How would your life change if the year we live in is actually 1719? No, not the 1719 you learned about in the history books. The short (and unexpected) answer to that question is, life would not change that much. The internet would still exist, the current election cycle would be in full swing, and Starbucks Coffee holiday cups would somehow still cause a new controversy every year. Then how is this possible you ask? Again, the answer is short: that 297 years of history known as the Early Dark Ages never existed. Or at least that’s what German pseudo-historians Dr. Heribert Illig and the late Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz want you to believe. In this module I will examine their Phantom Time Hypothesis critically with the hope of showing common mistakes and misconceptions conspiracy theorists make. At the end of this module you, the reader, should feel more confident understanding the tactics certain conspiracy theories use to gain traction and how to critically analyze conspiracies when confronted in the future.

What is the Phantom Time Hypothesis?

The Phantom Time Hypothesis, first posed by Illig in 1991 and multiple times since, states that the years 614 CE – 911 CE never existed and that “history” from this time is forged[1]. This hypothesis relies on three major tenants: 1) the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1582[2]. 2) The lack of societal growth or development during this time period. This includes a lack of archeological evidence from “art, literature, and cultural artefacts[3]“, anachronistic architecture, and inadequate archaeological dating methods. 3) And finally, the abundance of and dissemination of falsified and forged documents from this period across Europe.

The hypothesis proposed by Illig attributes the insertion of 297 fake years of history to the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII, the German emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II[4]. According to Illig, Otto III viewed himself as “Christ’s representative and vicar on earth, who would ring in the last 1000 years on earth[5].” Due to this belief Otto III desired to rule in the year 1,000 as it aligned with early Christian millenarism[6]. Aided by Sylvester II, as clergy were among some of the only literate people during this time, the Byzantine and German empires created a new timeline of history, later filled in with false documents primarily created and spread by the Catholic church.

Niemitz expands on Illig’s original hypothesis to include a second possibility, that Constantine VII of the Byzantine empire “organized a complete rewriting of the whole Byzantine history[7].” Niemitz claims that this is supported by the fact that starting in 835 monks in Byzantine began transcribing each piece of history from “Greek maiuscula” to the new form of writing “minuscula[8]”. Niemitz further posits that after each document was transferred the original was burned and the new document took its place—meaning what is known today as early Byzantine history could very well have been entirely made up in the span of only two generations.

Both possibilities rely on the same evidence. The primary source cited as definitive evidence by proponents of the Phantom Time Hypothesis is the shift from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Basically after centuries of using the Julian calendar, dates no longer corresponded with astronomical occurrences, such as the lunar equinox. At this time Pope Gregory XIII decided to skip 10 days to make up for accumulated time during October of 1582. According to Niemitz, using the Julian calendar it takes 1,257 to account for 10 lost days. However, 1,257 years subtracted from the year 1582 results in the year 325 CE. If the 10 day leap were correcting for when the Julian calendar was first implemented it would need to result in the year 45 BC. Niemitz and Illig assert that the phantom era would not exist if Gregory had skipped 13 days that October[9]. Figure 1 shows where Niemitz asserts the phantom years are distributed across history.

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-6-12-08-am
Figure 1. This hand drawn depiction of the Phantom Time Hypothesis is found in Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz’s article “Did the Early Middle Ages Really Exist?”. Niemitz along with Dr. Heribert Illig worked together to develop the chronology conspiracy.

The second form of evidence cited by both Illig and Niemitz is the lack of archaeologic evidence from the phantom era, and thus multiple examples of anachronistic architecture and jumps in cultural timelines. Part of this justification is the lack of societal advancement during this period. This includes a total lack of art artifacts, agricultural advancements and innovations, as well as a reliance by archaeologists on dendrochronology, a dating technique that uses tree rings to date periods of time, and written documents. Tree rings depend on climate conditions of each year and produce different sized rings based on conditions such as annual rain fall[10] (see Figure 2 for a visual representation of the dating technique: Dendrochronology). However, Niemitz asserts that “using this method one easily commits errors[11],” and without an adequate number of viable wood samples it is impossible to infallibly date the Early Dark Age. Niemitz is not the only theorist to claim that dendrochronology is inadequate in dating the phantom era. Swedish software designer and technical writer Lars-Ake Larsson acts as a hobbyist and dendrochronologist. He posts on the blog “Cybis Dendrochronology” under the username “ake” about various topics that include dendrochronology. Many of the posts on this site deal with time falsification and dating periods of antiquity[12].

