The Phantom Time Hypothesis
Today we're going to go back into history, all the way back to — well, we're not very sure where — because according to some, large chunks of what we believe are history never actually happened. The phantom time hypothesis is any of a number of alternate chronologies of the past few millennia, in which whole centuries of false history have been inserted into the calendar ex post facto by the ruling class. A dark age here, a century or two there; it never happened in reality but was made up, artificially stretching modern history into the two thousand years we now wrongly think have taken place since the year 1.
Most of today's support for this hypothesis comes from eastern Europe, a part of the world where conspiratorial thinking has typically flourished. The ideas were first widely publicized around 1700 by the French Jesuit and librarian Jean Hardouin, who believed that most of the art and literature from ancient Greece and Rome were 13th-century forgeries, and that most of what we regard as Greek and Roman history never transpired. His work was followed by other French Jesuits. It was ultimately championed, expanded, and widely published by the Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko beginning in the 1980s. Fomenko used statistical analysis of ancient texts and his own mathematical notions about astronomical observations to show that Hardouin had not gone far enough; and that the Jesuits had forged all of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, and Arabic history, inserting nearly a thousand years of false history into the calendar. In Fomenko's revised chronology, we would only have to go back in time some 900 years to meet Jesus Christ.
A more specific phantom time claim comes from a pair of German conspiracy theorists, Heribert Illig and Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, who believe that our current calendar was inflated by 297 years through a series of errors and deliberate meddling by the Catholic Church. According to Illig and Niemitz, when we think it's the year 2012, it's actually only 1715.
The calendar system that we use today is called the Gregorian calendar, which specifies a leap year every four years, except for years divisible by 100, but still including years divisible by 400. This keeps us right on track very well. Its adoption in 1582 was largely motivated by the need to keep Easter in the right place on the calendar, something that was important to the Church, but which had drifted off 10 days using the previous Julian calendar system. The Julian system was simpler; it had a leap year every four years, and no exceptions, so was less accurate. The correction was ordered by Pope Gregory XIII, and was accomplished by going from October 4, 1582, directly to October 15, 1582, and proceeding with the Gregorian method thenceforth.
Now Illig, by looking back over those 1582 years and counting up the leap years, found that the ten-day error was too small, and that the real error was thirteen days. Illig could think of only possible explanation for the Pope's astronomers coming up with an error that was too small: the actual number of centuries that had existed was smaller than the Pope was letting on. Illig reckoned that just about three centuries of recorded history were faked, and never took place.
The interesting part of all this is that Illig was half right; a simple count reveals that the Julian calendar would have accumulated 13 days of error over 1582 years, not 10. But there's a reason 10 was used other than phantom centuries. When the calendar switch was made in 1582, the idea was not to correct the Julian error accumulated since the year 1, but rather to bring Easter back into calendar sync with the time Easter had been fixed: the Council of Nicaea. When was the Council of Nicaea? You guessed it, the year 325; 1257 years before the switch, just enough to drift by 10 days. Illig's phantom time hypothesis was based on the wrong interpretation of a valid observation.
Yet from that launching point, Illig and Niemitz have converged upon many of the same conclusions as Fomenko. Both point to a lack of archaeological and documentary evidence from the latter centuries of the first millennium. They believe these centuries never took place; while history explains this scarcity as the European Dark Ages when there was, in fact, very little construction or literature. Both dismiss the existence of Charlemagne, who is the central focus of existing evidence from the period, as a hoax created by the Church in order to support the existence of their false centuries.
The truly interesting thing about the various phantom time hypotheses is not the claims themselves, but the real science behind how we're able to disprove them. There's nobody listening to this who was around in the year 900 to authoritatively state that the calendar has not been tampered with. You can hand me a piece of wood that I can radiometrically date to 500 years old, but I still have no way of knowing if people 500 years ago called their year 1500, 1200, 1041, or 666. So is there some way we can thumbtack the real physical history to align it with the reported calendar history? Is there any way to prove that an event claimed by history books to have happened in the year 300 actually happened 1700-something physical years ago?
