Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Earliest Masons

by W.M.Don Falconer
Lodge Endeavor No 429
The United Grand Lodge of New South Wales, Australia

(continued from Speculative Foundations)

These humble beginnings ushered in the Agricultural Revolution, which was begun by the Late Hunters in the New Stone Age and provided the necessary foundation for the growth of civilisation. True farming was first developed in the uplands that sweep to the east and north on the flanks of the valley formed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This was the natural area for development, because the wild ancestors of wheat and barley, sheep and goats were native to it and the upland valleys generally provided fertile soil and good water supplies. The oldest known evidence of the domestication of sheep and goats is to be found in this area, dating from 8,200BC and earlier. As the cropping and grinding of cereals and the herding and domestication of animals developed, the small upland settlements were extended down into the fertile valley, where villages began to form around 6,000·BC. Mixed farming had been carried to the fertile plain of Thessaly in Greece at about the same time, thence southwards to the Peloponnese, as well as to Crete and Cyprus.

The population grew with these developments, with settlements becoming larger and more permanent. As a result of this impetus, mud bricks were first made in Mesopotamia and the Eastern Mediterranean and used in the construction of houses. These bricks were first shaped by hand, as a Jericho, but later the mud was rammed into moulds. The use of stone for walls and dykes also became more prevalent. The largest villages may then have held up to 5,000 people, but generally were much smaller. Jericho is probably the oldest city in the world and when constructed around 8,000BC it occupied 4 hectares. It was surrounded by a massive stone wall 3 metres thick and 4metres high, against which was constructed at least one circular tower of rock 10 metres in diameter and 8.5 metres high, with a built in stairway, which presently is the world's oldest known structure. The city was abandoned for a period, but was colonised again about 7,000BC. The town walls were not renewed, but rectangular houses of mud brick with high quality plastered walls and floors spread over the whole site. Jericho was abandoned and reoccupied a number of times thereafter and perhaps is best known for its destruction by Joshua in Biblical times.

Two other events in this period also were of particular significance, these being the construction of some of the earliest known religious buildings at Catal Huyuk in Turkey and the construction of "beehive" houses at Khirokitia in Cyprus. The "beehive" houses were circular in plan, around 8 to 10 metres in diameter, with high thresholds to keep out surface water. Their foundations were of stone, which was carried to a height of about 2 metres, while the superstructures were corbelled vaults constructed of mud brick and of sufficient height to accommodate a bedroom gallery accessed by ladder or stairway. The ground level compartment was partitioned as required with mud brick walls which also served as supports for the gallery. These houses continued in use until supplanted by more conventional houses around 5,000BC or even more recently. The mud brick vaulted arch was a significant advance in architectural design and construction, paving the way for arch construction in stone. The "beehive" houses in Cyprus thus reflected the greatest advances of the earliest masons.

Catal Huyuk was occupied from about 6,500BC to 5,500BC and covers an area of 13 hectares. It is thought to have had a population of 6,000 in its heyday, comprising three different races nowhere else found together in this period. The houses were rectangular timber framed structures, with mud brick exterior walls and flat mud rooves placed on closely packed timber poles supported by timber rafters, furnished with hearths, platforms, benches and ovens. Among the houses was a series of elaborately decorated shrines which were similar to the houses in construction and furnishings, though frequently larger. Their sanctuaries were decorated with wall paintings, plaster reliefs, cult statues and animal heads. The richly coloured wall paintings frequently depicted hands and ritual or magic hunting scenes, but the most unusual painting found was a unique landscape depicting a terraced town of individual houses and blocks of houses and shrines, with a volcano erupting in the background. The dead of successive generations of the same family were buried within the platforms of the shrines, together with appropriate grave goods. This indicates a significant advance in religious thought, even though the rather crude and sometimes barbarous manifestations within the shrines were in stark contrast to the great religious inspiration of architecture and art that was soon to blossom with civilisation.

Masonry, by its very nature, is conducive to speculation in relation to building work in progress, however primitive the building might be. It is necessary to consider the suitability and dimensions of the available materials; to determine the best location and orientation for the structure; and to prepare sound and level foundations that will support the structure adequately and can be properly drained. The dimensions must be delineated on the ground before erection commences and walls must be plumbed, corners must be squared and tops of walls must be levelled during erection to ensure that the structure is both stable and pleasing to the eye. Even the earliest masons had to accomplish some or all of these operations, requiring constructive thought that inevitably would heighten their awareness to things other than their immediate requirements. Having constructed walls of rough stones, for example, the first masons soon comprehended the advantages of regular bricks and used their ingenuity to provide them. Thus, in a practical sense, speculative masonry was born and soon would also embrace moral contemplation through a natural association of ideas.


