From Academic Kids

For the card strategy game, see Anachronism (game).

An anachronism (from Greek ana, back, and chronos, time) is something that is out of its natural time or that appears to be so. For example, if a play set during the Roman Republic portrays Julius Caesar using a computer, the computer is an anachronism.


Historical anachronisms

An anachronism can be an artifact which appears out of place archaeologically or geologically. For example, some see the Antikythera mechanism and Baghdad Battery as anachronisms because they appear more technologically advanced than one might expect for their period. However, an apparent anachronism may reflect our ignorance rather than a genuine chronological anomaly and may be resolved when our knowledge increases.

A popular view of history presents an unfolding of the past in which humanity has a primitive start and progresses toward development of technology. Every culture has a horizon that delineates what Fernand Braudel termed 'the limitations of the possible.' Anachronisms, such as Julius Caesar's bicycle, lie beyond these limits.

Unearthed anachronistic artifacts demonstrate contradictions to the mainstream historians' ideas of antiquity. Some archaeologists believe that seeing these artifacts as anachronisms underestimates the technology and creativity available to people at the time, although others believe that these are evidence of alternate or "fringe" timelines of human history. Anachronisms do not fit the established pattern of history, indicating the existence of technology before it has been accepted as being "invented". The anachronism artifacts may confirm ancient tales describing alternate or "fringe" timelines of human history.

Social anachronisms

The term is also often used (more metaphorically) to describe the experience of encountering things in general life which appear to be out of place in time, though on a literal level they are not. Monarchies and other overly lavish political traditions from past centuries are considered by many to be quite anachronistic, as are some old-fashioned languages and certain religious traditions. Moral values which were prevalent in another time period, which have now fallen out of favor, may also be referred to as anachronistic.

Anachronisms in art and fiction

Anachronism is used especially in works of imagination that rest on a historical basis. Anachronisms may be introduced in many ways, originating, for instance, in disregard of the different modes of life and thought that characterize different periods, or in ignorance of the progress of the arts and sciences and other facts of history. They vary from glaring inconsistencies to scarcely perceptible misrepresentation. It is only since the close of the 18th century that this kind of deviation from historical reality has jarred on a general audience. Anachronisms abound in the works of Raphael and Shakespeare, as well as in those of less celebrated painters and playwrights of earlier times.

In particular, the artists, on the stage and on the canvas, in story and in song, assimilated their characters to their own nationality and their own time. Roman soldiers appear in Renaissance military garb. The Virgin Mary was represented in Italian works with Italian characteristics, and in Flemish works with Flemish ones. Alexander the Great appeared on the French stage in the full costume of Louis XIV of France down to the time of Voltaire; and in England the contemporaries of Joseph Addison found unremarkable (in Pope's words)

"Cato's long wig, flower'd gown, and lacquer'd chair."

Shakespeare's audience did not ask whether the University of Wittenberg had existed in Hamlet's day, or whether bells were used in Julius Caesar's ancient Rome.

However, in many works, such anachronisms are not simply the result of ignorance, which would have been corrected had the artist simply had more historical knowledge. Renaissance painters, for example, were well aware of the differences in costume between ancient times and their own, given the renewed attention to ancient art in their time, but often chose to depict ancient scenes in contemporary guise. Rather, these anachronisms reflect a difference of emphasis from the 19th and 20th century attention to depicting details of former times as they "actually" were. Artists and writers of earlier times were usually more concerned with other aspects of the composition, and the fact that the events depicted took place long in the past was secondary. Such a large number of differences of detail required by historic realism would have been a distraction.

By contrast, in recent times, the progress of archaeological research and the more scientific spirit of history have encouraged audiences and artists to view anachronism as an offense or mistake.

Dramatic productions sometimes use anachronism for effect. In particular, directors of Shakespeare's plays may use costumes and props, not only of Shakespeare's day or their own, but of any era in between, or of an imagined future: the musical Return to the Forbidden Planet crosses The Tempest with popular music to create a science fiction musical. A similar approach was used in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, in which a diverse selection of 20th-century music is used over a fin de siècle backdrop.

Comedic works of fiction set in the past may use anachronism for a humorous effect. Mel Brooks' 1974 film Blazing Saddles, set in the Wild West in 1875, contains many blatant anachronisms from the 1970s, including a stylish Gucci costume for the sheriff, an automobile, a scene at Grauman's Chinese Theater, and frequent references to Hedy Lamarr. The cartoon The Flintstones depicts many modern appliances in a prehistoric setting. The outlandishness of these anachronisms adds to these works' humor.

Even with careful research, science fiction writers risk anachronism as their works age, because of things they failed to predict: many books nominally set in the mid-21st century assume the continuing existence of the Soviet Union, for example.

With the detail required for a modern historical movie it is easy to introduce anachronisms. The 1995 hit film Apollo 13 contains numerous errors including the use of the incorrect NASA logo and the appearance of The Beatles' "Let It Be" album a month before it was actually released.


Some people suffer from a psychological condition called anachronistic displacement, referring to an obsessive or dysfunctional belief or claim that a person "belongs" or should properly exist in another time period, and are thus unable to deal with ordinary factors in the everyday world.

See also

da:Anakronisme de:Anachronismus sv:Anakronism fr:Anachronisme


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