It turns out that the answer is yes, there are ways to do exactly that. Radiometric dating can give us the ages of many types of objects that are associated with historical events: battles, burials, construction projects. Astronomical events like supernovae mentioned in ancient records can pinpoint the date of recording. Other events, like eclipses and the visitation of Halley's and other comets, were logged by many ancient astronomers on at least three different continents, records that still exist, giving us an uninterrupted and canonical history over nearly the past 3000 years. But let's start by looking at dendrochronology, better known as tree ring data.
Although individual trees are at most a few thousand years old, and usually much younger, we currently have an anchored chronology going back over 12,000 years. This chronology is made by matching up the overlapping pattern of tree rings from wood from a particular region. These regional chronologies can then be matched up to radiocarbon calibration scales, such as the current IntCal04 which combines worldwide data from tree rings, corals, and shells found in marine sediments going back 26,000 years. These calibrations are further confirmed by other independent sources of hard data, such as ice cores. So when we find a piece of wood from some ancient object, we have a number of ways of dating it. Radiocarbon dating gives us data on samples up to 60,000 years old, and if it's within the past 11,000 years (basically, recorded history) this dating can also be backed up independently with the anchored dendrochronology.
Of the phantom time hypothesists, Fomenko addresses this criticism most directly. Fomenko's response to the dendrochronology that disproves his theory is that there is not really any such thing as an anchored chronology. He points to gaps in specific regional chronologies, which of course exist; while ignoring the much larger picture of all the encompassing scales. His rejection of dendrochronology is like finding a fossil finger bone and claiming not to be able to know anything about it, which of course you couldn't if you ignored where it was found, in what strata of what age, and with what other objects.
Fomenko rejects radiocarbon dating using some of the same limitations pointed out by Young Earth Creationists. Specific radiometric dating types are only appropriate for items of a given age due to the half lives of various isotopes, and the relative isotopic proportions needed for valid measurements. Fomenko has taken it a step farther though, often alleging purposeful conspiring between the dating technicians and the archaeologists to choose a method known to be the wrong one in order to produce a desired date, one that matches the "official" world chronology. To use it properly you need to choose the right method for the right job, but Fomenko and the Young Earthers consider this need for knowledgeable intervention to render the entire process corrupt and scientifically useless.
Fomenko's responses to astronomical objections to his theory depend largely upon the acceptance of topics such as astrology and Biblical literalness as fact. For example, in the year 1054, astronomers in India, the Arab world, China and Japan recorded witnessing the supernova that we now call the Crab Nebula. Modern measurements of the nebula tell us that it exploded just over 950 years ago, and ancient records tell us that the year in which it was witnessed was 1054. Total solar eclipses darkened Europe and the Mediterranean in 1079, 1086, and 1098. Fomenko asserts that the supernova was the Star of Bethlehem, and therefore one of those eclipses was the darkness that descended upon the crucifixion of Jesus. Obviously this could only work if our modern calendar is wrong by 10 or 11 centuries, and if the Bible is a literal historical account. So we must first accept both of two unprovable conjectures before we can even begin to logically take Fomenko's claim under consideration. That's a fundamentally unscientific methodology.
Throughout the centuries that Illig, Niemitz, and Fomenko claim did not exist are historical reports of Halley's comet that anchor historical chronology to the dates of the sightings. Of particular interest are the Chinese records, which use completely different dates from the Julian and Gregorian calendars, and yet can be precisely aligned to Western calendars by matching up these astronomical events. So we have multiple, independent lines of evidence that show Halley's comet was sighted by Europeans who considered the calendar year to be 760, 837, 912, 989, 1066, 1145, in fact every century that any of the phantom time proponents say didn't happen. To address this, Fomenko has asserted that the European reports are forgeries, and that the Chinese and other astronomical histories are uselessly unreliable.
To summarize the veracity of all of the phantom time hypotheses, they cannot be disproved. Any evidence offered to show that they're wrong is simply called fake or unreliable. No evidence, it seems — no matter how well supported — is good enough. If we ask them what evidence they'd accept to show that history is as we know it to be, they'd ask for exactly what's already been given to them, and that they already rejected. The hypotheses are not disprovable. And this takes them outside the realm of science. A theory must be disprovable if it is scientific. And the phantom time hypothesis, for better or for worse, is not scientific.
Correction: An earlier version of this erroneously characterized Hardouin's claim of forgeries having been made by 13th century Jesuits. Hardouin blamed monks, not Jesuits, as the Jesuits had not yet existed in the 13th century. —BD
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