The Archaeology of the Craft

Although it has been customary, in tracing the history of Masonry, to date its first corporate beginnings from the period when the Temple of Solomon was reared in majestic silence upon the mystic mount of Moriah, yet it is undoubted that the Craft may claim an antiquity higher far than this.

The Masonic Art is of course as ancient as civilisation.

Man was a builder long before he had learned to live peacefully in social intercourse with his fellows, and the rude hut of the savage is the parent of those majestic structures which in every age have upheld the dignity of the human intellect.

How many ages elapsed before mankind ventured to forsake their rude edifices of timber for those of stone or baked earth, or what daring spirit first thought of poising stones in the air in the enduring form of an arch, it would be idle to conjecture.

From central Asia, which may be regarded as the cradle of the human race, came the first Masons, whose works have existed to the present day.

The cavern temples of India are probably amongst the oldest examples of the work of the sculptor, and it would appear that man first burrowed in the rock before he thought of piling stones in the clouds.

 

Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, 19th century traveller, writer, and Egyptologist.
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The researches of Champollion, Sir Gardner Wilkinson, and other eminent Egyptologists, have thrown a flood of light upon this once obscure subject, and when the history of Masonry is really written the historian will probably be inclined to regard the Pyramids as the proper point of departure, rather than the fair building which Solomon raised in honour of the Great Jehovah.

Egypt in truth may be regarded as the ancient university of science and art.

The caste of the artificers included the Masons as amongst its most important members, and these, congregated in vast cities like Memphis and Thebes, acquired a knowledge of the craft which has never been surpassed by any architects either ancient or modern.

 

Bust of Herodotus, ancient Greek Historian.
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Herodotus…tells us that Thebes possessed a hundred gates and palaces, and temples innumerable.

The priests who received the illustrious Greek traveller were able to point to a history, care-fully recorded, stretching back for ages into the remote past; to a monarchy of many dynasties, which was preceded by a Theocracy probably coeval with Egyptian civilisation.

Recent research has not only confirmed the statement of the wise and observant Herodotus, but it justifies us in throwing back the origin of Egyptian civilisation to a period so remote that the mention of it here would merely excite useless controversy.

Mr. Horner’s researches in the deposits of the Nile appear to show that, thirteen thousand years ago, man, sufficiently civilised to be in possession of pottery hardened by fire, lived in the Nile valley.

However much we may be inclined to question the data upon which the calculations of this gentleman were made, we are yet constrained to admit that the age of the more ancient of the monuments of Egypt has been under estimated.

When Napoleon told his troops that forty centuries looked down upon them from the summits of the Pyramids, he was merely stating the current opinion of his time.

In these days most persons skilled in Egyptology would be inclined to admit that two thousand years ago these celebrated monuments of kingly ambition were looked upon by the Egyptians as ancient buildings, connecting the remote past with a high and complex civilisation.

 

The Great Sphinx partially excavated, photo taken between 1867 and 1899 – By Maison Bonfils (Beirut, Lebanon), photographers : Félix (1831-1885), his wife, Lydie (1837-1918) and his son, Adrien (1861-1929). Most possible done by Félix. .
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The Masons who built the Pyramids were undoubtedly highly skilled in geometry ages before Euclid wrote his celebrated treatise.

Those who state that he created the science of mathematics know little of the history of that marvellous people who made the Nile valley a land of wonder and mystery.

That the Egyptian Masons were thoroughly skilled in the science is undoubted, and that they were banded together in fraternities may fairly be assumed from the fact that Mason marks can still be traced in the ruins of the Temples and buildings they erected.

It has indeed been suggested that the arrow-headed character in which the inscriptions on the walls of Nineveh, are recorded originated in Mason marks, and it may be that we should look East of the Nile for the first signs of that mystic tie which has knit together so many generations of skilled artisans.

Whether this be so or not, Egypt must be still regarded as the real cradle of Masonry, since it was here that the art first attained perfection.

 

Oxyrhynchus papyrus (P.Oxy. I 29) showing fragment of Euclid’s Elements
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Sir Gardner Wilkinson has shown, in his celebrated work, that the Arch was invented by Egyptian workmen.

More than one example of this daring mode of roofing is to be found in the most ancient of the Nile monuments, although the preference for straight instead of curved lines in architecture prevented its adoption as a prominent structural feature.

