I do think that 24 VAC is the standard for sprinkler valves. I have heard of systems that have a main valve and some that use what is called a pump start relay, but any system should have one or the other. The pump start relay would be used in a system that has a separate irrigation pump for the system which is the type that I have. The pump start relay is controlled much like the master valve in that they both accept a 24 VAC signal to turn them on.
If the black one is acting as a main valve, it may be larger to allow more than one zone valve to be opened at a time. This might explain why it looks different.
The bad part about the way your system is buried in the dirt is that if you needed to change a valve, you would have to dig up the pipes and risk breaking a pipe in the process and making the problem worse. When I added my valves, I dug a big hole and made a pressure treated plywood box with a cover to house everything for easy access if I had to do work on the system.
But getting back to your setup, what I would try is to see if you can trace the wires to all your valves and mark them. I would then try applying 24 VAC to your larger black valve and also to your other valves one at a time. This should tell you weather or not the black one is a master valve or not. If it is, take it from there to figure out what sprinkler heads each of your zone valves control. If the black is not the master, then I would try different combinations of valves until you get a combination that works and deduce which one is your master from there.
hope that helps a bit.