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11/17/2009 Archived Entry: "Sundials"
A sun-dial is an intriguing asset to any garden even though we might not wholly rely on it for telling the time. Its role is not restricted to gardens, however, for sun-dials in varying forms have for centuries appeared on buildings such as churches, town halls and private houses. Through the ages there have been some highly complex examples based on the simple fact that the time of day can be marked by the sunís shadow of a pointer falling upon a dial. No-one can determine precisely when sun-dials were first used but it is generally thought to be around 1500BC when the ancient Egyptians used such a device to mark the divisions of the day.
It is known that the first sun-dial erected in Rome was in 290 BC and by 164 BC there were more than a dozen varieties, some being horizontal and others vertical, and perhaps more astonishingly, portable ones. They were the pocket watches or computers of the time, being small enough to carry around in a pocket.
The very early dials were fairly simple. They did not divide each day into periods of one hour, but showed larger units such as a half, third or quarter of a day. As the astronomersí knowledge increased, so those divisions became smaller and a twelfth of the day became normal for each one. Surprisingly, that was achieved by an astronomer called Berosus as long ago as 300 BC. Working examples of his dial survived for centuries.
Here in England during Anglo-Saxon times, some early sun-dials appeared on the walls of parish churches. These had a vertical face with a pointer called a gnomon that cast the sunís shadow upon the dial as the day progressed. These did not mark the hours or even split the day into twelve parts but instead divided it into four parts, each of three hours duration. Those divisions were called tides. These old dials followed a fairly common pattern. Installed on church walls and known either as scratch dials or Mass dials, they were carved in stone or sometimes merely scratched on the surface with a gnomon that was generally of wood. In all cases, a vertical noon line was present with lines at right angles marking 6am and 6pm but sometimes with more lines depicting 9am or some other important hour such as the time of Mass. In some cases, later additions were made by marking each tide with divisions of an hour. Fewer than thirty examples still exist around this country with one of the finest being above the door of the ancient Kirkdale Minster near Kirkbymoorside in North Yorkshire. This is thought to be the most complete example of its kind anywhere in the world. Sometimes called St Gregoryís Clock, it shows the eight hours of the Anglo-Saxon day and in 1711 was discovered hidden under plaster. Like the Minster, it is named after Pope Gregory the Great who despatched St Augustine to Canterbury as its first Archbishop. The long Anglo-Saxon inscription on either side of the dial has been transcribed as:
'Orm the son of Gamel acquired St Gregoryís Church when it was completely ruinedÖand collapsed, and he had it built anew from the ground to Christ and St Gregory in the days of King Edward and in the days of Earl Tostig'
and the words underneath the dial as:
'Hawarth made me and Brand the Priest'
But surely the most intriguing of sun-dials are the portable ones, one of the most elaborate being used by Sir Francis Drake on his explorations. It was created for him by Humphrey Cole in AD 1569 and appeared to be rather like a pocket watch. When opened, however, it produced two dials, one known as the equatorial dial set for latitude by the quadrant, and a meridian dial set by a magnetic compass. The instrument also included a tide-table, a nocturnal, a diagram of planetary aspects and a circumferentor. I am not sure what all these devices were, or what they were supposed to do but the entire device must have been of great value to a navigator on his travels around the world.
North Yorkshire has many fascinating and ancient sun-dials including a curious one at Gillamoor, one at Castle Howard, one at the former Rosedale Priory, and one on a King James I hunting lodge near Easingwold bearing an inscription:
'Hours fly, flowers die;
New days, new ways, Pass by.