Few people these days tell time by sun and shadow, yet sundials are still prized as decorative objects. It’s easy to understand why. Sundials possess an inherent beauty that changes as the hours pass. They seem to remind us of simpler times, and they do so in places where we look for uncluttered tranquility, such as gardens, parks and backyards. The effect isn’t just nostalgia. You know this if you’ve ever witnessed a child encounter a sundial for the first time.
A typical sundial is a horizontal plate with a gnomon, or rod, at its center. The gnomon casts a shadow onto the numbered plate to indicate the time. According to the Farmers’ Almanac, the exact origin of the sundial is unknown, though many ancient civilizations used the shadows cast by the position of the sun to calculate time. Dates of the sundial’s invention range from 3500 to 1500 B.C.
There are at least three public sundials in the Merrimack Valley. Only one — a more modern dial installed as part of a playground renovation — appears to accurately calculate the time. The oldest of the three is in Maudslay State Park in Newburyport. That sundial stands in the grand formal gardens designed by Martha Brookes Hutcheson in the early 1900s. This square dial originally included a brass gnomon, but it was stolen some time ago, according to park interpreter Donna Sudak.
“Now, you just have to do it on your own and just imagine it being there,” Sudak says, adding that a garden renovation in 1998 preserved the sundial, which still sits on its original Grecian stone base. The dial has two concentric circles etched with Roman numerals. A 1920 photograph of the sundial shows its ornate gnomon in place.
Also in Newburyport, the sundial at Cashman Park was installed in the fall of 2000 as part of a major playground-building effort by the Friends of Cashman Park, a group of community members who raised close to $100,000 for the project, according to Jeff Stott, president of the now disbanded group and a Newburyport resident.
“After purchasing all of the playground equipment, we had just enough money left over to purchase and install the sundial as one of the last features of the playground,” Stott says. “We thought it was a cool feature that added a learning activity to the playground.”
A rectangular sundial, it was designed to appeal to children, but it invites admiration from many who come across it. It is accurate during daylight saving time and was installed at noon for greatest accuracy, Stott says. The sundial came with installation instructions, and a trial run was conducted to make sure it was set correctly before being cemented into place.
Phillips Academy in Andover boasts a different and much more ornate sundial. “The Armillary Sphere,” by American sculptor Paul Manship, is an astronomical device that uses the location of celestial objects and shadows to indicate time. The piece, which was commissioned in 1927, includes a sculpture of a man, woman and child, depicting what Manship referred to in archival documents as “the circle of life.”
The large and intricate metal sphere, cast in Paris, is 8 feet in diameter and was commissioned by the school, according to information provided by Phillips Academy’s Addison Gallery. Manship (1885-1966) wrote that he designed the sphere to be “a symbol of the world,” featuring earth, wind, fire and water elements, and zodiac and celestial symbols.
“The shaft of the axis of the world is the gnomon, whose shadow on the belt of the equator indicates the time of day by the position of the sun,” Manship wrote of his sculpture. “So when the sun is due south, the hour is noon. Opposite to noon is midnight, represented on the inner side of the band. … At the halfway points between noon and midnight are six o’clock in the evening.”
The sculpture sits prominently on the Great Lawn, near the corner of Main and Salem streets in Andover. It is a hub of social activity, and students are often found gathering around it on bright spring days.
Buying a sundial
Most sundials in the Merrimack Valley can be found at private residences. Many types of sundials can be purchased online or at your local garden center. Installed in a garden or on a deck, they’re excellent conversation pieces and complement rather than interfere with natural elements.