There can be no doubt that the ancient people who settled upon the shores of the Mediterranean, derived the main features of the arts for which they were afterwards distinguished from the land of the Nile.

Greece was undoubtedly indebted to Egypt for the principles of Science and Art, and the people who lived at the head of this great inland sea was closely connected with the same great parent of the science of civilised life.

 

Egyptian Arches, Existing in Thebes, and several animal Mummies illustration from the kings tombs in Thebes by Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823) from Plates illustrative of the researches and operations in Egypt and Nubia (1820). Original from New York public library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
IMAGE LINKED:  New York public library / rawpixel Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The Phoenicians no doubt derived much of their knowledge from Egypt, and the structural features of Solomon’s Temples how that they adopted the main lines of Egyptian architecture.

Mr. Fergusson’s Handbook clearly shows that the ground plan of the Temple at Jerusalem differed in no essential feature from the great temples of Thebes and Memphis.

In one respect, indeed, it differed from all, and that was in its extremely small dimensions.

The reader who may have been accustomed to regard this celebrated building as vast in size, as well as splendid—as it undoubtedly was—in decoration, will be surprised to learn that the Temple proper might have been placed inside an ordinary parish church.

 

Design of the Temple. In white, the porch, in blue the sanctuary and in pink the Holy of Holies containing the Ark of the Covenant.
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Plan of the Temple of Edfu Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, Vol. 2, Page 373.
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Yet nothing is more certain than this fact, which has hitherto been too much obscured by the glosses of commentators of the sacred scriptures.

The dimensions, as given in 2 Chronicles in., are as follows. The length was sixty cubits, and the breadth twenty cubits.

The porch was twenty cubits in breadth, and one hundred and twenty in height.

The Hebrew cubit was the length of the fore arm, from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, or twenty-two inches.

Reduced to feet, the Temple was in length 110 feet; in breadth 36 ft. 8 in., while the porch, or temple front was 36 ft. 8 in. in breadth, by 236 ft. 8 in. in height. Leaving the porch out of consideration, and this was only remarkable for its height, it will be at once seen that our assertion that the building could have stood within an ordinary parish church is certainly within the mark.

This celebrated structure was surrounded by courts and buildings of various kinds, and the whole no doubt produced a grand and imposing appearance.

It is, however, hardly reasonable to suppose that the erection of this small structure, apart from the purposes for which it was intended, could be of sufficient importance to mark an epoch in the history of Masonry.

The workmen may indeed have learned the sublime creed which was given to the Hebrews by Jehovah, and this circumstance may have given to the symbolism of the Craft a dignity and significance it could not have possessed before, but we must look beyond the artisans of Tyre for the early traces of that mystic brotherhood who have played so great a part in human civilisation.

 

Tomb at Deir el-Medina, West Bank of Luxor – the ancient village of the artisans originally named Set Maat – the Place of Truth. The stone masons, painters, and woodworkers who lived there excavated and decorated the tombs of the nobles and royal families in the Valley of the Kings and beyond. They built their own tombs in the village, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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As we have said, we look to Egypt for these early traces.

The highest and grandest truths of modern speculative Masonry were early taught by the Egyptian priesthood, and now that the secret of the sacred hieroglyphics has been unfolded, we are familiar with the fact that this celebrated hierarchy carefully distinguished between the great Architect of the Universe and the crowd of inferior gods with whom they surrounded him; and in the story of Osiris we have the first germs of that mystic sacrifice, which was consummated ages afterwards on Calvary.

The Egyptian mysteries, which were so carefully guarded from the vulgar, were, we have reason to believe, merely scientific and moral truths, having for their centre and source the Supreme Being, in whom the superior grade of priest steadfastly believed.

These truths were not entirely lost with the decline of Egyptian civilisation, and in the celebrated Dionysian mysteries we may doubtless trace an Egyptian origin.

If the Greek mythology, as there is reason to believe, is in part derived from the Egyptian system, the clue to the real origin of the Dionysian mysteries is complete.

But we must leave this interesting subject for the present, with an earnest recommendation to our brethren who may be interested in the Archaeology of the Craft, to follow the path we have thus roughly and hastily sketched out.

Source: The Freemason’s Chronicle – January 30, 1875

Additional image research by the Square Editorial team

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