A Brief History
On January 1, 1950, a new method of designating what year it is (or was) went into effect with the BP system, meaning “Before Present.” The Anno Domini (“the year of our Lord”) choice of a starting date for modern counting of years was proposed by the colorfully named Dionysius Exiguus (a monk from what is now modern Bulgaria or Romania) back in 525 AD. (Yes, you can use the letters with or without the periods.)
The Lord referred to in AD is Jesus Christ, which of course seems to slight people of any religion other than Christianity. The BC stands for “Before Christ” and interestingly enough, this system does not have a Year Zero. The year 1 BC is followed by 1 AD with nothing in between. To make matters worse, the birth date given for Christ is usually between 7 and 2 BC. Figure that one out!
In order to accommodate political correctness, the CE (“Common Era”) and BCE (“Before Common Era“) terminology was also promulgated, as early as the 17th Century in Europe. Just to keep you on your toes, the “C” in CE and BCE can also stand for “Current.” At least this is all better than another old form of identifying years, referring to our Current Era as the “Vulgar Era.”
Obviously, ancient people and non-Europeans used a variety of other systems to designate what year it was and to keep track of years, and often used a system of what year in a given monarch’s reign it happened to be.
Then modern scientists had to come up with their own brand of dating, and that is where the Before Present (BP) terminology started. Using methods of dating ancient objects such as Carbon Dating indicated not a calendar date, but an amount of years before the testing was done. In order to deal with the fact that the “present” changes every day and every year, January 1 of 1950 was chosen to be used by scientists for a common understanding of old objects being dated. Despite the system having been proposed to simplify things for scientists, the fact that the BP is sometimes defined as “Before Physics” muddies the waters that much more! Apparently all the atmospheric nuclear testing going on around the world at that time had the potential to throw off radioactivity as a measure of age.
Some of the other many systems used presently or in the past include YA (Years Ago), AM (Anno Mundi, marking the beginning of time as when Christians believe the world was created), AH (Anno Hegiri, an Islamic dating), ADA (After Development of Agriculture, estimated at 8000 BCE), and even a Holocene Calendar that adds 10,000 years to our current date (using CE or AD) giving a starting date back to the Holocene Epoch. Still confused? The HE or Holocene Era can also be called the “Human Era.” As with other societies, ethnocentric as they are, there was also an AUB (Ab Urbe Condita) system used by Rome to start with the year Rome was founded.
Questions for students: What novel year counting system would you propose? BTV (Before Television)? How about BVG (Before Video Games)? A simple US starting in what we now call 1776, the birth of the United States? BM (Before Me)? That last one I personally like a lot. How about you?
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For more information, please see…
Mosshammer, Alden A. The Easter Computus and the Origins of the Christian Era (Oxford Early Christian Studies). Oxford University Press, 2008.
The featured image in this article, a 2005 photograph by Alexander Z. of an Anno Domini inscription at Klagenfurt Cathedral, Austria, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. You are free:
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