Among the legions of bronze and marble statuary and the mountains of charred papyrus scrolls recovered during the Bourbon excavations in the Villa dei Papiri emerged a humble yet practical object: a silver-plated bronze, portable sundial in the shape of a ham. Though the Encyclopédie scooped the Accademia Ercolanese by publishing the first widely circulated description of the sundial in 1757, the Accademia responded in 1762 by featuring it as the first small find subjected to their rigorous analysis in the preface to their third volume of Le Antichità di Ercolano. In so doing they ridiculed the Encyclopédie for not recognizing it was shaped like a prosciutto and offered the first detailed description of its design and function. While the members of the Neapolitan court recognized that the inclusion of the month AUG(ustus) required dating the sundial after that emperor’s reign, and while they knew the exact date on which it had been recovered in the ruins of Herculaneum, they appear unaware that it came from the Villa dei Papiri. Since that time, the prosciutto sundial has made passing appearances as a curiosity in descriptions of the museums at Portici and Naples and catalogs of the finds from the Villa, and it is routinely mentioned in the scientific literature on ancient sundials, but it has never been given a comprehensive treatment. This paper explores the discovery and reception of this unique timepiece, its function, and its relationship to its context in the Villa dei Papiri.
The Villa dei Papiri: Then and Now (organized by the American Friends of Herculaneum)