Today a weird guy with a pointy hat offered me and my friends to play a game: We will all travel back in time, to a random date somewhen from the antiquity to modern times. We will have a limited amount of time to do whatever we want before returning to our current world. After that time, each of us tries to guess the date we travelled to and the winner is the one who comes closest to the real date they travelled to.


  • It's not time travel per se, but more a kind of simulation, so interaction in the past won't have impact on the present.
  • We will all travel to the same time period, but we will not be able to interact with each other.
  • We will stay more or less in the same area, i.e. western Europe. Sometimes in the middle of a forest, sometimes inside a city, but always western Europe.
  • Each of us are fluent in French, and know some basics of English, Spanish and German. Local people will speak the language that was spoken during their time period in their specific region.
  • We are not historians, and even subjects to some TV-tropes and other cliches.
  • We can't bring any device with us, like a computer or astronomical tools.
  • The amount of time before we come back to the current time period is unknown to us, but always between 5 minutes and 5 days. Ideally, I would like a method to do a rough estimation, and narrow it more and more untill I came back to modern times.
  • If you die in the simulation, you go back to the present. Being killed have no impact on current time, but is still good to avoid as you can feel pain and you will have less time than others to estimate on what period you landed
  • We have no time to prepare ourself: the wizard just give us few minutes so we can decide if we want to play, but no time to learn greek or do a PHD in history. I can do a quick google research like translate a phrase in latin, but nothing that take more than a minute.
  • Estimation such as "X year of reign of dude Y" are accepted if it's the contemporary way to count years
  • You have to answer immediately after you get back

This might be seen as a duplicate of the question My time machine needs to know when it is at first, but that question focuses on tools and science (astronomy, carbon dating...) to have an exact dating, while my question focuses on estimation using no tools, interacting with local folks, trying to evaluate technological advance, studying architecture...

How could I know when I landed?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Aug 7 '18 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ Do you know that it will be during the human era? The vast majority of the history of the Earth happened before the first humans. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Aug 7 '18 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't do any of the answers mentioned below. I would simply listen to the language spoken by people, if i can speak it, i'll simply play a game with people, where I guess their age (i'll say i'm a magician!) and when i'm wrong (obviously) i'll ask for the real age and date of birth of the person. i'll do that with many people. If i can't speak their language, i'll cover my head and play age divination with numbers and a paper without saying a word (people might even pay me to talk to me xD) $\endgroup$ – Tech Tech Aug 26 '18 at 15:34

13 Answers 13


It's hard to come with a single method that both works when you have 5 minutes in a dense forest, and 5 days in a city. But here are some ideas:

