Garden History and Design: Sundials

June 15, 2012 at 1:00 pm Leave a comment

Visitors to the Smithsonian Castle may stumble upon a nice surprise as they peruse the Enid A. Haupt Garden: a handmade horizontal sundial. Sundials date back to the ancient Egyptians who used obelisks to track the shadow the sun cast which measured time in relation only to the length of the shadow. These sundials acted in a limited capacity; however, they only divided the day in half by marking noon as the middle of the day.

Enid A. Haupt Garden Sundial

Enid A. Haupt Garden Sundial

These ancient “sundials” do not remotely resemble what we picture when we think of the sundials that grace so many gardens today. The latter kind weren’t invented until 300 B. C. when a Babylonian priest cut a half-sphere into a cubical block and fixed a bead at its center which would cast a shadow in an arc marking the time of day. These delineated hours were called temporary hours since the shadow lengths changed with the seasons.

Sundials became more accurate when it was discovered that a slanted object capable of casting a shadow gave a more accurate reading regardless of the season. The time system we use today, called equal hours, was not created until the mechanical clock was invented in 1300 A. D.

Haupt Garden Sundial Close-up

Haupt Garden Sundial Close-up

It goes without saying that sundials require a sunny place to mark time, though they are often sited at the center of flower beds or the intersection of axial paths. Accuracy is fleeting as the sun agrees with the clock only one day each season! The rest of the time, sundials can by off as much as a quarter of an hour.

Although sundials are no longer needed to tell time, they still remain in the garden as a decorative fixture that symbolizes the passing of time.

Brittany Spencer-King, Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens

Entry filed under: Archives of American Gardens, Collections, Garden History.

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