Episode 54: The Phantom Time Hypothesis

This episode covers Herbert Illig's alternative chronology, the Phantom Time Hypothesis. Illig alleges that the years 614 AD to 911 AD were inserted into history by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II so their reigns would occur in the year 1000. So party like it's 1722 because it turns out that's what year it is.

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Herbert Illig

Illig was born in Bavaria in 1947 and received his doctorate in German in 1987 with a dissertation on Egon Friedell, an Austrian journalist and writer. He worked as a systems analyst for a bank before he made history revisionism his fulltime job. 

His first forays into alternative history were in line with perhaps the greatest pseudo-chronologist of the 20th century, Immanuel Velikovsky. Velikovsky will get a series of his own sometime in the future, but the key takeaway is that the Earth is suffered various natural catastrophes as a result of interactions between Mars and Venus, and so he had to construct a whole new chronology of human history, including ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and Israel. As a result of this influence, Illig was a member of the Velikovskian Society for the Reconstruction of Human and Natural History from 1981-1989. He also published the Velikovskian inspired magazine Vorzeit-Frühzeit-Gegenwart (Prehistoric-Early-Present) and the journal Zeitensprünge (Time Jumps). 

Before the Phantom Time hypothesis, he is most famous for, Illig was interested in Ancient Egypt, and proposed a chronology that would excise two-thousand years from the official record. So the Great Pyramid of Cheops, which was finished in 2560 BC, was actually finished sometime in the first millennium BC. 

The “Official” History

Before diving into Illig’s Phantom Time hypothesis, we need to understand the “official” record. The main culprit behind the addition of phantom time to the “official” chronology is Otto III, who lived from 980 to 1002 and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 996 at the age of 16.

Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire was treated by the Catholic Church as the official continuation of the Western Roman Empire after its fall in 476. It began on December 25th 800 when Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III. 

Otto III’s grandfather, Otto I, revived the title in 962, thus beginning a continuous 800-year existence.

The Pope

A whole lot of Pope stuff happened right after Otto III was crowned Emperor. In 996, Otto III had a roman rebellion to deal with, led by Crescentius II. After beating Crescentius II, Otto selected his cousin for the Papacy, Pope Gregory V. While Otto pardoned Crescentius, once Otto left Crescentius went back to his old tricks. He deposed Gregory V and installed Pope John XVI instead. Otto was sick of all this, so he came back in 998, made Gregory V Pope again, and then killed Crescentius II and Former Pope John XVI. But Gregory V’s second go-around as the pope didn’t last much longer than his first since he died in 999. This is when Otto installed Pope Sylvester II. 

What REALLY Happened

The basic claim behind the Phantom Time hypothesis is that a lot of that history I described DID happen, just not WHEN you think it happened. Everything we think of as happening from 912 AD on happened as we think it happened; we just think it happened 297 years later than it happened. Importantly, 912 AD is when Otto III’s grandfather, Otto I, was born. Further, everything before 613 AD happened as we think it happened AND on the right date. Everything we think happened between 614 AD and 911 AD either did not happen or happened at a different time. The most prominent fabrication is the existence of arguably the most important European figure of the early middle ages, Charlemagne. 

But...why?

The answer is pretty simple: Otto III and his crew were Christian Millenerianists. Thus, he had a vested interest in being the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 1000. Plus, he appointed Sylvester II on what would be 999, so Sylvester II ALSO had a vested interest in perpetuating the fraud. In order to really beef up the Holy Roman Empire for the history books, Otto III wanted a mythical larger-than-life hero to legitimize his claim to the throne. Thus Charlemagne was born.

What’s the evidence?

Calendar

Julius Caesar introduced the aptly named Julian calendar in 45 BC. One problem with the Julian calendar is that it does not line up well with the tropical or solar years, such as the time between vernal equinoxes or summer solstices. Specifically, the Julian calendar runs 11 minutes ahead behind year, or about 18 hours ahead every century.

To fix this, Pope Gregory XIII instituted the creation of a new calendar, the Gregorian calendar, in 1582. In order to deal with the discrepancies between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, ten days needed to be excised. The Julian Calendar ended on October 4 and the new Gregorian calendar began on October 15th. 