  • Find out who the current pope is.
  • Locate a graveyard (or a church with in-church burial), search for the most recent date on a tomb stone.
  • Search through church records (weddings, burials, baptism) for the most recent date. If you've landed (or rather, suspect to be landed) in the 19th, 20th or 21st century, search through city records. (How to get access to those records is left as an exercise for the reader).
  • Try to find out what the current art movements are. (This will work better the more you are to current times).
  • Availability/scarcity of food in general, or specific foods. Is salt scarce? Is sugar available? How do carrots look like? Do people drink tea? Coffee? Are exotic spices available? If so, how affordable are they?
  • If you know (or figured out) where you are: which landmarks are there, and which ones are not there yet?
  • What type of clothing do people wear?
  • What kind of ships/boats are people using?
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    $\begingroup$ If you’ve landed in the 19th, 20th or 21st centuries, you don’t need to find public records. Just go into a newsagent’s shop and look at the dates on the newspapers, which will get you the exact date. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Aug 3 '18 at 11:06
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    $\begingroup$ Tombstone scheme is good! $\endgroup$ – Willk Aug 3 '18 at 11:59
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    $\begingroup$ coinage will also be a good rough estimate. especially if you can look a t a lot of it. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 3 '18 at 19:23
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    $\begingroup$ As for getting access to records marriage records were basically public record. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 3 '18 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, this also falls apart the further back you go. Might work well after the spread of Christianity, but before that, you’re going to have a lot of trouble finding a church. Never mind sugar or tea. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Aug 4 '18 at 2:46
  • Search for some money: coins were made according to the reigning king, they might give a fair estimate for the period you are in.
  • If you are in a major city, take a look at the most recent churches or religious building. Their architectural style can hint to the period.
  • Search for potatoes, corn and tomatoes. At least you can tell if you are before or after 1492.
  • Search for some soldiers: their weapons and uniform can point you to a time period.
  • I would not ask around "which year is this?", as it would be highly suspect. Once you have a rough estimate of the region and the time period, try asking how long has it been since . I.e. if you suspect you are in the South of Italy shortly after the Battle of Canne, try asking "how long ago was the battle of Canne? 5 years?"
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    $\begingroup$ I would not be able to tell date based on coins depicting kings (unless the coins has dates on them obviously), by church design, soldier uniform or know about potatoes without pretty well history knowledge $\endgroup$ – sch Aug 3 '18 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch - the time traveler's costume, and perhaps his face, would obviously look foreign, so admitting that he is a traveler wouldn't surprise anyone, so he could ask what is the year and date according to their local system. If he can speak with the natives at all. Even when the Julian calendar became used in all Europe, centuries after it was first adopted in 44 BC, there were still many local differences in when the year started and when the year count started from, so people familiar with travelers should not find the question too strange. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Aug 3 '18 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding of course, the corollary to that is that knowing the local date might not be of any use in guessing the "modern" version of that date $\endgroup$ – alexgbelov Aug 3 '18 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ @alexgbelov - Yes, Portugal was the last western European country to switch to AD year counting. Portugal used the Spanish Era or Era of the Caesars which had its year one in 38 BC, until switching to Anno Domini in 1422 AD. So if the time traveler was told it was the year 1300 in Portugal, it would actually be about 1262 AD, and he could lose if another time traveler guessed the year correctly within 20 years, for example. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Aug 3 '18 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Kiski - I have extensive knowledge of the reigns of various European rulers through history, far more that most people. But I know most of them by their regnal numbers, which were mostly given by historians centuries later. So the people would know rulers by their nicknames, which I am not so familiar with. So I would have to ask questions about previous rulers and foreign rulers, and recent important events, and so on. If I could speak the language, of course. $\endgroup$ – M. A. Golding Aug 3 '18 at 22:25

You only need to learn the phrase "What year is it?" in Latin. If you can find civilization, you'll most likely find clergy and they can answer your question.

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    $\begingroup$ And in Greek. Before the 1st century CE the chances of being understood in Greek were quite a bit larger than in Latin. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 3 '18 at 8:43
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    $\begingroup$ Nice one, but I'm not sure to find a clergy man in a short amount of time, don't speak latin (i could quickly check on google translate just before we start the game, but no more), and as BC/AD was not common untill medieval time ("fifth year of reign of Caius" wont help me), it won't work 100% time. Still a good and quick way to win $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Aug 3 '18 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Kepotx “The fifth year of the reign of Caius” is the date you travelled to, and so should be enough to win the competition. You didn’t specify in what era the date should be. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Aug 3 '18 at 8:50
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    $\begingroup$ It's of little use to know that single Latin question if you can't translate the answer (in Latin or the mother tongue of the priest). $\endgroup$ – Annatar Aug 3 '18 at 11:40
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    $\begingroup$ @JamieClinton Why not? Catholic clergy haven't stopped speaking Latin. $\endgroup$ – Krateng Aug 3 '18 at 16:25

There are a few simple technologies that should be very widespread that you can look for. Stirrups (you’re almost certainly in the 8th century or later), chimneys (16th century in ordinary homes), horse collars (10th century), iron horseshoes (12th century), glass windows (17th century in ordinary homes).

