Mason’s Marks – from Egypt to Europe?

Mason’s marks have long been a source of intrigue, not only to Freemasons but to historians and archaeologists.

The use of simple pictograms or symbols have been employed for millennia by artisans across the globe to identify their work. But where did they originate and why?

In a previous article, Egypt’s ‘Place of Truth’, we explored the use of identification marks used by the ancient Egyptian stone and tomb workers of the Village of the Artisans at Deir el-Medina.

These types of marks have been discovered on the walls of pyramids, temples, and tombs, and subsequently documented by explorers and Egyptologists from the 18th century onwards.

In this part of the series on the history of the stone masons, we look not only at the possible origins, but why the marks were used.

Egypt’s ‘Place of Truth’ – The First Operative Stone Masons’ Guild?

Was ancient Egypt’s ‘village of the artisans’ the first operative stone masons’ guild? And was their use of ‘identity marks’ a forerunner of the Mason’s Marks of the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages? Read on for some possible answers… 

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What is a mason’s mark and why were they used?

From Mackey’s History of Freemasonry:

A Mason’s Mark is a monogram, a symbol, or some other arbitrary figure chiselled by a mason on the surface of a stone for the purpose of identifying his own work and distinguishing it from that of other workmen.

Mr. Godwin, in an article “On Masons’ Marks observable on Buildings of the Middle Ages,” published some years ago, has given, perhaps, the best definition that we possess of the true character of these Sculptural figures.

He says that it can perhaps hardly be doubted that these marks were made chiefly to distinguish the work of different individuals.

At the present time the man who works a stone (being different from the man who sets it) makes his mark on the bed or other internal face of it so that it may be identified.

The fact, however, that in the ancient buildings it is only a certain number of stones which bear symbols – that marks found in different countries (although the variety is great) are in many cases identical, and in all have a singular accordance in character – seems to show that the men who employed them did so by system, and that the system, if not the same in England, Germany, and France, was closely analogous in one country to that of the others.

He adds that many of these signs are evidently religious and symbolical, “and agree fully with our notions of the body of men known as the Freemasons.”

That there should be a purpose of identification so that the particular work of every Mason might, by a simple inspection, be recognized by his Fellows and the Lord or Master of the Works might be enabled to attribute any defect or any excellence to its proper source, was essentially necessary to constitute a Masonic Mark.

By observing this distinction, we avoid the error committed by several writers of calling every device found upon a stone a mark, and thereby giving to the system of marks a greater antiquity than really belongs to it.

Thus it has been said by one writer that “Masonic Marks have been discovered on the Pyramids of Egypt, on the ruined buildings in Herculaneum, Pompeii, Greece, and Rome, and on the ancient cathedrals, castles, etc., that are to be found in almost every country of Europe.”

But the fact is that the inscriptions and devices found on stones in buildings of antiquity were most probably mythological, symbolical, or historical, being a brief record of or allusion to some important event that had occurred. If any of them were proprietary — that is, intended to identify the work or the ownership of some particular person — there is no evidence that any well-organized system of proprietary marks existed in that very early period.

That last paragraph can now be disproven to some degree – there is indeed evidence that the artisans in ancient Egypt were using ‘a well-organised system of proprietary marks’, and were not just random symbolism or dating marks.

Where did the use of marks originate?

There is some contention as to the first recorded use of ‘identity’ or ‘mason’ marks. As mentioned in Mackey’s History above, it was believed at that point that the use of marks on buildings of antiquity was merely decorative religious symbolism.

The origins of identity (banker), quarry, and assembly marks found in Egypt and other Eastern countries are thoroughly examined in Prof. Thomas Hayter Lewis’ paper “Masonry and Masons Marks” (AQC Vol. 3, 1890 pp.65-76):

 

However, the research of Egyptologists (see below), and Prof. Hayter Lewis, has been confirmed in a recent project entitled ‘Symbolizing Identity. Identity Marks and their Relation to Writing in New Kingdom Egypt’.

Led by Egyptologist Ben Haring at Leiden University, a team researched the use of workmen’s marks found on ostraca (limestone pot sherds), graffiti, and in the tombs of the workers.

The researchers discovered evidence of non-textual ‘identity marks’ used by the highly literate New Kingdom artisans and have investigated their usage not only in a linguistic sense but also in the social and administrative background.

This research has demonstrated how the use of these specific marks may have migrated across the globe after the fall of the Egyptian civilisation, to be preserved indelibly within the walls of the structures built by the medieval stone masons.

In the 19th century, William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) documented their use in his records of excavations at the pyramids of Giza; in the early 1900s Theodore Davis (1838-1915) discovered heaps of limestone pot sherds (ostraca) covered in identity marks of the 18th Dynasty workers at Deir el-Medina.

These ostraca showed lists of marks attributed to the workers and the subsequent tallies of equipment or wages.

 

Middle Kingdom (11th Dynasty) stone mason’s chisel – bearing a probable identity mark – From Egypt, Upper Egypt, Thebes, Deir el-Bahari, Tomb MMA 101, MMA excavations, 1926–27.
IMAGE CREDIT:  Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Program Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Middle Kingdom artefacts, such as gavels and chisels found during excavations at the Temples of Mentuhotep, and Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari, bear the marks of artisans, which would imply that each worker not only valued, and most likely made their own working tools, but marked them accordingly. 

