BC/AD dating notation

The use of BC/AD is still commonplace in early medieval archaeology and history. For NW Europe, it is still the dominant dating system in use in my fields of research. Over my career thus far, I’ve retained their use as author and then as editor of books and journals and I aim to continue to do so as a default, including for the Offa’s Dyke Journal.

For the discipline of archaeology, leading English-language academic journals such as Antiquity, Medieval Archaeology, Antiquaries Journal, the Archaeological Journal, The European Journal of Archaeology and World Archaeology continue to use BC/AD, although at time of writing I could only find explicit statements on this point in the first two of these (the rest one can confirm their selection by looking at recent published articles.

It is commonly used, widely recognised, and thus, no more or less than using the days of the week or the Gregorian calendar more generally, it presumes no Christian cultural affiliation or religious belief when used in scientific, social scientific, humanities and arts academic contexts.

I’m not passionate about this dating system, but I don’t think I’ve ever published anywhere before where editors have required or encouraged a discussion of its use as opposed to alternatives.

The only alternative dating notation widely utilised by UK archaeologists is in the specific context of discussing radiocarbon and other metric dating techniques: the dates are first and foremost expressed using BP (Before Present, i.e. before 1950) (see the style guide for Antiquity, by way of example).

BCE/CE dating notation

I’ve long been aware that some scholars and publishers have adopted a newer alternative dating system which seeks to address the implicit Christian associations of BC/AD whilst retaining the same calendrical structure: BCE/CE system (Before Common Era/Common Era). Particularly in fields where non-Judaeo-Christian religious systems operate, this clearly operates to signal awareness of, and respect for, other religious systems and worldviews whilst retaining a globally recognised Gregorian calendar. The claim has been made it is more ‘accurate’ (for not claiming to know the date of Christ’s birth) and ‘inclusive’ (in being open globally to scholars of different traditions and faiths).

For much of my career, this choice has tended to be one adopted outside of my discipline, themes, periods and regions of work. I come across it in my reading mostly in use by North American scholars in my field and those particularly working outside NW Europe, such as the Late Antique/early medieval Mediterranean and southwest Asia. It also gets used on social media a lot, but I’m unsure whether anyone regularly attempts to ‘police’ it. I certainly have come to use it more and more since 2020 when speaking to an international public audience via TikTok, but not exclusively and consistently.

Cremation in the Early Middle Ages

Yet for a new book project – Cremation in the Early Middle Ageswhich will have contributions spanning North West Europe in the Early Middle Ages, my co-editor Femke raised the question of whether we should BC/AD or BCE/CE.

Why is this important for us?

Well, firstly we are dealing with a subject that spans the BC/AD (or BCE/CE) divide, and deals with archaeological subjects which touch on a range of other disciplines including history. We are also tackling a theme relevant to global prehistory and historical archaeology – the mortuary practices involving the application of fire. In dealing with mortuary archaeology, our subject relates not only to social, economic and political dimensions of past individuals and communities, but also their mythologies, cosmologies and religious organisations. It is also an inherently ethical subject, so this is the kind of style-guide decision that needs to be considered sensitively in relation to a range of indigenous and descendant communities, not only in those regions we are studying, but across the globe.

My immediate response to Femke was to say that I prefer BC/AD, but I couldn’t muster a strong defence of it on any clear grounds other than it is established practice and that I tend to associate BCE/CE with North American scholars. Equally though, Femke preferred BCE/CE as a more progressive and inclusive choice, but likewise was not strongly advocating it because we were both aware that both dating systems are readily used and known about in early medieval archaeology.

Looking further, it is easy to find popular publications containing rhetorical claims about one and not the other, such as the claim that BCE/CE are ‘nonreligious alternatives’ implying there is something inherently religious about BC/AD when used in academic contexts. Likewise, we have the weight of precedent to keep using BC/AD just because others have done so!

Frustratingly, we identified a publication from 2015 – by Antonio Cavacini – showing that both dating systems are now widely used by scholars but there is no demonstrable trend towards one or the other. In other words ‘it seems that the BCE/CE notation is not growing at the expense of BC and AD notation in the scholarly literature’. Cavacini notes that the Journal of Archaeological Science publishes both dating notations in its articles, showing that a further option towards ‘inclusivity’ is leaving it up to the authors themselves. Overall, however, he puts the status quo of a dual notation publication ecology down to the enforcement of editorial practices by specific journal guidelines. However, this research is not specific and detailed enough for archaeological journals and one could argue this research won’t pick up shifts in popular use by researchers, as in conferences or social media (or indeed on blogs). It certainly isn’t helpful in guiding us specifically on the use of dating notations within early medieval archaeology with its many connections and collaborations with archaeological science, field archaeology as well as other disciplines in medieval studies.

This is the most frustrating issue of all: we have identified no systematic analysis or discussion of the issue in early medieval archaeology to guide us either way but welcome input from anyone who is aware of some! While medieval archaeology journals (and multi-period journals regularly containing research on medieval Europe) retain BC/AD, other period-specific but Europe-wide journals do not specify, getting around the issue by presuming that AD/CE are the standard and no notation is required at all as only more rarely will dates before the first century be referenced. Examples of this include Early Medieval Europe and Viking and Medieval Scandinavia.

Making a decision

This is perhaps not the most important issue to tackle in academic research in 2022, but equally we feel it is a significant and ethical editorial point of deliberation, especially given the interdisciplinary and mortuary subject matter of our collection. So Femke and I felt we did not want to default to BC/AD as still the ‘standard’. Equally, we didn’t want to adopt BCE/CE following what we imagine is a trend that cannot be demonstrable on current research. Both of these decisions would be lazy and ill-considered options. Likewise, we felt it was our responsibility as editors to compose a consistent style guide for our project, not to leave it up to individual preferences of specific authors.

Instead, Femke suggested we put this to social media to decide! She may have said this in jest, but that’s what I went ahead and did! So I set up a poll on Twitter and it attracted a healthy set of comments which confirmed our sense that opinions really are divided and many scholars simply aren’t sure.

Having said that, the 222 votes cast gave a slight but clear preference for BCE/CE: 55% voted for this! So, in the spirit of openness and inclusivity, and as a minor exercise in social media democracy, we are going with BCE/CE for the book! Femke is now finalising the style guide accordingly!

Reflections

We hope this post is useful for others working in early medieval archaeology and related fields.

Also, I wonder how we might further the conversation over dating notations and other stylistic choices in our early medieval archaeology and other scholarly work?

I’d prefer it if we didn’t just advocate for change without a clear vision of how and whether it will shift perspectives and attitudes.

Equally banal is to refuse to budge ‘just because things are the way they are’.

One things is clear, Femke and I felt strongly that we shouldn’t compromise or leave it to individual authors, nor simply ‘go with the flow’.

Instead, we are ‘going with Twitter’ (for better or worse) which at least gives us a sense of how scholars feel about this topic right now, rather than defer to what people have said about this years ago!