Discovery ‘You’d better sit down, you’ve found something significant’

Discovery: ‘You’d better sit down, you’ve found something significant’

Simon Neal’s discovery of the Chetwode Quadrant, a rare ‘unequal hours’ time-keeping device from the 14th century — and the oldest English scientific instrument ever sold by Christie’s — almost didn’t happen. Here, he talks to Christie’s specialist James Hyslop about how he did it

Like so many important archeological finds, Simon Neal’s discovery of an extremely rare medieval time-keeping implement in an English field almost didn’t happen — it was thanks largely to pure luck.

‘The ironic thing is that, on the day I found it, I was searching on the completely wrong end of the field,’ says Neal, an amateur metal detectorist, about the Chetwode Quadrant, an extremely rare hand-held bronze instrument from the late 14th century that told time using the sun. Following the directions of a friend, Neal had been searching a particular section of field in the English county of Buckinghamshire they believed was the site of medieval habitation.

But Neal had taken a proverbial wrong turn, and was looking in the wrong area, unawares. Frustrated at his lack of success, he turned and headed back to his car. ‘I walked toward the car and, literally five yards from the car, thought, “I’m going to give it five more minutes”.’ Neal says. ‘So I turned left instead of going to my car, walked along the hedgerow, and bang! I got the signal.’

As Christie’s Travel, Science & Natural History Specialist James Hyslop explains, Neal’s recent finding was extraordinary: an ‘unequal hours’ horary device that divided the daytime into 12 hours year-round, rendering winter hours much shorter than summer hours.

‘It was a particularly useful system for people who needed to run their lives by daylight, such as the merchant and labouring classes,’ Hyslop says. ‘As an example, for those doing back-breaking work in the fields in the Middle Ages, it’s not necessarily useful to know you have 612 minutes of sunlight; you want to know when you’re half-way though, so you can divide your time equally when getting a task done.’

The advent of equal-hours technology made the device’s utility relatively short-lived, and its creation was painstaking. Both factors make it exceedingly rare today, the Chetwode being one of only seven known examples. To celebrate the launch of Christie’s Seven Centuries of Science online auction in October 2015, which included the Chetwode Quadrant, Hyslop spoke to Neal about his unlikely discovery.

James Hylop: What went through your mind when you discovered the quadrant?

Simon Neal: To be brutally honest, disappointment. When I first found it, I brushed off the soil and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a broken 17th, probably 18th-century sundial.’ At that point, I couldn’t see the clean edges. I just looked at its size and shape and thought, it’s one of those ‘partefacts’, as I would call it. And I placed it in my science bag and grumpily carried on.

I sent a photograph with my phone. Within two minutes my detecting partner phoned me back and said,‘You’d better sit down, you’ve found something quite significant’

How long was it before you discovered what you really had?

It was about an hour later when my detecting partner, who would normally be with me, phoned me. And there ensued a bit of a frustrated conversation on my part, moaning about the fact that I hadn’t really found anything. I then happened to mention that I’d found a broken piece of sundial. At that point, I got it out, and cleaned it with my drinking water. Suddenly, I realized that the edges were not broken.

So I said to my friend, ‘Look, I’ll take a photograph of it,’ and I sent the photograph to him with my phone. Within two minutes he phoned me back and said, ‘You’d better sit down, you’ve found something quite significant.’ I did a little bit of Googling, literally in the field, and came across the Canterbury Quadrant and got very excited. I promptly went back to my car and hid it under my seat thinking,‘I might have something historically significant,’ then carried on looking.

You carried on? Fantastic! What made you start this wonderful hobby that’s probably quite alien to most people?

The origins probably go back to when I was about seven, living north of London. We’d gone for a family walk near a lake, and I saw this strange gentleman swinging a strange contraption in the air. Being a little precocious, I walked up to him and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, what are you doing?’ And he explained what he was doing and he put his hand in his pocket and showed me a Roman coin.

I was blown away. I thought, ‘Wow, the Romans were two thousand years old, and here he is finding their things in the ground!’ So I went back home and found all my pennies and borrowed and scraped and bought a little metal detector.

What other discoveries have you made?

Most finds are from casual losses. Unless you’re lucky enough to discover a habitation site, normally it’s a serf, probably in the 14th century, losing his buckle and not realising it. For example, yesterday I was on a very large field. It had just been deeply ploughed for the first time in 10 or 11 years, and I found a silver Celtic unit, which is an Iron Age coin. I also found three medieval silver coins, and a very large lump of bronze, so we know somebody was smelting bronze on the field. Immediately, you can build a bit of a picture of the area.

On the field where I found the quadrant, there’s an old footpath that runs through the corner to a priory that dates to the 1200s and was dissolved in the 15th century. You wonder whether the quadrant was lost by a travelling monk or a tradesperson that happened to be walking towards or away from the priory. I’ve always thought that perhaps it was used by a member of the clergy — a priest, maybe — because it was very important to know when it was time to pray or call people to prayer. But this is the sort of fun that I have as a non-academic. I can let my imagination run wild.

Certainly it’s very tempting to draw those conclusions. But, alas, with over 600 years between you and the person who lost this, it’s a little bit too speculative. From an academic standpoint, we can assume that, granted this type of instrument, it must have been made and used by someone who understood its basic principles. This isn’t something that was used by a farmer — other examples are known to have belonged to Richard II. Equally the owner might not necessarily have known the principles behind how to make the item, maybe not even how to use it. But owning one demonstrated that in theory you understood the mathematics and the astronomy behind it, and that elevated your status in society. Alternatively, this could have been associated with a monastery. Certainly a lot of what we today call ‘scientific endeavour’ was preserved and carried out in the monastic setting.

So much history has passed between your discovery and that moment in the late 14th century when someone lost quite a valuable possession. You were the next pair of hands after his to have touched it: do you have that magical spark when you pick something like that out of the ground, when suddenly the import of all those years flashes before your eyes?

Absolutely! Yesterday, I found a Celtic coin probably dating to 40 BC. The first thing that went through my mind was I was the first person to hold the coin since the person who’d dropped it.

I love the fact that you went out and started detecting again after you found the Chetwode Quadrant, even after you’d gleaned some inkling of its worth.

Yes, well, I had the whole day. Why stop at 11 o’clock?

Find the Chetwode Quadrant and other exceptional historical scientific instruments in Christie’s Seven Centuries of Science online auction, which is open for bidding until 29 October.

The above interview was abridged and edited for length and clarity.