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Scientists Recreate Roman Portable Sundial

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Portable sundial

Credit: Christopher Parslow, National Geographic

by Traci Watson, National Geographic

While excavating an ancient Roman villa buried in volcanic ash, 18th-century workers found an unusual lump of metal small enough to fit in a coffee mug. Cleaning it revealed something both historically important and hilarious: one of the world’s oldest known examples of a portable sundial, which was made in the shape of an Italian ham.

Now the “pork clock” ticks once more. Recently re-created through 3-D printing, a high-fidelity model of the sundial is helping researchers address questions about how it was used and the information it conveyed.

The model confirms, for instance, that using the whimsical timepiece required a certain amount of finesse, says Wesleyan University’s Christopher Parslow, a professor of classical studies and Roman archaeology who made the 3-D reconstruction. All the same, “it does represent a knowledge of how the sun works, and it can be used to tell time.”

The pork clock was excavated in the 1760s from the ruins of the Villa dei Papiri, a grand country house in the Roman town of Herculaneum. Like nearby Pompeii, Herculaneum was destroyed by the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

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© 2017 National Geographic Society

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