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Mass Dials

Mass dials, also known as scratch dials, have long been the subject of academic and antiquarian study, being amongst the very first informal church inscriptions to be systematically record. Indeed, it is a rarity to open a county archaeological journal from the 1920s or 1930s that does not contain some reference to them, and over 6000 have so far been documented.

The traditional interpretation is that these simple sundials were used by either the parish priest, congregation or bell ringers to calculate the correct time for services. Most usually located on the south side of the church they take many forms and come in all shapes and sizes. If found elsewhere on the church then the traditional interpretation is that the stone into which they were carved has been moved or recycled.

However, these traditional interpretations are now seen as being open to question. The number of these dials being found on the north side of churches, where they simply wouldn’t work, is notable - and the likelihood of them all being on recycled stone is slim. Many churches also have multiple and identical mass dials, with sites such as Hales in Norfolk displaying as many as eight. In other cases mass dials are to be found inside the church or church porch - all of which rather suggests that there is much more to these simple inscriptions than first meets the eye…