Sine Sole Sileo (Without Sun, I am Silent): An Abridged History of the Sundial


Man’s desire to chronicle the passage of time by tracking the movement of the sun dates back thousands of years.  The first rudimentary version of a sundial was thought to originate in the Middle East or in North Africa around 5000 BC.  This consisted of nothing more than a stick pushed into the ground so that time could be tracked by the lengthening and shortening of the sun’s shadow.

One might imagine Mrs. Caveman advising Mr. Caveman “Start home when the shadow is the same length as the stick!”

Gnomonics, the art of telling time by the sun’s shadow, dates back nearly 22 centuries. It has been proffered that perhaps one of the seven wonders of the medieval world, Stonehenge, was constructed to serve as a giant sundial to assist in calculation of the next eclipse by ancient Britons at the end of the Stone Age some 4000 years ago.  In 1500 BC, Egyptians built large stone pillars called “obelisks” or “Cleopatra’s Needles” as large timepieces to monitor the passing hours.

Smaller, portable sundials were then created which became popular as the precursor to modern day wristwatches; in the Middle Ages peasants even had sundials carved into the bottom of their wooden clogs.  To tell time, one had to take off his or her clog and stand it up facing the sun–the heel cast a shadow over the dial displaying the hour. The first Spanish explorers to the New World in the 15th Century found that the Aztecs of Central & South America were using sundials very extensively.

Sundials evolved and became more complex and accurate over the course of many years.  It was eventually discovered that angling the gnomon (a fancy version of the original stick) compensated for the tilt of Earth on its axis and aiming it north resulted in a more accurate sundial.

 During the Renaissance period, elaborate sundials had markings for hours, minutes, months, seasons, the time of sunrise and sunset, and Zodiac signs.  Even after the invention of clocks, the sundial was often called upon to help reset the correct time on a stopped timepiece.  Once reliable wristwatches became affordable, the sundial found its place in the garden as ornamentation.

 Sundials tell sun time (apparent time), while clocks record mean time.  There are only four days during the year when a sundial and a clock will agree – April 15, June 15, September 1 & December 24.

Obelisks, sundials and pedestals can add a touch of elegance and functionality as a garden accent.  One interesting sundial option is David Harber’s personalized armilliaries which are calibrated by latitude and longitude for each customer.  Garden Accents has been a proud distributor of David Harber dials for many years and has sun dials on display in the Garden Accents showroom in Conshohocken PA.

Available materials include slate, bronze, limestone, and hand forged iron.


From our Garden Accents’ Exclusive Line, this bronze Early Bird Sundial (originally cast in 1919) is a reproduction of a piece purchased by Liz Schumacher over thirty years ago. Because she has enjoyed it so much, she commissioned a limited edition of 8 pieces.

Whether you choose a diminutive version to perch on a garden wall or this impressive freestanding sundial

to command center stage attention in your garden, one of these beautiful timepieces will add a sense of history, education and interest to your landscape.

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