The water clock, or clepsydra (Greek for “to steal water”, or “water thief”), was an ancient device that measured the passage of time – the precursor of the hourglass (sand clock) and modern time-pieces. Usually a stone vessel with sloping sides, a small hole at the bottom allowed water to drip out at a rate that could be measured by small circles or grooves on the inside. The earliest example found so far, dating to c. 1382 BCE, was discovered by French Egyptologist Georges Legrain in 1904, at the excavated Temple of Amun-Ra, at Karnak (ancient Thebes), Upper Egypt. (The artifact is in the Cairo Egyptian Museum.) Large fragments of a few other examples can be found in the British Museum and the Petrie Museum (UCL), London. Two small, model, water clocks are found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Both objects have a figure of a baboon shown squatting (usual pose) at the front. An animal manifestation of the Egyptian god Thoth – a deity linked to the sun and the moon, to the invention of writing, to science and astronomy – the sacred baboon shared the god’s attributes, and Thoth was often represented as a dog-faced baboon (Papio hamadryas). The Met models were probably objects used in the worship of Thoth. An especially intriguing example of a baboon as part of a clepsydra is in the Oriental Institute/University of Chicago collection. A figure of a squatting baboon projects from one side of the artifact. Finely crafted, the tiny primate is the focal point of the piece. Made of limestone, the work has been dated to c. 284-246 BCE, and was found at Memphis, south of Cairo.
Oriental Institute/University of Chicago: Clepsydra on display – Egyptian Gallery, Registration number E16875.
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Model Clepsydra on display – Gallery 134, Accession number 17.194.2341/dated c. 664=30 BCE.
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Model Clepsydra on display – Gallery 134, Accession number 86.1.93/dated c. 4th C. BCE.
Ancient Egyptian Science, A Source Book, vol. 2, M. Clagett, 1995.
Amulets, C. Andrews, London: British Museum Press, 1994.