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Casting a Long Shadow

Other Ornaments Come and Go, but the Sundial Has Stood the Test of Time

November 08, 1998|Susan Heeger

It won't glow in the dark or wake you up, and you can't wear it to a meeting. But as a sundial tracks passing moments in a garden, it stands as a monument to time itself: "Tempus fugit," it might say, in words chiseled in stone, or "Happy hours cannot be counted."

Dating back to at least 1500 BC, sundials were used as timepieces by the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans and Greeks. The first such clocks were probably upright poles or sticks that, as the sun moved, cast long shadows across the ground. Eventually, the stick became a fixed gnomon, of iron or brass set on a dial face marked with hours. The gnomon and dial were mounted horizontally on a pedestal or vertically on a wall. An armillary sphere, a three-dimensional variation that also showed the movements of heavenly bodies, was crafted of interlocking rings with a shadow-casting arrow through their center.

From the 16th century on, pedestal sundials have been popular garden ornaments, especially in English and Scottish landscapes. Somewhat formal in feel, they're ideal focal points for herb parterres, with spilling thyme (an herbal pun) or cat mint around their base. Place one in a perpetually sunny spot, on level ground, and at midday, synchronize the gnomon's noon shadow with your watch. Ever afterward, you'll know the pleasure of telling time as others once did--in broad strokes. Yes, it flies by, but who's counting?

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Sundials and armillary from Hortus, Pasadena; Garden, Sherman Oaks; Jonathan Blackman at Style French Antiques, West Hollywood

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