“Indian Masons Marks of the Moghul Dynasty’, a book by Bro. A Gorham published in 1911 by the SRIA, documents the use of what appear to be mason’s marks on various Islamic structures in India from c.1180 A.D. onwards.

Although there is some conjecture relating to the ‘Masonic symbols’ found on the buildings, it does seem that not only were ‘assembly marks’ used but also those very similar to the identification marks used by the Egyptian artisans from Deir el-Medina.

On describing his visit to a fortress in Billababad, Bro. Gorham writes:

In the “Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia,” by Bro. Kenneth Mackenzie, we find the following reference to the Fort.

Numerous ancient, sculptured stones are found utilized in the more recent structures, and on these are irregularly carved many of the well-known symbols of masonry, dating from an extremely remote period.

He continues with another quote, this time from the Freemasons’ Quarterly Review:

The walls are composed of large oblong blocks of red granite and are almost everywhere covered by Masonic emblems which evince something more than mere ornamentation.

They are not confined to one particular spot, but are scattered over the walls of the fortress, in many places as high as thirty or forty feet from the ground.

It is quite certain that thousands of stones on the walls, bearing the Masonic symbols, were carved, marked and numbered in the quarry – previous to the erection of  the building.

What were marks primarily used for?

There are three instances where a stone may be marked:

Quarry Marks

Stone taken out of a quarry was given a mark to show where it was cut from, where it would be shipped to, and possibly the date.

This was usually painted on the rough-cut block, and would be recorded in the quarry-master’s tally system.

Egyptologist Gaston Maspero (1846-1916) mentioned how the ancient Egyptians used this practice of marking when describing the 4th Dynasty Pharoah Kheops’ Great Pyramid of Giza:

…contained only the chambers of the deceased, without a word of inscription, and we should not know to whom it belonged, if the masons, during its construction, had not daubed here and there in red paint among their private marks the name of the king, and the dates of his reign…

The workmen often drew on the stones the cartouches of the Pharaoh under whose reign they had been taken from the quarry, with the exact date of their extraction; the inscribed blocks of the pyramid of Kheops bear, among others, a date of the year XVI.

 

Quarry inscription on a “backing stone” of the Cheops pyramid with the name of Cheops. Drawing after Georges Goyon, Les inscriptions et graffiti des Voyageurs sur la Grande Pyramide. Cairo, 1944, Miscellaneous 23.
By Didia – Own work
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

 

left: Quarry marks found and documented by Vyse, in the Great Pyramid of Giza, from “Operations carried on at the pyramids of Gizeh in 1837” (1840)
right Quarry and “gang” marks found and documented by Vyse in the Great Pyramid of Giza, from “Operations carried on at the pyramids of Gizeh in 1837” (1840)

Egyptologist Richard Howard Vyse (1784-1853), Civil Engineer J.R. Perring, and later Flinders Petrie documented the use of quarry marks within the Great Pyramid.

“Alongside the lines, markers, and directional notations were the names of various work gangs who cut and transported the stone blocks.

All of these work gang names contained a variant of the pharaoh’s name i.e. Khufu, Khnum-Khuf and Medjedu, the first two of which were contained within the distinctive royal cartouche.

While most of these gang names were concentrated in Lady Arbuthnot’s and Campbell’s Chamber, all four chambers opened by Vyse contained graffiti (or more correctly “quarry-marks” as Vyse called them) while the previously discovered Davison’s Chamber contained none.

The now famous instance of Pharaoh Khufu’s name is found on the south ceiling towards the west end of Campbell’s Chamber.

The Khufu cartouche is part of a short inscription that reads Ḫwfw śmrw ˤpr (“the gang, Companions of Khufu”), i.e. one of the gangs of workmen that constructed the chamber.

Though the cartouche of Khufu is obscured by blocks or was cut off, this same gang name is also found several feet away on the last ceiling block.

Vyse also depicts a partial Khufu cartouche on the North side of the chamber.

Vyse had the graffiti copied by his assistant, J. R. Hill, and sent them to Samuel Birch, the Keeper of Antiquities at the British Museum who, at the time, was one of the very few scholars able to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Birch was able to identify this cartouche as belonging to Suphis / Cheops as it had previously been identified by the Italian scholar, Ippolito Rosellini, thereby confirming Khufu’s involvement with the Great Pyramid – an association which had, until then, been reported only by Herodotus who records Khufu as the builder of the structure.

Several compound cartouches of the similarly famous “Khnum-Khufu” royal name, also part of work gang graffiti, are found in Lady Arbuthnot’s Chamber, with more examples of the gang name found in Nelson’s Chamber and Wellington’s Chamber.”

