The first direct evidence of sundials comes from the land of the original Sun Kings, ancient Egypt. King Thutmose III, who reigned in the 15 Century B.C., carried a portable sundial when he traveled.
Classical Greeks improved upon ancient engineering and turned timekeeping into an art. The most famous of the classical sundials, the four on the four faces of the Tower of Winds in Athens, still stand.
The Romans never matched the Greek mastery of the sundial. Whereas the Greeks had been crafting complex and accurate sundials since the fifth century B.C., the Romans had to pillage their first dial from Sicily, booty from the First Punic War, in 264 B.C.
A century passed before Pliny noticed that the latitude-specific dial didn’t keep accurate time in the Eternal City. No wonder the Roman playwright Seneca complained that in Rome it was easier to find philosophers who agreed than sundials.
Despite this trouble in practice, the Romans embraced the sundial in theory. The Roman Vitruvius, antiquity’s greatest architectural theorist, actually divided all of architecture into three categories — civil, military and sundials.
The popularity of sundials, even accurate ones, fell in the Western world with the fall of Rome. Several hundred years later, Crusaders reintroduced the timekeeping device from the Middle East, and a church triumphant began building sundials all over Europe.
Specifically, scholarly, precise, time-conscious medieval monks became the second great sundial virtuosos in the West.
An extraordinary Jesuit-built dial in Grenoble, France, covers more than 100 square meters, climbs a staircase, and tells local time, Babylonian time, Roman time, the months of the year, the signs of the zodiac, the positions of the 12 astrological houses, provides a calendar of the French king’s military victories, a table of canonized Jesuits, and much more — all in color.
Monks also moved the sundial into rural monasteries, marking hours in the garden for the first time. Before this, sundials were an entirely urban phenomenon.
The sundial’s continued appeal ultimately resides in its quiet seductive paradox: It lies in eternal rest while the moving heavens do all the work.
(Source: The Sundial by Sam Haselby)
Susan Woody has been a home and garden writer for more than 20 years and is a master gardener.