Heribert Illig, one of the theory’s supporters.

The phantom time hypothesis is a conspiracy theory developed in the 1980s and 1990s which claims that periods of history, specifically that of Europe during the Early Middle Ages (AD 614–911), are either wrongly dated, or did not occur at all – and there was a general conspiracy to cover that up.

When Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz introduces his paper on the “phantom time hypothesis,” he kindly asks his readers to be patient, benevolent, and open to radical new ideas. He suggests that hundreds of years ago, our calendar was polluted with 297 years which simply did not exist – therefore, this year is not 2014, but 1717. He says that the phantom years were added either through accident or misinterpretation, or perhaps even by deliberate falsification by calendar conspirators. But what do they base this apparently crazy theory on?

The main arguments are:

– the scarcity of archaeological evidence that can be reliably dated to the period AD 614–911. Indeed, there is a remarkable scarcity of tangible evidence from that period.

– some perceived inadequacies of radiometric and dendrochronological methods of dating this period. Indeed, there were some inconsistencies in dating artifacts from that period in studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, but they were just a confusing minority.

Example of Romanesque architecture: the Pisa Cathedral in Italy. Via Designer Girlee.

– the presence of Romanesque architecture in tenth-century Western Europe. They find it strange that half a millennium after the Roman empire has fallen, Romanesque architecture still thrives in Western Europe. They go even further explaining this, suggesting that the entire Carolingian period, including the existence of the individual known as Charlemagne, is a forgery by medieval chroniclers. That’s a pretty strong claim.

– the relationship between the Julian calendar, Gregorian calendar and the underlying astronomical solar or tropical year seems pretty off. They were different calendars which caused a lot of confusion in medieval times. By the time the Gregorian calendar was introduced in AD 1582, Heribert Illig (a supporter of this theory) alleges that the old Julian calendar “should” have produced a discrepancy of thirteen days between it and the real (or tropical) calendar. However, the astronomers working for the Pope which were doing the “fitting” at the time noted a difference of only ten days days. Since every century brings a difference of a day, the 3 missing days amount for approximately 3 centuries.

If the Phantom Time Hypothesis were true, then Charlemagne never existed.

– the plethora of falsified documents from the Middle Ages. There was actually an archaeological conference in München, Germany in 1986, which discussed only this. Documents with forged dates, forged people, forged agreements… you name it – and you can find it in the middle ages; and most of them were forged by the church, go figure.

It was actually this conference which sparked Illig’s curiosity – he wondered why the church would go to all this trouble to forge documents hundreds of years before they would become useful – and he conducted research, which ultimately backed the phantom time hypothesis up.

So is there really something to this idea, or is it yet another half baked theory ? Well, as Carl Sagan says, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – and they don’t really provide much. All the pieces of evidence they provide are circumstantial, and while they do raise some serious questions about some inconsistencies and forgeries in that historical period, it’s not really enough to make us doubt the existence of the “3 missing centuries”. Besides, even if you’re a conspiracy theory fan, the evidence against this case are much stronger than the ones going for it:

– while the archaeological evidence is scarce, there still are some artifacts which were found and dated from that period. Simple and straightforward.

– astronomical observations from the ancient period (which we have a lot of), fit very well with modern observations, suggesting that there is no phantom time.

– compare the timeline to other areas of the world (most notably China), and you see no phantom time.

– regarding the calendars, things get a little bit more blurry, but again, there are stronger arguments against the theory than for it: the Gregorian calendar was never intended or purported to bring the calendar in line with the Julian calendar as it had existed in 45 BC, the time of its institution, but as it had existed in 325, the time of the Council of Nicaea. By the time of its introduction, the astronomical equinox was occurring on March 10 in the Julian calendar, but Easter was still being calculated from a nominal equinox on March 20. However, in 45 BC, the equinox took place on March 23, hence the 3 missing days which account for the “3 missing centuries”.

So while they do bring some interesting stuff up, it’s not really a plausible theory – as interesting as it may be for the conspiracy fans out there.

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