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Ham-shaped sundial was Roman pocket watch

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ham-shaped sundial was Roman pocket watch
The pig clock model shows 9 AM | Photo: CHRISTOPHER PARSLOW

In the eighteenth century, while conducting excavations in an ancient Roman villa – Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, scientists came across an unusually small piece of metal that could easily fit in a cup of tea. As it turned out this object was a “pocket” Roman sundial.

In ancient times, such sun watches were popular in both Rome and Greece. Only 25 such items have survived our times. It is not known when the find from Herculaneum was made, but scientists are almost sure that it is the oldest or second oldest object of this type.

The watch (made of silver-plated bronze) was recreated using 3-D printing and thanks to it, specialists are able to answer many questions that bother them. The vertical lines on the object indicate the months, and the horizontal lines indicate the number of hours between sunrise and sunset. What’s more, the model received an additional gnomon (a clue that was missing in the original), which was in the shape of a pig’s tail.

The researchers experimented with a model of a sundial. It was hung on a rope so that the sun fell on the left side of the object, allowing the “pig’s tail” attached to it to cast a shadow on the shield. The clock was arranged so that the gnomon indicated vertical lines representing the months. Eventually, the owner of the clock counted the number of horizontal lines from the farthest to the nearest point where the shadow ended. This indicated the number of hours after sunrise or after sunset.

In principle, such a sundial was supposed to indicate half or even a quarter of an hour. However, the scale of the object is too small to be able to tell time with such precision. What is worth noting, however, the Romans could not determine the time to the minute and such a watch could be a sign of luxury, just like today people wear “Swiss watches”.

Scientists wonder why the watch was shaped like a pig’s leg. The answer is not certain, but it is emphasized that the pig was an important symbol in the philosophy of the Epicureans and emphasized their idea of ​​​​life – enjoying the pleasures of everyday life and taking advantage of the day. The proof of this may be the fact that the villa in which the watch was found had numerous texts referring to Epicureanism.

According to the researchers, the Epicureans had a great sense of humour and the shape of the clock can be understood as follows: “Enjoy life, because you can end up like ham”.


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