Tag Archives: science

Egyptian sundials

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An Egyptian lady catching some rays from Ra.

Let’s travel west from Sumer, away from the MidEast, along the northern coast of Africa to Egypt. About 1,000 years after civilization was up and running in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the Egyptians got started on their civilization which thrived from 3100 bc to 332 bc. Like the Sumerians, Egyptians depended on a river—the Nile—and a system of irrigation to water their crops to keep the economy going. Their writing system was hieroglyphics—symbols that represented sounds, or ideas, or things. Their government was monarchical—they had a single ruler, called a Pharaoh. The Egyptians worshiped a pantheon—which means a bunch of gods and demi-gods. The Pharaoh was worshiped as a god, too.

The Sumerian culture must have influenced the Egyptians somewhat. The Egyptians divided the day into two halves, each having 12 hours—twelve is an easy Base Sixty number. The Egyptians are thought to have invented the sundial. The earliest example of a sundial has 12 hours marked using lines on a semi-circle, 15° apart.

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A fragment of a limestone sundial. The gnomon goes into the hole at top.

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This sundial is a half-bowl cut out of a block of stone.

A sundial is a simple way to measure the passage of the Sun. There’s a post (called a gnomon, pronouced NOM-ON) sticking up from a flat, horizontal surface. Lines are drawn on the flat surface, radiating out from the gnomon. When the Sun is shining, the gnomon casts a shadow on the lines. Each line represents the passage of an hour.

The Egyptians built huge obelisks—big stone monuments. These were sundials, too. The obelisk cast a shadow on the ground, which was marked for every hour. As the Sun moved across the sky, the shadow would move along the dial, showing the time. Of course, sundials only work when there’s daylight. How did they tell time at night?

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What is a ‘civilization?’

Okay, gang—before we get started talking about Western Civilization, we should agree on what a ‘civilization’ is. I’m going to keep this kind of loose. Generally, a civilization is a big group of people—in cities, a country, or countries—who share government (a system of keeping law & order and protecting its people);

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a religion (belief in a god or gods with a set of rituals and priests to perform them);

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an economy (enough food for everyone plus some left over for trading);

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a written language (symbols to communicate without speaking);

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and art, science and technology (inventions that make life easier and more enjoyable).

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Every civilization has a ‘culture’—its own way of living and doing things.

That’s it. A rough definition to understand what separates a civilization from simply a big group of people. Now we can start thinking about what Western Civilization is.

Time to get serious

I’ve sorta-kinda joked on this blog about saving Western Civilization. Even my motto reads: “Saving Western Civilization through kid’s book illustration.” And I’ve honestly meant to get started on that. I have, in a modest way, been promoting Western Civ by teaching Sunday School and posting some historical stuff here once in a while. I haven’t been very serious about that motto, though. But it’s a new year; a good time to get serious.

Why does Western Civ need saving, anyway? We have Shakespeare and quantum physics and cell phones. We have crop rotation and the alphabet and Broadway. That’s good, right? Why can’t I just be happy?

The problem is: I meet very few people who understand how we got Western Civ. There are too many people who think Western Civilization is not such a good thing, and is maybe an embarrassment, or should be apologized for. That way of thinking saddens me, if only because it’s so easy to point to how much human beings have benefited from Western Civilization.

I think it’s important to understand how we’ve achieved all the things that we have. It’s important to recognize our incredible inheritance—gifts we’ve been given by amazing people who are long gone. Why were moveable type or symphonies or Greenwich Mean Time invented in the West? It’s vital for young people to understand how Western Civilization works, so that they may prosper in it.

This is my mission. If I can’t save Western Civ, at least I can document her glories. I like history, so I’m going to be writing a history of Western Civ—particularly a history of ideas. I’ll post the stuff I’m writing here on this blog, as a way of test-marketing. My goal is to write and illustrate a book that presents the history of Western Civ in a fun format. You must know by now that I’m a smart-alec, so of course it will be funny. Lots of gags. Lots of pictures. I expect to learn and discover new info as I do the research.

I invite you all to come with me.

John