The increasing importance of European Mass Dials

An article by Tony Wood


The growing interest in mass dials in continental Europe is evidenced by a flow of reports and photographs. The British Sundial Society of course has quite enough to do without compiling registers of overseas dials but the reports are filed and available for comparison with dial types and locations recorded in Europe.


Herbert Rau in Berlin has compiled a summary of dials so far discovered on mainland Europe. France (400), Germany (360) and Spain (300) are the largest contributions with Italy at 100.


All much smaller than England’s current 3000. There are also one or two question marks hidden in the figures. Horizontal forms are distinguished from vertical and here Norway leads the way with between 5 and 10, the uncertainty arising from the presence of ‘compass rose’ markings as explored by Johan Wikander in Trondheim.


The two Scottish and two Irish horizontals are not listed; not surprising as they have not really been publicised, indeed the Irish ones appear here for the first time.


Whilst we are in Ireland the figure of 19 quoted by Rau consists entirely of dials which come under ‘Saxon’ in English chronology and they raise the question of distinction between pre- and post-Conquest dials. In England the division is clear as Saxon dials (pre-Conquest) form a small specific corpus of around thirty examples, well scattered from Co. Durham to Gloucestershire. Other countries, however, have not had the benefit of a clear French invasion marker point and so classification is not so easy. It is possible indeed that some continental mass dials may well pre-date 1066.


The other feature of interest is that the systematic recording of mass dials started very early in England with Dom Ethelbert Horne around 1910 in Somerset.

 In contrast, Maria Koubenec in Germany recorded the first there in 1965 and only recently have the numbers listed in France and Spain been found.


What do Continental mass dials look like? 














Just like ours on the whole, the difference on occasion being as illustrated.

Sometimes the wall appears to be of brickwork – but may not be. The dial has been adapted here but may be spread over several ‘bricks’. Perhaps there is a dating clue here?


Was England a backwater when the rest of Europe was converting to clocks and scientific dials?   Or was the relative stability of our society responsible for the preservation of so many mass dials?




Tony Wood


[Acknowledgements are due to: Finola O’Carroll, Dublin,    The Ulster Museum, Belfast and   Herbert Rau, Berlin]


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