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    $\begingroup$ Mirrors. Smoking. $\endgroup$ – Anthony Aug 3 '18 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Anthony Yes, two more fine examples. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Aug 3 '18 at 11:11
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    $\begingroup$ Being immediately arrested for wearing the wrong colours, anywhere from 13th to 17thC $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 3 '18 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Anthony, I don't know if you are giving those as 2 additional items worth searching for or suggesting that Mike's answer is susceptible to trickery? idioms.thefreedictionary.com/smoke+and+mirrors $\endgroup$ – RyanfaeScotland Aug 6 '18 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ He who lives in glass houses with chimneys shouldn't throw horseshoes. $\endgroup$ – Anthony Aug 6 '18 at 15:14

Find the nearest Pub, Tarvern, or Bar. You only need to play drunk and know one sentense in the different language you encounter.

Now repeat after me and don't worry about the accent you are drunk:

"My Wife is going to kill me! What day/month/year it is?"

And you can also locate yourself with this trick.

My Wife is going to kill me! Where the fuck m'I?"

If there is no bar, pub or tavern.. I don't know what is the worst beeing lost in time or no bar, pub, nor tavern.

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    $\begingroup$ For the latter, people will tell you where you are. "The Red Cox" or something. Not "East Saxonbridge in Swansealand". $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Aug 4 '18 at 20:41

You should first make a rough guesstimate of which time period you are in (based on architecture, fashion, tools, etc. that you see), and then go from there:

modern times

If things seem more or less modern, say 18th century or more, look for a newspaper, which should have the current date. Newspapers came into existence in the 17th century, so from the 18th or so onward they should be common enough that you can find one easily.

middle ages

From around the 12th century, figure out where you are, by language. If you seem to be in England or France, or in some place that seems more or less organized, go to the local church and get a look at their records. The middle ages were notoriously beaurocratic and kept an excellent record of births, deaths, marriages, taxes on market stalls, sizes of grounds of each farmer family and a hundred more things. Typically, the local church was the place for these records. They will contain the date somewhere.

early dark ages

Between the downfall of the Roman Empire and the middle ages, things are a bit messy. Your best bet might be tombstones or churches where dates are inscribed and then making a guess on how old they are. This far back, these are likely also the only things that you have a good chance of reading and understanding as what passed for english (or french, spanish, etc.) at that time is not very close to our modern versions. And remember that dates are most likely to be inscribed in roman style (i.e. MMXVIII)

Roman Empire

If it seems that romans are around (look for latin inscriptions on still-in-use buildings, or roman fashion), and you speak a bit of latin or can memorize a few phrases, simply ask for the date. Yes, it might be weird, but Rome was a mix of so many cultures that especially if you seem foreign and speak bad latin, it is quite plausible that you don't know the year by roman reckoning.

Note that you could land in the time of the Roman Empire but outside its borders (Scotland, Scandinavia, Northern Germany, etc.) in which case the section below applies.


If you don't see any roman roads around, and it clearly isn't yet the middle ages as well, you are in antiquity. Good luck. There will be almost no writing or inscriptions available, nor will anyone speak something that you would recognize as a language you know, even if it is an ancestor of such. Your best bet is to look at what tools, clothes and building style people have and then make a wild guess.

(for example, you can look if there are iron tools - but iron working was introduced between 1100 BC and 500 BC, depending on which part of Europe you are in - and good luck finding that out.)

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    $\begingroup$ Combine this with SZCZERZO KŁY's star gazing answer. I'm an engineer. I like redundant systems. $\endgroup$ – Arluin Aug 3 '18 at 18:21

You look to the stars.
And look for the Barnard' Star. And the distance from a line you setup at the moment of travel. The thing is that Barnard star travel a "pinky length" every 350 years Observing star for amateur astronomer.
So you just measure the pinkies and approx. the time with +/- 175 years.

you would need some more time than 5 minutes but I assure you that if you get spawned in forest prior to industrialization (and some part of modern times) even 1 day could not be enough to get to any signs of civilization.

