Period: Late Period
Date: 4th century B.C.
Dimensions: H. 8.8 cm (3 7/16 in.)
Credit Line: Funds from various donors, 1886
Accession Number: 86.1.93
On view in Gallery 128
This clepsydra, or water clock, was crafted of faience, a glazed ceramic ware, in Egypt in the 4th century B.C. Though it is labeled as a water clock itself, it is actually a model of an Egyptian inflow clock, likely discovered by French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero in Edfu (Pogo, 1936). According to Pogo, this object “was described, in the list accompanying Maspero’s second shipment [to the Metropolitan Museum of Art], 1886, as a ‘light green porcelain Nilometer’” (Pogo, 1936: 417). A Nilometer would have been used to determine the water level of the Nile River during the flood season. This clepsydra model is “a hollow square prism … which had, no doubt, a basin in front of the cynocephalos [sic]; the knees of the cynocephalos [sic] are broken off; the draining hole is at the very bottom of the prism” (Pogo, 1936: 417).
The existence of this water clock model proves that inflow clocks must have existed in ancient Egypt, despite the lack of archaeological discoveries (Pogo, 1936). It is also possible that a model clepsydra like this one would have been used as a votive offering, based on a diagram within Gayet’s 1894 work, Le temple de Louxor, that shows the presentation of a small clepsydra model with a baboon before the gods (Pogo, 1936: 420).
The invention of the water clock “ca. 1530 B.C., is credited to a priest-scientist named Amenemhet,” and it was an important part of determining time in ancient Egypt (Fleming, 1986: 64–65). According to Cotterell, “the priests needed to tell the time accurately during the night so that the temple rites and sacrifices could be performed at the right hour” (1986: 32). Water clocks were often a better option than sundials because they did not depend on the weather and could be used in darkness, since the passing hours were determined by water flowing out of the earthenware vessel rather than shadows cast by the sun (Cotterell, 1986; Fleming, 1986). Though the draining of water is similar in concept to the large cylindrical clepsydrae used in ancient Egypt and Greece, the rectangular inflow styles likely did not have hour measurements inscribed on the inside (Pogo, 1936).
This particular clepsydra model is decorated with a squatting baboon, an animal often associated with Thoth, the god of the moon (McDevitt, 2012). According to French-language sources examined by Clagett, “we are told that ‘in their water clocks the Egyptians carve a seated dog-faced baboon and they make water flow from his member’” (Clagett, 1989: 148, quoting Leemans, 1835). Additionally, it was believed that baboons urinated at “‘regular intervals twelve times a day.’ One would suppose that this merely means that in expelling water from the clock beneath the seated baboon, the baboon is effectively ‘urinating’ the twelve hours of the day” (Clagett, 1989: 148–149, quoting Daressy, 1915).
A note about provenance
This clepsydra model was purchased from the Egyptian government in 1886. According to Pogo (1936), this item arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a shipment sent from Edfu, a city in Egypt, by Gaston Maspero. Maspero is credited with discovering other significant clepsydrae in Edfu. It is possible this water clock model may have been among his discoveries based on its inclusion in the same shipment.
Brearley, H. C. (1919). Time telling through the ages. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.
Clagett, M. (1989). Ancient Egyptian science: a source book, volume II, calendars, clocks, and astronomy. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.
This was one of the only references I found to this exact object and the decoration featuring the baboon. It provided excellent quotes from other sources about the significance of the baboon and this type of inflow clepsydra.
Cotterell, B., Dickson, F. P., & Kamminga, J. (1986). Ancient Egyptian water-clocks: A reappraisal. Journal of Archaeological Science, 13, 31–50.
Flechon, D. (2011). The mastery of time. In The mastery of time (pp. 81–96). Paris: Flammarion.
Fleming, S. (1986). SCIENCE SCOPE: Water clocks: A story of Archimedean ingenuity. Archaeology, 39(4), 64–65. 76.
This source was great for a direct description of how water clocks work, why they were invented, and their shortcomings. Though there is more complex, scientific research on this topic, this resource was a good one for a non-expert. It also provided background information about Egyptians’ focus on calculating the time, for religious purposes, as well as for daily activities, like agriculture and economics.
Lucas, A., & Harris, J. R. (1962). Ancient Egyptian materials and industries. London: E. Arnold.
McDevitt, A. (2012). Baboon. Ancient Egypt: The mythology. Retrieved from http://www.egyptianmyths.net/baboon.htm
Milham, W. I. (1923). Time & timekeepers: The history, construction, care, and accuracy of clocks and watches. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Millikan, R. A., Merriam, J. C., Shapley, H., & Breasted, J. H. (1936). Time and its mysteries: Series I. New York: New York University Press.
Mills, A. A. (1982). Newton’s water clocks and the fluid mechanics of clepsydrae. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 37(1), 35–61.
Neugebauer. (1947). Studies in ancient astronomy. VIII. The water clock in Babylonian astronomy. Isis, 37(1/2), 37–43.
Noble, J. V., & de Solla Price, D. J. (1968). The water clock in the Tower of the Winds. American Journal of Archaeology, 72(4), 345–355.
Pogo, A. (1936). Egyptian water clocks. Isis, 25(2), 403–425.
This source is essential for researching this clepsydra model. Though its size is indicative that it is unique in some way, Pogo’s Isis article confirms that it is indeed a water clock model or votive object, rather than a functioning clepsydra itself. It also sheds light on its distinctive rectangular shape, which stands out from the typical cylindrical clepsydrae discussed in the majority of the literature on the topic.
Teeter, E. (2003). Ancient Egypt: Treasures from the collection of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago (p. 146). Chicago: University of Chicago.
Ward, F. A. B. (1936). Handbook of the collections time measurement. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, Science Museum, South Kensington.