave a lecture on "Carolingian Chronology: the Evidence of Scaliger Manuscripts 14 and 28 in Context."
"Chronology in the Carolingian period had both a practical and ideological function. It was deployed not only to determine the date of the moveable feasts in the liturgical calendar and to date legal documents, but also to record the past and the passing of time. My paper will first sketch in the background for the Carolingian interest in chronology and time, for which Scaliger MS 28, a ninth-century codex containing Bede's De temporum ratione, provides important evidence. Secondly I shall address the precedents for the presentation of the past according to particular chronological schemes with particular reference to Scaliger MS 14, a magnificent copy of the Chronicle of Eusebius-Jerome, written in the early ninth century within a milieu associated with the Emperor Charlemagne, king of the Franks. These two manuscripts raise the question of the diversity of chronological schemes deployed in the Carolingian period for the writing of history and the ideological significance of that diversity."
"Between aiōn and deuteron hexēkoston: Some thoughts on time in the Graeco-Roman world" by Dr Frits Naerebout of Leiden University.
"On the divide between Europe and Asia we find the Graeco-Roman world. Its so-called sciences were rooted in the Ancient Near East, stimulated by Greek thought of the free-thinking polis communities of the Archaic and Classical periods, brought to fruition in Hellenistic Egypt, and given their final infuential shape across the Roman Empire. Chronology is one of these sciences. If we want to understand the way it functioned in ancient society, we should not limit ourselves to astronomical chronology – as we are wont to do because of modern ideas of what science should be. Instead, we should also look at consciousness and conceptions of time, in relation to questions of marking time, telling time, and measuring time. Chronology is about time, and time is a multi-faceted phenomenon. In this paper we will make a tour d’horizon mapping the main issues."
At the History of Chronology conference, Kapil Raj gave a lecture on "Connecting Chronologies: The Making of Modern Science through Intercultural Encounter, South Asia and Europe in the 18th and 19th Centuries."
"Conventional wisdom conceives that, along with their discontinuous cultural traits, different ethnic groups also have discontinuous chronologies until being steam-rolled by the globalising effects of western imperialism and industrialisation. Based on an analysis of the sustained contact between South Asia and Europe in the domain of knowledge practices at the crucial period of the rise of European imperialism and of the Industrial Revolution, this talk will show, on the contrary, that modern science, and indeed significant traits of modernity itself are the result of making European and South Asian chronologies commensurable."
Dr. Kapil Raj followed the story of Sir William Jones who had learned Arabic and Persian, travelled to Calcutta and came into contact with a mixed chronology designed to legitimise Arabic rule over the Hindus. This ultimately led to Jones' theory for the underlying connection between the languages of Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, and which led to his new map of humanity, locating Noah in Persia, the origin, and then theorised about people's spread around the world. Today, William Jones is known for being the founder of modern philology.
On 19 and 20 February, I attended "the History of Chronology" conference organised by Prof. Harm Beukers of the Scaliger Institute (Leiden University). It was great to meet fellow history students interested in the history of science and the connection with Asia. Also the opportunity to listen to and speak with the authors of the books I have been reading is really inspiring.
After the introductory speeches by Max Sparreboom (IIAS) and Harm Beukers, Professor Anthony Grafton gave his keynote address with the title "From Chronicle to Chronology: Emending Past Time in Early Modern Europe." Interesting points Grafton touched upon were, I thought, the difference in role between chronology and history. In the eyes of some, chronology overshadowed history because the former recorded when and where historical events occurred and combined it with the the positions of the Sun and other heavenly bodies.
From the 15th century onwards, various innovations improved chronology, such as an index to make the chronology better accessible, the use of illustrations, new designs for lay-out (horizontal timeline and important persons and events encircled to attract attention, and a timeline in BC. In the 16th century, history and astronomy were connected by linking events to solar eclipses. This is very useful now, since modern astronomers and calculate exactly when solar eclipses must have taken place; this is data with which we can reconstruct 16th century calendars according to our own calendar.
Furthermore, Grafton talked about the Byzantine efforts to combine Persian sources with their own; the use of topography, genealogies, and Biblical chronology in conflict with Greek chronology. And of course, the keynote could not be finished without first discussing the Scaliger's cosmopolitan interest and innovation to include not only the Greek and Roman chronologies, but also the Persian, Babylonian, and Egyptian chronologies. Entertaining was the anecdote that Jews must have laughed at the Christians in the late 15th-early 16th century, because the Christians had great difficulty calculating when Easter had to be celebrated.