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    $\begingroup$ Barnard’s Star is much too dim to see with the naked eye (magnitude 9.5), and you can’t take any equipment with you. It wasn’t even discovered until the late 19th century. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Aug 3 '18 at 9:39
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    $\begingroup$ @SZCZERZOKŁY You don’t know where it should be, because as you mentioned it has a very large proper motion, and you don’t know what date it is. And you have no way to actually see it and thus verify where it is. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Aug 3 '18 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ @SZCZERZOKŁY You can’t see the red dot. It’s very faint indeed, much to faint to see with the naked eye. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Aug 3 '18 at 10:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Sumyrda Anyone who has a telescope good enough to see Barnard’s Star will certainly know what date it is, so it would be a lot easier to just ask them. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Aug 3 '18 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Sumyrda Also, as mentioned in the answer, Barnard’s Star will only tell you the date +/- 175 years. If there’s a telescope good enough to see it, I can already tell you that the date is 1850, +/- 175 years. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Aug 3 '18 at 15:37

Perhaps you could look up, in both Latin and Greek if possible, a question akin to "How many years ago did Jesus Christ come to earth?" With a little convincing, and communication with any member of the church, friar, monk or priest, you would likely be able to play ignorant enough that it would seem like a naive question rather than the ramblings of a madman. Obviously, anyone with any sort of religious education would know Year A.D. = years since Jesus' birth. Would be quick and dirty, plus most of Europe would be within a few days of the nearest religious figure.

Keep in mind, calendars change and are variable. However, the Catholic Church has been pretty solid on having at least internal consistency. If you're dealing with Catholics, Pre-1582 dates should be specified in the Julian Calendar. Since local time systems seem to be acceptable to the wizard, that should work. After 1582 it may be a little shaky, but good God-fearing Catholics will generally be on the Gregorian Calendar. Protestant Europe would be trickier, but then again, Jesus' birth would still be a good milestone, and a decent first-pass guess. Vernacular mass will be a dead giveaway if you're in Protestant country.

Another option would be to get the basic formula of a Catholic Mass down, and pray (haha) that your period of time allows you to get to Mass. I believe Catholic Latin Mass should generally reference the name of the reigning Pope. That gives you a pretty narrow window, for most places and times. And if the mass is being held in NOT Latin, that's a pretty huge hint too.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. This is a good first answer, but it would be improved by pointing out the calendaring system has changed several times since AD0 and what we think as AD0 today isn't what someone a millennium ago would think is AD0 (though it would be a reasonable guess). $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 3 '18 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ That's a good point. Pope would likely be more reliable! Let me add a little bit more about calendars. @JBH $\endgroup$ – AnxiousFiend Aug 3 '18 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH Our calendaring system doesn’t even have AD0, and never has done. It goes straight from 1BC to 1AD, with no year zero in between. That’s why the 21st century started at the beginning of 2001 rather than 2000. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Aug 3 '18 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeScott :-) That's a good point. I was cranking out an observation and didn't put enough thought into it. Thanks for clarifying. $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 3 '18 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ I've gone to masses in languages I don't understand well, and I can attest that it's hard to pick out the name of the pope and bishop. $\endgroup$ – Jetpack Aug 4 '18 at 17:34

Not really an answer, but if you are more than 500 or 600 years in the past, the local French or English will be hard for you to understand.

Best case scenario, it will be easier for you to understand a drunken Quebecois or Irishman than someone speaking Middle French or Middle English. And the further you go in time the worst it will be.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Marc! If you have a moment, please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Here is a meta post on the culture and style of Worldbuilding.SE, just to help you understand our scope and methods, and how we do things here. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Gryphon Aug 3 '18 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ “You can’t, because [reason]” is a perfectly valid answer. This is not a great answer, but it is an answer. You can’t really get a good estimate of what year it is when you have no tools, and the only thing you do have (language) is going to be incomprehensible due to changes over time. (Or so this line of thinking goes. It’s even mostly right.) $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Aug 3 '18 at 20:26

During your minutes of prep time, look up how to write "What year is it?" in as many languages as you can think of. You already have a head start because you already know this phrase in four of the most useful languages, so you can try to learn Italian, Latin, Dutch, Portuguese, Swedish, Arabic (for the years 711 to 1492), Basque. When you land write them down as soon as you can.