Source: Wikipedia

In “Operations carried on at the pyramids of Gizeh in 1837” (1840), Vyse writes of his correspondence with Birch:

The following observations, by Mr. S. Birch of the British Museum, which relate generally to the quarry-marks in all the chambers of construction that have been cleared in the Great Pyramid, and specimens of them are given in the annexed plates : —

The symbols or hieroglyphics, traced in red by the sculptor, or mason, upon the stones in the chambers of the Great Pyramid, are apparently quarry-marks ; a supposition strengthened by the fact of their appearance upon the blocks which have been transported from the Mokattam, and of their absence on the stones quarried upon the spot.

Although not very legible, owing to their having been written in semi-hieratic or linear-hieroglyphic characters, they possess points of considerable interest from the appearance of two royal names, which had already been found in the tombs of functionaries employed by monarchs of that dynasty under which these Pyramids were erected. 

Like Vyse, Civil Engineer J. S. Perring noted the abundance of quarry/assembly and ‘gang’ marks during his survey, which were “sketched on the spot” by E.J. Andrews. 

 

Perring, J. S. “1st pyramid of Ghizeh, Wellington’s chamber. Marks in centre of east end (drawn 1/2 size).” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1839 – 1843.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Assembly Marks

The term ‘assembly marks’ is self-explanatory – they were used to indicate the often-complex method of constructing the building.

The marks would be used to show the builders which direction the stones were to be laid and which order, when constructing arches, doorway or pillars.

These marks are often still visible on the stones in temples, churches and cathedrals. Assembly marks were not exclusive to stone masons, any trade or craft that involved a method of assembly would employ a similar system of construction and the building materials would possibly appear identical; marks are often seen on timber frames.

 

Example of assembly marks on a timber frame at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire, England.
Photo: Philippa Lee

Identity or Banker Marks

These types of marks were used by the masons who cut the blocks or fashioned them intricately – highly skilled jobs which determined a higher rate of pay.

The masons were paid for their ‘piecework’, and the individual marks served not only as a record of the jobs achieved but allowed for the paymaster to enter the correct wages in his tally/accounting books (or ostraca – see below) that list each mason’s mark and his wages.

 

IMAGE CREDIT: freemasonry.bcy.ca/history/marks/freemasonsmarks

How do the marks found in Egypt and India translate to those used by the medieval masons?

 

The illustrations below show Gorham’s sketches of the marks he encountered.

Some symbols will be familiar to us including the six-pointed star, the swastika, the vesica piscis etc. but if we look carefully, there are several that reflect those used by the artisans in Egypt a thousand years earlier as mentioned by Flinders Petrie and Prof Hayter Lewis:

 

Indian Masons Marks of the Moghul Dynasty, A. Gorham, 1911

Below are examples of the marks used by the artisans at Deir el-Medina, Luxor, Egypt.

They were the subject of research in the recent project conducted by the University of Leiden.

Note some of the more familiar glyphs/signs used, and the use of tally marks:

 

Examples of identity marks from Deir el-Medina
IMAGE LINKED:  Image is the copyright of University of Leiden Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

 

left: LIMESTONE OSTRACON WITH WORKMEN’S IDENTITY MARKS C. 1390–1352 B.C NEW KINGDOM, REIGN OF AMENHOTEP III. EXCAVATED BY THEODORE M. DAVIS IN THE VALLEY OF KINGS, THEBES. ALLOTTED TO DAVIS BY THE EGYPTIAN GOVERNMENT IN THE DIVISION OF FINDS. GIVEN BY DAVIS TO THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM IN 1909. ACCESSION NUMBER: 09.184.700
right: LIMESTONE OSTRACON INSCRIBED WITH IDENTITY MARKS C. 1126–1070 B.C. NEW KINGDOM, RAMESSIDE – REIGNS OF RAMESSES IX – RAMESSES XI. EXCAVATED BY THEODORE M. DAVIS IN THE VALLEY OF KINGS, THEBES AND DONATED TO THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM IN 1909. ACCESSION NUMBER:  09.184.784
IMAGE CREDIT:  MET MUSEUM OA Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Below is an example discovered by the author in the 3rd Dynasty Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara:

 

Example of a mason’s identity/assembly mark in the 3rd Dynasty Step Pyramid of Djoser (c. 2670–2650 BC), Saqqara Necropolis, Egypt.
IMAGE CREDIT:  Philippa Lee, 2022

Conclusion

The similarities between the marks utilised by the ancient Egyptians, the early Islamic architects, and the craftsmen of the Middle Ages onwards are striking.

So much so that we can reasonably surmise that they migrated with travelling workmen and were inevitably passed down from one worker to another, either via a familial or guild link. However, we must also remember that correlation does not necessarily imply causation – humans are remarkably adept at utilising geometric patterns, especially where carving is required, and only so many permutations of easily produced symbols are possible.

In the next part of this series on Operative stone masons, we will explore the use and regulation of masons’ marks within the Guilds, and how they were subsequently adopted by Speculative Masons.

Article by: Philippa Lee. Editor

Philippa Lee (writes as Philippa Faulks) is the author of eight books, an editor and researcher.

Philippa was initiated into the Honourable Fraternity of Ancient Freemasons (HFAF) in 2014.

Her specialism is ancient Egypt, Freemasonry, comparative religions and social history. She has several books in progress on the subject of ancient and modern Egypt.  Selection of Books Online at Amazon

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