Ancient Ways Of Telling Time: The Sundial

Written by on June 26, 2013 in Lifestyle - No comments | Print this page


sun dialLong before watches or clocks, people still needed to determine the time of day.

Before even the graduated candles of the medieval era, where the day was divided between bands of colored wax, there were sundials.

Most sundials used a style to cast a shadow onto a specific surface.

The surface was marked with various times of day, and the shadow would point to the time in question thanks to the position of the sun.

Some sundials use a reflected point of light to mark out the time instead. The use of sundials spans thousands of years and whole continents.

Early History

Some of the earliest sundials around date to around 1500 BCE. These sundials were found across north Africa and the Near East, and they have been commonly associated with astronomy practiced in those cultures.

Before that, there are writings that refer to sun, and sundials in China as well, though no extant specimens have been definitively identified.

The Greeks

The Greeks are thought to have picked up the art of making sundials from the Babylonians, and over time, the Greeks’ knowledge of geometry created sundials that were increasingly precise.

For example, there are writings that talk about a mathematician named Theodosius of Bithynia who created a sundial that could be adjusted and used anywhere in the world; it is important to remember that sundials were very dependent on the location where they were placed, and any movement at all could set the sundial incorrectly.

After the Greeks, the Romans took up the sundials, and it was not always with a good will. There is at least one play that has a character who talks about being angry that his day is being chopped up into pieces by the newfangled use of the sundial.

Sundials in the Middle East

The Greeks also influenced the development of sundials in the areas that are now known as the Middle East. The Greek sundials measured unequal hours, that is hours that varied with the seasons due to the day’s length.

In the Middle East, the sundials were further adjusted so that their lines would indicate an equal number of hours across the span of the year.

Essentially, Greek sundials produced shorter hours in the winter and longer ones in the summer. The Middle Eastern sundials produce an equal number of hours that were equal in length across the entire year.

For people who did not have their own sundials, there was always the ancient practice of determining time by the length of one’s own shadow. There are some ancient plays where characters tell time by measuring the length of their shadow on the ground.

England and the North

Some of the earliest sundials in northern Europe were found in England and are believed to have been of Saxon origin. These sundials are not round, like most modern sundials are, but instead were semi-circular.

In England, many sundials were built into the stone porches and into the cornices of the building. The way that the day was divided up varied intensely from place to place and even from designer to designer. Some split the day into a dozen hours, some split the day into as little as four or six divisions.

If you are thinking about learning more about sundials, make sure that you consider watchmaking schools and where your fascination with time can take you forward towards a career path that matches your interest in time.

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Arthur Phillips is a freelance journalist living and working between London and Hong Kong. He writes for the travel and lifestyle sectors and one of his main passions is skyscrapers and architecture in general.


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