It can sometimes feel like there is never enough time in the day. We may take for granted our dependence on the clocks that surround us, but these machines play an important role in helping us to manage our valuable time. These devices have changed substantially over the ages, and in celebration of all things ‘time’ we’ve ticked off our top 5 examples of timekeeping tools that can be found at English Heritage sites across the country.
1. Neolithic Timekeeping: Stonehenge
Studying the passage of time was important to many ancient cultures. Early humans would have known the importance of the sun and its light in their daily lives, and the first signs of timekeeping stretch back to the Palaeolithic period (Old Stone Age), about 20,000 years ago. For the earliest farmers, winter might have been a time of fear – darkness when days grew shorter and colder and when food supplies grew low. They would have longed for the return of light and warmth which meant crops would grow and animals thrive. It was this yearly cycle and the annual movements of the sun that inspired Neolithic people to construct a precisely aligned monument: Stonehenge.
Stonehenge was a prehistoric temple aligned with the movements of the sun. The stones were carefully shaped and set up to frame at least two important events in the annual solar cycle – the midwinter sunset, on the shortest day of the year, and the midsummer sunrise, on the longest day. These particular events must have been important to the complex religious beliefs of the people who built Stonehenge, and it is likely that they gathered here to conduct ceremonies, to celebrate the turning year.
2. Roman Ingenuity: Harnessing the Shadows
Sun-dials became popular in Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom when massive obelisks were used as shadow markers. These evolved from larger, less consistent devices into smaller and more accurate sundials which used a gnomon (the element of the dial which casts a shadow) aligned with the axis of the earth to deliver a more accurate reading.
Unearthed at Housesteads Roman Fort, and now on display at Chesters Roman Fort, this fragment is thought to be part of a sun-dial dating from 2nd – 4th century AD. It has been suggested that this was used in the Headquarters building to help Roman officers keep time for duty rotas and shifts.
3. 17th Century Intricacies: The Clock at Kirby Hall
Built in 1678, the clock at Kirby Hall was once perched above the chapel. Lady Hatton, of the Hatton family who lived at Kirby Hall for over 200 years, recorded this clock being set up in a letter which stated that she wanted the chimes to be heard in the town of Deene, over a mile away. The clock had two faces, one looking outwards and the other inwards, towards the courtyard of the hall.
Although the passage of time has not been kind to the clock, and not much remains of the device, you can still see the wonderful decorative elements which were built onto the framework of this fascinating artifact.
4. A Longcase: The Grandfather Clock at Mount Grace Priory
The longcase clock, also known as a grandfather clock, is a tall timekeeping device containing pendulums and suspended powering weights. Until the 20th century, these longcase clocks with their precise internal mechanisms were some of the most accurate timekeeping devices available.
A particularly beautiful example of a grandfather clock can be found at Mount Grace Priory in North Yorkshire. Gifted to English Heritage in 2010, this exquisite clock is encased in walnut with large carved classical pillars in each corner, with glass sides showing of the intricate movement mechanism.
5. Victorian Efficiency: The Belsay Hall Clock
During the Victorian era, mechanical clocks were commonplace as it was very important to keep time in a stately home. There were schedules to be kept, rotas to be completed and the work of the busy servants needed to run just like clockwork.
The clock above the stables at Belsay Hall was made in 1832 with a design based on the octagonal marble clock tower; The Tower of the Winds in Athens. This magnificent clock is always three minutes fast as the Middleton family who owned Belsay Hall liked to ensure everybody was always on time.