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Fig.1 pocket sundial

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Fig.2 pocket sundial - detail

Portable sundials are known in this country from at least the late-Saxon period and Eleanor of Aquitaine is said to have given Henry II of England a ring designed as a sundial in 1152. Such finds would be of the utmost rarity but a later type of portable sundial is found more frequently suggesting that it was at one time a reasonably common object. This particular example also known as a pocket dial or 'poke' dial is the simplest of all having a single moveable boss or gnomon with a pinhole through which the sun can admit a ray of light. The boss is contained within a groove alongside which is marked on the outside of the ring the initials of the months I.F.M.A.M.I on one side and I.A.S.O.N.D on the other. At this time there was no 'J' in the alphabet. On the inside of the ring opposite the gnomon are engraved the hours and the halves . To tell the time the gnomon is moved to the letter of the correct month and the ring is suspended by the loop so that the suns rays pass through the pinhole and strike the hour marks on the inside of the ring. These simple sundials can never have been very accurate and could only be used at the latitude for which they were made but in rural areas in an age when the only certain measure was the rising and going down of the sun they must still have served a useful purpose.

The ring dial in figures 1 and 2 was sold on the internet fairly recently without provenance but the one in figure 3 was found by the author on a Lincolnshire DMV. They both have on the outside of the ring a rhyming couplet in two lines, the former "Live ever mindfull of thy dying, For time is always from thee flying" and the latter "Set me right and use me well, and I to you the time will tell." Another ring with the same rhyme was published in The Reliquary (II) in 1861-2 with the comment "....obtained from a common labourer in the parish of Pelynt, Cornwall and a specimen of an instrument once in ordinary use." At the present time of writing this article there are 6 partial examples of these dials recorded and published with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and one complete example that also has a good description - Find ID SF7847 (here). There are also several similar examples illustrated and described on the internet at the National Maritime Museum site (here). These and other sites with useful illustrations and descriptions are also listed at the end of this piece.

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Fig.3 Lincolnshire found ring dial

We know that these ring dials were old enough by the 1860s to be published as a relic of a former time but what period were they used in? The ring dial is said to have been invented by Hermannus Contractus a Benedictine monk living in the first half of the 11thC. As far as I am aware no ring dials have been found in this country as early as this and the lettering on these examples certainly eliminates them from that time. Nine pocket sundials were found during the excavation of the Mary Rose which sank in 1545 but none of them were of this type. Ring dials were certainly in use during the 16thC (see The National Maritime Museum) but I have seen no examples of these simple forms. My Lincolnshire find came from a ploughed-out village site and was found in association with late-17thC pottery and copper coins of Charles II, William and Mary and William III in an area that was probably a midden or waste pit from a nearby house. Some of the coins were reasonably worn so we could be looking at a period from the 1670s to the mid-1700s. Gordon Bailey writing in 'Detector Finds 2' illustrates one that "came from an area where the majority of my other finds could be dated to the 17th century." Undoubtedly the best example in a secure context is from the wreck of the pirate ship 'The Whydah' which sank in a storm off Cape Codd in April 1717 (here). This dial is very similar but is slightly more sophisticated in having two separate slots and gnomons (both missing) one being for the Winter months and the other for the Summer. The evidence so far then is that these ring dials were in use in the 17thC with a continuation into the 18thC. Among the lower classes they could have been used for a considerable time even after clocks and watches became more commonplace. Although at first still not very accurate these mechanical timepieces did have one distinct advantage over sundials - they were not subject to the vagaries of the weather and so the general use of pocket sundials gradually petered out sometime in the 18thC.

1. Science Museum - Science and Society Picture Library (search on 'Anglo Saxon')
   10th century Saxon pocket sundial
2.The Portable Antiquities Scheme
   Pocket Sundial - Find ID SF7847
3. The National Maritime Museum
   Ring Dials
4. Sundials of Antiquity and the Middle Ages Gudrun Wolfschmidt
   Hermannus Contractus
5. The Mary Rose
   Pocket Sundial
6. The Whydah - Steven R. Woodbury
   Brass Ring Dial

1. Science Museum - Science and Society Picture Library
   Sundials (82 hits)
2. National Maritime Museum
   Sundials (310 hits)
3. About
   The Invention of Clocks and Calendars


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