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-6-14-48-am
Figure 2. This figure illustrates how the Archaeological absolute dating technique dendrochronology uses samples to help date organic, wood materials throughout history. Dendrochronology has been used both by supporters of the Phantom Time Hypothesis and those who are against the conspiracy to show both how and how not the method is effective.

Finally, Illig and Niemitz claim that 297 years of history are false because thousands of documents from the early middle ages are in fact false. The phenomenon of forged documents in medieval times was the subject of a major conference in Germany in the year 1986. The findings from this conference were published in six volumes, lschungen im Mittelalter. It is considered a “major contribution to the study of forgery in the middle ages[13].” The Phantom Time Hypothesis asserts that forgeries created during these times were used to invent history and historical figures that never existed[14]. Key among these mythical figures is the famous Charlemagne, the Frankish king who united much of the European continent during the Carolingian Renaissance.

Who are the key players?

The main proponents of the Phantom Time Hypothesis are Dr. Heribert Illig, the late Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz, their followers, and other individuals who have attached support to various aspects of the hypothesis—such as Lars-Ake Larsson.

Illig does not describe himself as a historian. His PhD is in the study of Viennese icon Egon Friedell. His past research and projects have also focused on false historical timelines, for example in ancient Egypt. Since 1995 Illig has published his own magazine “Mantis-Verlag” which operates as a forum for discussion around chronology criticism[15]. Illig seems to have a vested interest in this theory, he has published many books on the subject and speaks around the world about the Phantom Time Hypothesis.

Niemitz was an engineer who held various high level museum and teaching positions before pursuing a second area of expertise. After receiving a doctorate in the History and Ethics of Science and Technology Niemitz worked with Illig to create the Phantom Time Hypothesis, he even coined the term “phantom time[16].” Niemitz focused on the unreliability of dendrochronology and radio carbon dating as infallible dating methods for the Early Dark Age[17].

A third supporter of the Phantom Time Theory is Swedish researcher and hobbyist Lars-Ake Larsson. After digging through multiple chat sites, self-publishing platforms and the blog “Cybis Dendrochronology” it appears that Larsson publishes under the username “ake” and focuses research on chronology criticism specifically through the use of the dendrochronology dating method[18]. In a post about the Phantom Time Hypothesis “ake” describes their interest in the hypothesis, the steps taken to publish a peer reviewed article about the discrepancies in dating from the phantom era, and the ultimate decision—after multiple rounds of rejection from peer reviewed journals— that it was not the appropriate avenue to open discussion about chronology criticism.

What truths can be seen in the Phantom Time Hypothesis?

There are a few real shreds of truth in the proposed creation of nearly 300 years of history. Namely, the mass forgery of documents from this time period. Debate within the scientific community is still rampant surrounding the use of written accounts as fact. But one thing that is not debated as much in recent academia is the existence of medieval forgeries. As stated above, six volumes have been published on the topic and are considered a “major contribution to the study of forgery in the middle ages, and set the standard against which subsequent work must be assessed[19]”. While the existence of forgeries is debated less often, what is debated is the reasons for such forgeries. The Phantom Time Hypothesis asserts it is to cover up for inserted time, other researchers assert they are backdated accounts of history.

What role do logical fallacies play in the Phantom Time Hypothesis?

The Phantom Time Hypothesis is based on many logical fallacies. One main reason for this is the pseudoscientific nature of the conspiracy. Although the conspiracy is presented in a scientific way it disregards aspects of the scientific method and thus lacks important scientific evidence.

