Time for the garden
One of Abbey England’s more unusual product lines are our sundials, which can be a wonderful addition to a garden. They continue to be a popular focal point for gardeners when setting out their outdoor spaces, and we have a wide selection of designs to choose from on our website. Sundials, either functional or ornamental, have been part of history since the beginning of time. A sundial indicates time by using a light spot or a shadow cast by the position of the Sun. Worldwide, sundials have been invented independently in every major culture, with each having their own version of the device. Their development is often linked to countries that enjoyed a lot of sunshine.
In ancient times
Predictably, the oldest known sundial in the world was used to monitor work hours. It was situated in Egypt about 1500 BC, to measure working hours during the construction of the Valley of the Kings. In the ancient world, ‘shadow clocks’ were used in Egyptian and Babylonian culture, while China had its own versions, but are less documented. The Old Testament mentions a sundial, in roughly 700 BC, which is the earliest instance of a sundial in a written document.
The Greeks, with their expertise in early science and geometry, were using sundials circa 560 BC, which were derived from Babylonian designs. The mathematician and astronomer Theodosius of Bithynia is acknowledged as inventing a ‘universal sundial’ that could be used anywhere on Earth. The Romans adopted Greek sundials, and the first sundial in Rome is recorded as being 293 BC. Roman culture is preserved very well and there are numerous mentions of sundials in history and drama, and numerous examples dotted around the Roman Empire. The Romans built a very large sundial in Rome about 10 BC, the Solarium Augusti, while the Globe of Matelica is thought to have been part of an Ancient Roman sundial from the first or second century.
In the Islamic world, timekeeping was an important part of culture, as it determined timings for prayer, which led to considerable improvements in accuracy of designs by Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi.
More modern times
Europe played catch-up, by using technology and knowledge brought back from the Islamic world during the Crusades, which began the Renaissance in Europe. With the revelation that the sun could be used to define timescales, Europe embraced the sundial as a timepiece. In 1570, Italian astronomer Giovanni Padovani published a treatise on the sundial in 1570, which included instructions for the making and setting out of sundials.
The most famous sundial maker was Giovanni Francesco Zarbula, who between 1833 and 1881 created over 100 of them. In England, the oldest sundial is a tide dial incorporated into the Bewcastle Cross, Cumbria, which dates from the 7th or early-8th century.
Nowadays, sundials are ornamental and decorative and are mostly found in gardens, parks and churchyards. In 2017, the award-winning ‘Remember Me’ garden at the Chelsea Flower Show incorporated a sundial at its centre, with the ‘clock hands’ set to five o’clock to illustrate ‘sun downing’, the time of day when dementia patients often become agitated.
Abbey England's small square sundial.
Designers of the half a kilometre-tall Taipei 101 cleverly incorporated the sundial concept into the tower’s design. When the skyscraper, then the tallest in the world when it opened in Taiwan in 2004, was built, the design of an adjoining park uses the tower as a huge horizontal sundial.
Even though they were the first timekeepers, sundials may be all but obsolete as timepieces these days. But their significance in history lives on in gardens across the world. At Abbey England, we have a range of sundials available to order from our website. We have over 20 designs, that incorporate square, oval, round or octagon bases. Some have decorative inlay and like their historical precedents, traditional Roman numerals, while others have sun face, Tudor Rose, or Zodiac designs. They are hand cast in brass, or nickel-plated for a silver finish, and make the perfect centrepiece for any garden.