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Object: Universal Equinoctial Sundial fragment
Date: AD 1580 [date of significance: AD 1758]
Context: Central Texas, Menard County, Mission San Sabá

Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá was built near the banks of the San Sabá River in 1757, at the time the northern reaches of the land claimed by New Spain in Texas. Four miles west, Presidio San Luis de las Amarillas was concurrently constructed to protect the mission and a precious metal mining region, including the Los Almagres Mine. The northwest margin of the Texas Hill Country was, at that time, the territory of several native groups, including the Comanche and their allies including Wichita, Kitsai, and Caddo groups, collectively known as the Norteños, as well as their enemies, the Apache. Local Apache groups sought the alliance of the Spanish in fighting the Norteños and expressed wavering interest in settling at the mission. The Norteños conveyed their displeasure at the Spanish interlopers with violence, culminating with their infamous raid on the Mission San Sabá on March 16, 1758, just 10 months after it was constructed.

The raid was a spectacular victory for the estimated 2000 Norteños who overwhelmed the small mission settlement, which had a population of close to 30 residents. In their raid, the Norteños not only sacked the settlement and killed or wounded many of the mission residents, but also slaughtered the mission's animals including livestock and cats. The Norteños feasted on roasted oxen at the mission site as the sacked buildings burned "so brightly they lit up the grounds," according to an eyewitness Spanish report. Two hundred and thirty-nine years later, in 1997, the butchered oxen bones and charcoal-laden sediments of the Norteño barbeque pit were excavated by archeologists from Texas Tech University. Among the charred remains of the oxen, this gilt sundial fragment was uncovered. We do not know why the Comanche and their allies discarded this sundial fragment, nor what happened to the remainder of the sundial, nor the significance of this heirloom object to its original owner at San Sabá. Despite these lacunas, the gilt timekeeper is a symbol of life at Mission San Sabá—a place which strove to be a stronghold of order and Christian piety on the volatile northern margin of New Spain—and of its ultimate failure.

The sundial is of the universal equinoctial type. It is a portable, pocket sized time-telling device designed to be used at different latitudes, thus making it suitable for travel. Like all sundials, when oriented properly the sun's rays shine across a projecting gnomon, which casts a shadow on a surface marked with hours or other divisions of time. The ring of universal equinoctial sundials are in alignment with the equator, and the gnomon is aligned with the Earth's axis.

Lab analyses showed the San Sabá sundial is primarily brass with a high copper content, plated in gold. It is small, measuring only 5.2 cm in length and 3.8 cm wide—much smaller than a deck of cards. It is stamped with Arabic numerals 1-12 on each hemisphere of the ring—the morning hours are on the left, and the evening hours on the right. The reverse side of the ring is stamped with the Latin words CIRCVLVS AEQVIZOCTIALIS, translated variously as "circle equinoctial" (or "equatorial") or "celestial equator." The bottom of the ring is also stamped with the date of 1580, indicating that it was manufactured 177 years prior to its 1758 abandonment in the Norteño barbeque pit. The initials of the maker, Ulrich Schniep, were stamped near the date: *VS* (in Latin, V and U were used interchangeably). Ulrich Schniep was a German metalsmith skilled in making sundials and gunner's instruments. Today, over 50 of his instruments are known to exist with manufacture dates spanning 1553-1588. Schneip was an artisan and astronomer held in high esteem by elite clients, including Emperor Charles V and the Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria.

Because a piece (or several) of the sundial is missing, it is not known with certainty exactly how this sundial operated. By comparing it to complete universal equinoctial sundials we can deduce that there was probably a compass which sat below the ring. The portion of the sundial recovered would have sat vertically above the compass, with the "legs" of the dial fitting into slots on either side of the compass. The protruding quarter-circle extending from the dial has marks on it which are now illegible but are likely latitude marks used to calibrate the sundial for the user's latitude. Once oriented towards north using the compass, and calibrated for latitude by lining the ring up with the correct latitude mark, the sun would shine on the gnomon, which would cast a shadow onto the hour marks on the ring. The user could thereby measure time accurately for their position in the world.

This unusual artifact might seem out of place on the frontier in the 1700s. After all, the sundial was already an antique when the mission was established. Its antiquity indicates the sundial may have been a treasured heirloom. However, it may have also functioned as a time-keeping device for its owner at the mission.

The earliest extant sundials date from 1500 BC and are Egyptian in origin. Approximately 2700 years later, in the 13th century AD, mechanical clocks were developed in Europe. Rather than replacing sundials, however, these clocks required the time-telling power of sundials to be set correctly. During the centuries when the San Sabá sundial was used, the use of clocks and sundials was closely entwined with commercial society and with the Christian church; the cycle of prayers and holy days were essential to the structure of church life. It can be expected that the daily schedule of the church was of no less importance at the frontier missions, where priests hoped to impress Catholic customs and values upon native people living under their purview. Thus, it can be argued that the structure of daily life was entwined with the religious values of the Spanish. Time keeping at San Sabá is evidenced by letters from Colonel Parrilla, the military commander at the nearby Presidio. In these letters, the Colonel cites the time of events by the hour or half-hour. It is expected that the time of events at the mission were no less important, and that the priests who directed the mission also possessed timepieces.

Who owned the sundial is unlikely to ever be known, though it can certainly be speculated upon. According to Spanish reports, the Norteños took almost everything at the mission; the sundial could have belonged to any of the people associated with the mission. However, it may be more likely that it belonged to one of the mission residents who lost their lives in the raid. Casualties included an estimated six mission guards or soldiers, two mission residents, including a child, and two mission priests. Could this precious and powerful instrument of time have belonged to one of the priests—pious directors of mission life?

Was the sundial, for the Norteños, a symbol of the Spanish intrusion on their lives and land, and thus intentionally discarded? Or, was it simply misplaced during the Norteños' celebration? It is doubtful that the answers to such questions will ever be known. Perhaps the sundial's greatest value to those interested in history and archeology is how it provokes us to think about life at Mission San Sabá and its juxtaposition with the life of the Norteños and Apache, and the events that transpired that tempestuous spring day in 1758.


Adapted from the TBH exhibits on Mission San Sabá and Presidio San Sabá by TBH Editorial Assistant Emily McCuistion. Thanks to Grant Hall for additional information about the sundial and the Spanish settlements at San Sabá.

Print Sources

Behrmann, Carolin
2015   Metrics of Justice. Nuncius 30(1):161-194.

Romero de Terreros, Juan M.
2004   The Destruction of the San Sabá Apache Mission: A Discussion of the Casualties. The Americas 60(4):617-627. Cambridge University Press.

Schechner, Sara
2001   The Material Culture of Astronomy in Daily Life: Sundials, Science, and Social Change. Journal for the History of Astronomy 32(3):189-222.

Wade, Mariah, Jennifer McWilliams, and Douglas Boyd
2007   Spanish Colonial Documents Pertaining to Mission Santa Cruz de San Saba (41MN23), Menard County, Texas.

Ward, Francis Alan Burnett
1981   A Catalogue of European Scientific Instruments in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities of the British Museum. Trustees of the British Museum.

Electronic Sources

2020   Latin Dictionary & Grammar Resources. Electronic document,, accessed May 13, 2020.