Sussex Mass & Scratch Dials




The Church Sundial at Litlington

THE vertical sundial beside the south doorway of Litlington Church is commonly regarded as a typical example of the scratch-dials that were incised on the building-stones of churches in the Middle Ages. Actually, however, this dial is most exceptional, if not unique.
In the matter of workman-ship it may be classed with the scratch-dials, as its hour-lines and enclosing semi-circle are incised directly on the surface of an actual building-stone beside the church doorway. But in design it is quite unlike any ordinary scratch-dial either in Sussex or elsewhere (and as scratch-dials have been found on about 1,400 churches in Britain the rarity of the Litlington dial may be appreciated).

The fundamental difference between this Litlington dial and other old incised dials (including Saxon ones, such as that at Bishopstone) lies in the spacing of the hour-lines. The markings on Saxon sundials and medieval scratch-dials are quite incapable of measuring time accurately throughout the year on the modern clock system. They were never intended to do so. Designed and made before the introduction of mechanical clocks into England, these primitive dials told the time on the canonical system: the principal lines on a typical Saxon dial or a typical medieval scratch-dial mark the times of certain services None, Terce, Sext, etc.
There is, I think, good reason to suppose that the additional lines found on certain dials of these types were added at a later date (after the twelve-hour clock system of time-measurement came into fairly general use here) in an attempt, probably, to adapt the existing dials to the new system.
Plenty of medieval scratch-dials, and a few Saxon dials (e.g., Bishopstone) have a full complement of thirteen lines intended to divide the span of daylight into twelve portions. These "hour"-lines are spaced equally round the semi-circles of the dials, but they do not register the hours with consistent accuracy throughout the year. Some measure of compensation for the discrepancies can be made by bending the style or pointer to different angles at the different seasons; but even then the dial is not an accurate timekeeper on the modern system.
The Litlington dial, however, behaves in an entirely different manner. Here the hour-lines, instead of being spaced equally round the semi-circle, are graduated on a scientific principle, identical to that on which a modern scientific vertical sundial is based.
This graduation means that the lines get closer and closer together as one approaches the noon-line position. Moreover, unlike all ordinary medieval scratch-line or Saxon dials, which were intended for use with a simple pointer thrust in the central style-hole, the Litlington dial is constructed with a long channel (over the noon-line position) which was clearly intended to take a slanting gnomon (like that of a modern wall-sundial) set at the angle suited to the latitude of Litlington.
This gnomon would enable the specially graduated dial to tell the time with reasonably consistent accuracy throughout the year.

SCM Volume 12 1938  Page 529


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