And here is where Illig finds a problem. The Julian Calendar began in 45 BC and ended in 1582 AD. That’s 1626 years. Assuming 11 minutes behind a year, that amounts to about 12.5 days off, or rounding up (because why not) 13 days. That means the correction should have been 13 days instead of 10 days. How could this be? Simple: There were only 1326 years in between 45 BC and “1582 AD”, which makes more sense of the 10-day correction.

And, Illig is right about this. Unfortunately for him, there is a much simpler explanation than a rogue emperor sneaking 300 years into history. The simpler explanation is that the Gregorian calendar was not a correction of the Julian calendar from its institution in 45 BC, but rather the fixing of the vernal equinox on March 21st by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, which decided that March 21st was Easter. This is part of a long history of the complicated field of scholarship known as “the Computus” This itself was already a correction of the Julian calendar since the vernal equinox occurred on March 23rd in 45 BC.

By the time 1582 rolled around, the vernal equinox occurred on March 10th even though the Julian calendar dictated that the vernal equinox and thus Easter still occurred on March 21st. Thus the Gregorian reform only needed to correct for 1257 years, which amounts to a little under 10 days. 

Dr. Nietmitz actually makes this mistake more embarrassingly, because he explicitly does the math, subtracting 1257 from 1582 to get 325. But instead of recognizing that this is the year of the Council of Nicaea, he mockingly says,

It seems, unbelievably, that Caesar introduced his calendar in 325 AD. This is unbelievable because by then he had already been dead for more than 300 years.

Romanesque Architecture

Another piece of evidence that Illig cites is the popularity of Romanesque architecture in 10th century Western Europe. Why would an architectural style popular during the Roman Empire still exist several hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire? If Illig’s phantom time chronology is correct, this makes much more sense, since “10th century Europe” is really 7th century Europe, only 150 years after the fall of the Roman empire.

Dr. Niemitz, another phantom timer, gives a specific example of this anachronism: the Chapel of Aachen, officially finished in 805 by Charlemagne. He cites a number of features which, if the official chronology is correct, vanished for 200 years only to reappear in the 11th century. 

There are a number of problems with this argument. There were still Roman buildings around. Think of all the examples of ancient Roman architecture that are still around today. Many, if not most, Romanesque buildings of the time were churches. The Catholic Church as a direct connection to the Western Roman Empire, and thus would probably dig looking at churches with a Romanesque flair. Why such buildings appear mostly in the 10th century rather than earlier was probably an issue of money and stability more than anything else. Oh, and the Eastern Roman Empire WAS TOTALLY STILL AROUND. It didn’t fall until a millennia after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

As for Dr. Nietmetz’s specific example of the Chapel of Aachen, I can’t speak to the specific architectural features he lists. What I do know is that the chapel was used for hundreds of years, including by the Otto’s because of its association with Charlemagne, and underwent renovations from time to time. So it is possible that these “anachronistic” features were actually added centuries after the chapel was constructed.

Relying too much on documentary evidence

Illig also notes that there was very little documentary evidence of the Phantom Time period. Further, descriptions of people and events were left vague in the remaining documents available. Further, there was a campaign to copy ancient texts into a standardized script called the Carolingian minuscule. Because originals were destroyed after this process, Illig alleges that this project was more than capable of falsifying a vast array of documents while destroying the accurate originals.

Niemitz is even more stringent about the use of documentary evidence,

Archaeologists are not permitted to rely on written sources… even if generations of historians have worked on those written sources!

One issue with this argument is what exactly “very little documentary evidence” means. In the 8th and 9th centuries alone, over 7,000 documents in the Carolingian minuscule survive. That seems like a lot to me!  Further, copying such documents by hand was literally the only option for the transmission of knowledge. If forgery was possible here, why not everywhere? 

And as to Niemitz's suggestions that archeologists NEVER use documentary evidence, that is just plain false. After a quick search, I found a recent article on Roman Archeology which mentions the written evidence in the name of the article. It’s true that archeologists don’t want to ONLY use documentary evidence since it can be more indicative of the writer’s bias than reality, it is equally wrong that they never use it.

Lack of archaeological evidence and dating problems

Illig is a skeptic of dating methods applied to archeological finds dated between 614-911. The primary skepticism of the Phantom Time crew is over two dating methods in particular: radiocarbon dating and dendrochronological dating. Radiocarbon dating works by measuring the ratio of C14 to its decay elements. C14 is in the atmosphere, absorbed by plants, and thus absorbed by all organisms. When the organism dies it stops taking in C14, so the C14/C12 ratio tells us when the organism died. Dendrochronological dating uses tree ring data, which is remarkably consistent, to tell us how old a chunk of wood is. 