One main logical fallacy is the use of Stacking the Deck. This is seen in almost every single publication related to the Phantom Time Hypothesis. By citing only sources that support the hypothesis and “ignoring examples that disprove the point[20]” the proponents of the Phantom Time Hypothesis are effectively diminishing the credibility of the theory. Examples include Niemitz citing Illig and other phantom era proponents profusely in his paper, as well as citing himself. By relying on his partner as his main expert it creates a closed loop of information between the two of them.

Another logical fallacy this conspiracy relies on is the appeal to a lack of evidence[21]. This basically means that since there is not enough evidence to disprove the hypothesis then it must be true (at least until more research can be done). Niemitz plainly states at the end of his paper “Did the Early Middle Ages Really Exist?” that because no scientist can disprove the theory, he and his colleagues are looking for sponsorship to continue spreading the word.

A third logical fallacy is proof by assertion[22]. This especially comes into play when explaining away the existence of Charlemagne. When approached with evidence or analysis of Charlemagne’s rule, the Phantom Time Hypothesis simply says that Charlemagne is a fictitious character that was created by Otto III. Well what of his accomplishments? Figments of Otto’s imagination. What of his leadership style? Another one of Otto’s creations. the hypothesis uses only this explanation even when faced with different pieces of evidence.

What falsehoods or fabrications can be seen in the Phantom Time Hypothesis?

charlemagne_coin
Figure 3. A Roman “denarius” or piece of currency that depicts Charlemagne (who became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 CE). The Phantom Time Hypothesis posits that Charlemagne is hero invented by Otto III, however this physical evidence of his existence counters that theory.

One of the biggest claims of the Phantom Time Hypothesis is that Charlemagne—the great king who ruled over various parts of Europe during the phantom era—is a character in history invented by Otto III. Charlemagne was not only respected as the Frankish King, but also the King of Italy and the first Roman Emperor in western Europe in nearly three centuries. The Phantom Time Hypothesis however asserts that Charlemagne is Otto’s imaginative “model hero he himself wanted to be[23].” However the only evidence supporting this is the Phantom Time Hypothesis itself. Meaning, it can be proven if the time when Charlemagne “existed” is phantom, however without that it is merely speculation. As seen in Figure 3, there is physical evidence in currency that points to Charlemagne’s rule over the Holy Roman Empire.

What questions does the Phantom Time Hypothesis raise?

What infrastructure or resources does it need? This raises a good point that dates back to when the phantom era would have been created. The major concern with the Phantom Time Hypothesis is the extreme Eurocentrism displayed in the conspiracy. For the conspiracy to be true not only would European history be affected, but so would that of the entire world. During this time period in the far east was the prolific Tang Dynasty. This time period also covers the life of Muhammad and Islamic expansion across the former Roman Empire. These major occurrences in history would need to reconcile the misdating, and would need to somehow explain or fabricate their own 297 years of history.

If it is an old conspiracy — who gains what from maintaining it? At the most basic terms, the Phantom Time Hypothesis asks believers to give up the axiom (an assertion that is seen as true, one that no one has ever doubted. In this case time.) that the timeline of history is real and unchanging. While no one may directly benefit or suffer from revealing the forged 297 years, it would be a massive discovery for historians and movement in understanding early history.

What characteristics of propaganda can be seen in the Phantom Time Hypothesis?

Once characteristic of propaganda that can be seen in the conspiracy is the use of guilt to make an audience question their own beliefs. In the case of the Phantom Time Hypothesis, “guilt, whether real or imagined, often leads to compliance[24].” The texts associated with the conspiracy ask the audience what will happen if the is isn’t solved, and it what it means for mankind as a whole to find out that our chronology and by extension history is false. While at first glance it may not seem an obvious use of guilt, it makes sense that by preying on emotions (especially guilt) the proponents can gain monetary sponsorship, acceptance by the academic world, or even just name recognition.

