Circulation and other forms of temporary movement are of rising importance in the context of overall population mobility. Despite this, analysis is constrained by a lack of appropriate data and techniques for developing summary measures. Ethnographic methods have afforded useful insights into the complex space–time circuits and lifetime sequences involved, but without quantitative indicators these forms of mobility are effectively invisible to researchers and policy makers. Building on prior work in developing countries we advance methodologies for summarising the temporal dimension of circular mobility. Using illustrative data drawn from a variety of field studies among indigenous peoples in Australia we show how lifelines tracing individual mobility profiles can be used to generate systematic measures of frequency and duration. When plotted graphically these reveal distinctive periodicities that correspond to particular forms of mobility behaviour. Because these metrics are scalable and readily amenable to collection in general surveys they offer a unique bridge between the richness of detail that flows from biographic approaches and the aggregate metrics needed for statistical comparison. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.