Radiocarbon dating is corroborated by comparing its results to dendrochronological results and seeing if they match up. Dr. Niemitz provides a nice quick summary of this skepticism,

This shows that each specialist refers to the neighboring discipline to solve his problems of dating – a typical case of circular reasoning. Nobody looks over the whole situation and therefore nobody is astonished that the same structural problems occur in different disciplines.

Basically, radiocarbon dates are corroborated by the use of dendrochronological dates and vice versa, There simply is no way to objectively determine if these methods are sound that isn’t circular.

How can one respond? Niemitz thinks there is just one response:

The most common objection to this idea says that methods of scientific dating are infallible and beyond the danger of circular reasoning.

You probably agree that these dating methods are not infallible. Luckily, there are other responses that can be given. Simply put: we know when a lot of stuff happened. Even the Phantom Time people believe that. If we have wood from those times, we have reasonable dates to place when the trees that wood came from were felled. It’s these benchmarks that allow us to build dendrochronologies.

One useful source is Stephen Dutch, Professor Emeritus in Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. In his article, he addresses criticism about dendrochronological and radiometric dating, specifically how radiocarbon dating of timber at Herculaneum, a Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and from the Dead Sea Scrolls. This allows the calibration of dendrochronological methods. But this is just a small sample.

Plus, radiocarbon dating is based on the physics of C14 decay, which we can verify independently of dendrochronology.

Now, like anything else, there are complications. But Niemitz is completely wrong to suggest that nobody looks over “the whole situation”. One useful resource on dendrochronological dating is “Oaks, tree-rings and wooden cultural heritage: a review of the main characteristics and applications of oak dendrochronology in Europe” by Kristof Haneca, Katarina Cufar, and Hans Beeckman. It’s a review article from 2009 which covers the history and cutting edge of dendrochronology. It has one fun fact; one dendrochronology stretched back, unbroken, to 8480 BC. 

What does Niemitz have to say about all these advancements in dating methods? After all, it is very strange that he only mentions dating work from the 70s or earlier. Apparently, he just doesn’t know it exists,

Why not quote more recent test results (after 1980)? A Hamburg dendrochronologist responded to my request for recent literature in December, 1994: today sequences and dates are no longer published because there exists the danger of abuse. Hobby-dendrochronologists earned money by dating for example timbers of houses for private clients with unreliable methods. So laboratories in Europe and worldwide exchange their dates without publishing them.

This should be indicative of Niemitz’s academic rigor; he literally asked one dude and didn’t bother to check if it was right.

In short, If one is simply going to assert that all dating methods are faulty, and thus we don’t know really know when anything in history happened, I can’t really help you. 

What’s the counter-evidence?

Astronomy

Over the course of history, various astronomical happenings have been recorded by a variety of civilizations. One the basis of what we know about astronomy, we can check those dates and, sure enough, they check out. But if we were really 297-years off, this should be impossible.

For example, the Tang Dynasty in China recorded solar eclipses in 756, 761, 879, and 888, along with partial eclipses in 702, 729, 754, and 822. It turns out these dates are compatible with current astronomical software calculations. Two solar eclipses are also recorded by Pliny the Elder in 59 AD and Photius in 418 AD. They also recorded the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 684, 760, and 837. Again, all these dates add up. If we really were off by 297 years and we retrodicted these eclipses and appearances of Halley’s Comet, then our retrodictions should also be off by 297 years, but they are not.

But let’s make it fun and assume that all these numbers are further forgeries, there is still a problem; how did the forgers have any idea when to date these events? Halley’s Comet is particularly problematic since nobody recognized that it was a single astronomical body that was returning every 76 years.

Eurocentrism

Speaking of the Tang Dynasty, you might have also recognized that all sorts of important stuff happened between 614-911. There’s that whole Islam thing. Muhammad died around 614 and by 911 the Islamic Caliphate was near Roman Empire levels. This would also require Spain being conquered in just a year. This time also corresponds to the Late Classic period in Mesoamerican history, ending with the collapse of the Mayan civilization. Also, there’s the history of Anglo-Saxon England, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Byzantine Empire. It is utterly preposterous that a teenager could pull off a forgery and this scale. 