If you're allowed to bring your own paper and a pen, then this is super easy.

The first time you see someone, you can show them the paper and try to sound out words, and give them a chance to write down the answer. If you have an informants that are familiar with one of these languages, and are patient enough to work through your strange pronunciation, spelling, and handwriting, I think this is the method that is most likely to work.

If you can't get any understanding that way, you can start writing down "ANNO DOMINI" next to years written in Roman numerals and Arabic numerals. At this point, you're playing Charades, and I don't know how easy it is to get an answer.

If none of these work, you can start looking for graveyards, and buildings with years written on them.



Try to figure out your longitude - ie which continent you are on, and hopefully roughly how far east/west on the continent you are.

Note which constellation is the lowest and first visible in the east at sunset. And note how far above the horizon it is. This will give you the month, with accuracy of about the week in the month.

Note the positions of the planets and our moon relative to the constellations to fine-tune your date and disinguish it from other months in different years. Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are all easily bright enough to be visible to the naked eye from dusk to dawn, although depending on where they are in their orbits they may not be in the visible sky during your visit to the past.

With the help of some astronomy buffs and/or research the combination of data you have should with a bit of luck be unique enough to pinpoint the date with an accuracy of about a week.

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    $\begingroup$ This maybe great for someone with an astronomy background, but I have no idea where any of the constellations are at a given time so I would still be lost. If you could somehow memorize the formula(s) involved in planetary orbits then you could succeed, but I couldn't. $\endgroup$ – cybernard Aug 6 '18 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ @cybernard that’s why god invented the internet. Just post your memorised positions on astronomy.stackexchange.com and you’ll have your answer. The question did state that the origin/return time was “now”. $\endgroup$ – Bohemian Aug 6 '18 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ "You have to answer immediately after you get back". You don't have time to look anything up. Yes, I could google the relevant formula, pretty quickly but actually memorizing the formulas not in a couple minutes. "We have no time to prepare ourself: the wizard just give us few minutes so we can decide if we want to play" $\endgroup$ – cybernard Aug 7 '18 at 0:15

Find a town, pretend to speak the local language poorly (you might not need to pretend). Assuming they speak english

"How to say 'now', eh, todaya ina da Henglish pleasea?".
"How to say 'this montha', ina da Henglish pleasea?".
"How to say 'this yeara', ina da Henglish pleasea?".

After a couple of these conversations you'll know the day, month and year.

If you honestly have trouble understanding them, get them to write it down.

  • $\begingroup$ there are two main problem: "Assuming they speak english" (language may vary a lot between country and time.), and "get them to write it down" (majority of peasants are illeterate untill relatively recently) $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Aug 7 '18 at 8:19
  • $\begingroup$ The majority of traders running market stalls or stores are working with money and stock, most will know how to write numbers, they'll be able to write the year. $\endgroup$ – Binary Worrier Aug 7 '18 at 8:23
  • $\begingroup$ Also, English is used as an example (it's the only language I speak), but the same works for any of the languages specified in the question, i.e. Each of us are fluent in French, and know some basics of English, Spanish and German $\endgroup$ – Binary Worrier Aug 7 '18 at 8:26

If you are in a country that speaks a Romance language, you should be understood if you ask something along the lines of “año?” As the word was pronounced the same in Latin, and you will be mistaken as an ill informed traveler wanting to know the date by local reckoning. You should probably be able to understand numbers, or you can see if dates are written on coins or gravestones. You can also try doing the same for other language families. You might wind up in b.c. in which it will be best to see if you can discover who the current ruler is. You can figure out a rough estimate of where you are via what the weather is like. Be sure to check the word for ‘traveller’ and ‘year’ in an older slavic language as you might be understood and told something of use.


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