Conclusion

While it is exciting to imagine that we may be living in the 18 century, it is important to think critically when confronted with disarmingly realistic conspiracies. Especially when confronted with pseudoscientific conspiracies that seem like science that cannot be argued. Look to the logical fallacies that define the rhetoric used. Does it bypass the need for evidence by pushing it off to another source? Does it only present a few “experts” for evidence, stacking the deck in its favor? If this is the case continue with an eye for what else could be fabricated. It is not impossible that a theory is actually right and unfortunately uses poor arguments, but more often than not, clear and thorough analysis of the logic used and the biases presented will be able to separate the scientific method from pure pseudoscience.

References:

[1] One of the founders of the Phantom Time Hypothesis, Dr. Hans-Ulrich Niemitz focuses on expanding Dr. Heribert Illig’s original theory by further exploring archaeological pitfalls and multiple theoretical outcomes of the conspiracy.

Niemitz, Hans-Ulrich. (2000, April 03). Did the Early Middle Ages Really Exist?. Retrieved from: http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~mgk25/volatile/Niemitz-1997.pdf. Pg 1.

[2]h2g2 is an online community dedicated to creating an ever expanding guide to life. This is achieved by publishing thousands of articles on topics that interest community members. Articles are reviewed by editors and other users before being posted.

h2g2. (2012, Jan. 12). The Phantom Time Hypothesis. In h2g2 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Earth Edition. Retrieved from: http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A85654957/.

[3] h2g2, 2012.

[4] Transcription of presentation given by Illig in 2005 on the Phantom Time Hypothesis.

Turul. (2008, March 24). The Phantom Time Theory of Heribert Illig [Msg #1]. Message posted to https://forums.skadi.net/showthread.php?t=97465.

[5] Turual, 2008.

[6] Niemitz, 2000, p. 9.

[7] Niemitz, 2000, p. 10.

[8] Niemitz, 2000, p. 10.

[9] Niemitz, 2000, p. 2. AND Turual, 2008.

[10] Ryan, D. P. (1999, Jan. 1). The Lowdown on Dating. In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Lost Civilizations (pp. 37-48). New York City: Alpha Books. Pp. 42-43.

[11] Niemitz, 2000, p. 6.

[12]ake. Dendro audit [Blog: Cybris Dendrochronology, home page]. Retrieved from: http://www.cybis.se/dendro/.

[13] Röhrkasten, J. (2006). Shorter Notice [Review of The Making of Medieval Forgeries: False Documents in Fifteenth-Century England]. Retrieved from: http://ehr.oxfordjournals.org/content/CXXI/490/280.full.

[14] Turual, 2008.

[15] Illig, H. Mantis-Verlag: Literatur zur Chronologie-Kritik und mehr. Retrieved from: http://www.mantis-verlag.de/.

[16] Obituary written about Hans-Ulrich Niemitz.

Lenz, M. (2010, Nov. 08). Hans-Ulrich Niemitz * Memories. FAKTuell. Retrieved from: http://www.faktuell.de/hintergrund/580-hans-ulrich-niemitz-erinnerungen.

[17] Niemitz, 2000, p. 5.

[18] ake. Dendro audit [Blog: Cybris Dendrochronology, post]. Retrieved from: http://www.cybis.se/dendro/dendro-audit/.

[19] Röhrkasten, 2006.

[20] Wheeler, L. K. Logical Fallacies Handlist: Arguments to Avoid when Writing [PDF document]. Retrieved from: https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Logic_Fallacies_List.pdf.

[21]Wheeler, L. K. Logical Fallacies Handlist: Arguments to Avoid when Writing [PDF document]. Retrieved from: https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Logic_Fallacies_List.pdf.

[22] Logically Fallacious. Argument by Repetition. In Logically Fallacious. Retrieved from: https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/49/Argument-by-Repetition

[23] Niemitz, 2000, p. 10.

[24] Pratkanis, A. & Aronson, E. (1991) Emotional appeals. Excerpts from A. Pratkanis & E. Aronson (Eds.), Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion (pp. 161-178). New York: WH Freeman and Company. p. 177.

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