A Feature, Not a Bug

Dr. Niemitz, however, is not satisfied and thinks he can account for the above problems. In fact, he thinks these problems are a feature rather than a bug.

Byzantine Themes

For the Byzantine empire, Niemitz focuses on what he calls (but no one else does as far as I can tell) the “Reform of the Themes,” themes being the primary administrative units of the Byzantine empire established in the middle of the 7th century and fully formalized by the 9th century. There’s just one problem: Apparently, there are no written or archeological records of this reform. He claims that there are two groups regarding this reform. One group thinks that since the fundamentals of the reform were already worked out in antiquity, basically nothing happened between 600 and 900 AD. Another group thinks that there was a significant reform but it happened so slowly that it produced no written record. Phantom Time offers a better solution entirely: this period of time simply doesn’t exist.

Another possibility, based on all the books written about this time period, is that there totally are written and archeological records of this time period and Niemitz is full of shit. 

The Shahnameh

Niemitz also thinks Phantom Time solves a mystery surrounding the national epic poem of Iran, the Shahnameh. Finished in 1010 AD by Ferdowsi, The Shahnameh is an epic poem dealing with the ancient history of Iran. There is one problem though; the history recounted ends with the last Persian king Yazdegerd III, who died in 651 AD. Why would a historical poem end 350 years too early? Simple; it didn’t! We just got the chronology wrong!

If you don’t think that is very satisfying, it might be because you know something about epic poetry because this is completely standard. The Iliad, for example, was written roughly 800 BC and details the Trojan War which happened in 1200 BC, or 400 years prior. The Aeneid is another example, finished in 19 BC but also taking place roughly in the Homeric Cinematic Universe, or 1200 years before it was finished.

The Umayyad Painting of Khosrow II

Niemitz notes a painting on a palace from the Umayyad Caliphate dating to around 725 AD. This painting depicts the Persian king Khosrow II. Two things are strange about this paint: one, Khosrow II died 100 years before this painting was made, and any figurative paintings would be out of place in an Islamic society that prohibits figurative paintings. Khosrow II also appears on Arabic coins from 695 AD, again several decades after his death.

Niemitz borrows an explanation from Manfred Zeller, who has a split phantom time hypothesis; for Zeller, the phantom times are 583 AD to 661 AD (78 years) and another from 750 AD to 968 AD (218 years). 

So the painting and coins with Khosrow II were not out of place at all. But what about the Islamic prohibition of figurative painting? That’s easy; Niemitz tells us,

Probably Islam did not spread until 10 centuries ago.

But there are two problems here. One, as alluded to above, people make art about older stuff all the time! Hard to believe, but totally true. Also, I bet you have coins in your pocket right this second that depict people who lived a long time ago. I guess we need a new Phantom Time hypothesis in which the US started only a couple of decades ago.

Second, and more interesting, not all Muslims and not all Islamic civilizations prohibit figurative art. In fact, there are very cool paintings featuring Mohammad himself where he has very long sleeves and his head is replaced with fire! There is even a book that came out last year called The Human Figure in Islamic Art by Kjeld Von Folsach and Joachim Meyer.

One final thought; you can’t suggest that the Phantom Time hypothesis solves all these historical research problems and then proceed to use contradictory Phantom Time hypotheses to solve each one.

Sources

Adams, Cecil, “Did the middle ages not really happen?”

Bellows, Alan, “The phantom time hypothesis”

Dunning, Brian, “The phantom time hypothesis”

Koberlein, Brian, “Astronomy, Charlemagne and the mystery of phantom time”

London, Jerome, “Phantom time hypothesis: Was a 300-year chunk of Europe’s ‘dark ages’ completely made up?”

Mick, Coley, “The phantom time hypothesis blog”

Newitz, Annalee, “Infographic explains the phantom time hypothesis in which the Middle Ages never happened”

Niemitz, Hans-Ulrich, “Did the Early Middle Ages Really Exist?”

Serena, Katie, “Bizarre phantom time hypothesis theory says it’s actually the year 1720 because the early middle ages were faked”

Swancer, Brent, “The bizarre world of the phantom time hypothesis”

Wikipedia, “Phantom time hypothesis”

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