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🎓 Recordkeeping

Cloth records, syllabic scripts, and bone calendars.

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

3 min read.
🎓 Recordkeeping
Some of my favorite fantasy novels integrate record keeping and calendar systems that thoughtfully diverge from Earth-standard, like Pern's focus on the 250 year orbital cycles for thread's return and L. E. Modesitt's default tendays. I also really appreciate alternate recordkeeping systems, like those showcased in some of Ken Liu's short fiction. My general assumption is that truth is stranger than fiction, though, so I wanted to do a little investigating into the real-world possibilities before I started developing my own fictional recordkeeping systems.

Quick Facts

"Book" Keeping

Older criteria for civilization basically say that "writing" is a necessary component of a civilization, along with stuff like complex government and social hierarchies. But the definition has been broadened mostly thanks to systems of record-keeping like the Inca quipu, which serve essentially the same purpose, tracking calendars and tithes. These days we tend to think of writing as being about creative expression or conveying institutional knowledge, but it was originally developed basically for tax records and merchant ledgers.

Syllable Script

Linear Elamite is the oldest known written script to rely on syllables (like the modern alphabet), rather than sounds and logograms (like cuneiform and hieroglyphics). The history of it is fascinating; the folks who lived in ancient Susa developed a writing system contemporaneously with cuneiform, abandoned it, and then 800 years later picked it up again and developed it into a more phonetic style alphabet like what the Phoenicians developed c. 1100 B.C.E.

Calendar Keepers

In Toba Batak society, the calendar is specifically designed to keep lunar and solar months aligned. They don't particularly keep track of which year it is, but do maintain months of 29 to 31 days. As with the Egyptians, expert timekeeperrs keep a careful eye on the rise and fall of constellations. The solar calendar is important for agricultural reasons, but the lunar calendar is easier to keep track of by casual eyesight alone. One of the reasons the intercalary days work out pretty well is that the year starts when sky signs align, which is pretty informal and can flex a bit. But there's no need to be super strict about exact days as long as everyone in the community can figure out the important moments, like when to have a big joint ritual with lots of people who live far apart, or, yanno, when to plant crops.

One of the things I find most interesting about this particular Indonesian record keeping method, though, is that the name of the timekeeping specialists -- critically important, each community had one -- is derived from the buffalo ribs used to track the days. The rib has 4 rows, 2 with 30 holes (for the days), 2 with 12 holes (for the months). Thread is passed through the holes to "cross off" days that had passed.

Stony Sight

The purpose of Stonehenge has been "a mystery" for as long as I've been aware of it, although scholars generally think it functioned as a calendar. Recently, though, Timothy Darvill thinks he's figured out how it works as a solar calendar, right down to the Egyptian-style ten-day weeks (related to decans, which are an interesting astronomical phenomenon) with an intercalary month and leap days.

📗 If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy this eclectic overview of articles I enjoyed, including some focused on textiles, as well as this reflection on the prevalence of war in religious texts.

💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend who might also be interested – and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

📝 Do you know an interesting or obscure record keeping system? Please reach out — I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment on the web version where other readers can see.

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

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