The next important period of development, from 5,000BC to 3,000BC, roughly coincides with the copper age and ushers in the first of the monumental architecture in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Using the simplest of raw materials, principally mud brick and imported timber, the local inhabitants achieved remarkable results. Egypt concentrated on huge royal tombs. The mastaba tombs of the First Dynasty are typical, being decorated externally to represent a "palace facade". Efforts in Mesopotamia were concentrated on temple building Their temples rapidly grew larger, more complex and externally more impressive, as typified by Eridu, in Sumer, where a continuous series of temples has been distinguished from about 5,500BC to 3,000BC. At Arpachiya, in northern Mesopotamia, circular houses were constructed similar to the earlier "beehive" houses of Cyprus, usually extended by a rectangular gable roofed wing, the unit being called a "tholos". Another notable development was the fortified settlement at Dimini in Greece, one of the earliest towns known in Europe, dominated by the "megaron" palace with its pillared porch. Dimini was surrounded by six concentric walls of undressed limestone, with narrow gateways and passages which formed a defensive system.

Although great advances were made in architecture and the development of cities during this period, the greatest achievement undoubtedly was the dawning of literate civilisation. The Sumerians of the southern plain of Mesopotamia, around 4,500BC, first drew cuneiform pictograms which represented actual material objects, to assist in the recording of inventories for grain, cattle and other commodities. The turning point came when it was realised that a sign could also stand for a sound, when phonetic writing began. But as the scribal profession and schools developed, the system of combined ideograms and phonetics became extremely complicated and it was not until about 3,500BC that writing had been forged into a practical vehicle for the communication of language. Meanwhile the Egyptians were developing hieroglyphic writing, which incorporated a combination of signs for both sounds and ideas when it was first used about 3,300BC. The Egyptian name for their writing meant "speech of the gods", reflecting its original use for royal inscriptions for the divine pharaohs, not for the keeping of accounts as cuneiform was originally used in Sumeria.

With the continually increasing emphasis on the construction of larger and more complex buildings, palaces, temples, shrines, monumental and sepulchral structures, masonry was no longer a simple task for a small gang of men. It must, therefore, have been during this period that skilled gangs of masons began to develop. To enable the work to be carried out successfully it would have been necessary for the chief of the builders, or master mason, to arrange training and supervision for very large gangs of masons and allied workers. This must have been an extremely difficult task, especially as written instructions could not then be given in writing. The only means of tuition available to them was by catechism, aided by sketches on slate or an earthen floor, which constituted their tracing boards. Archaeological investigations have provided overwhelming proof that, despite these difficulties, the early masons did indeed construct many outstanding edifices that had a remarkably high standard of finish.

Masonic instruction could only have begun as outlined above, as it has continued in principle to the present day. Moreover, the frequent if not continual contact that masons through all ages have had with shrines, temples, cathedrals, monuments and sepulchral buildings, must have induced masons to contemplate the meaning of life and certainty of death, as well as to seek an understanding of the hereafter, much more than would have been usual among the general population. This would contribute significantly to the speculative aspects of masonry and would also foster symbolic explanations of the mason's implements of labour. As in the present day, so then had many relevant masonic expressions become a part of the languages of those bygone days, which were recorded with the advent of cursive script. Such philological evidence proves beyond doubt that at least some elements of symbolism and speculative thought must have been a part of masonic instruction from the earliest days of organised masonry.

A host of symbolic references in masonic terms are to be found in the Scriptures, of which many such as the following are very well known. During a visit to Bethel about thirty years before the fall of Israel around 745BC, that event is prophesied in Amos 7, v. 7-9, when the Lord measured his people Israel with a plumb line and found them to be irremediably warped by sin. In the reign of Manasseh, the murderous and idolatrous king who ruled from 696BC to 642BC, the captivity of Judah by Babylon around 606BC is foretold in II Kings, Ch. 21, v. 13, when the Lord said he would "stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria and the plummet of the house of Ahab". In Isaiah 28, v. 16, written between 750BC and 700BC, the coming of Christ is foretold in the words "Behold I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious corner stone, of a sure foundation." This prophesy is referred to in I Peter 2, v. 6-8 around 60AD, when the death of Christ is alluded to in the following significant words added "for those who do not believe": "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner, a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall". Other Passages from the book of Genesis, taken in conjunction with some of the traditions preserved in Sumerian, Assyrian and Hebrew literature, also provide some interesting sidelights on masonry.

In Genesis 4, v. 19-22, we read that Lamech a descendant of Cain had two wives, Adah and Zillah. Adah bore two sons, Jabal and Jubal, the former being recorded as "the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle" and the latter as "the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe". Traditionally, Jabal is also said to be the founder of geometry and the first mason who built stone walls and houses of stone. Zillah bore a son Tubal-cain and a daughter Naamah, the former being recorded as "the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron" and the latter being referred to in the traditions as the founder of weaving. These four are thus credited with the origin of civilised society. We also read of Nimrod in Genesis 10, v. 8-11, where we are told that he was "the first man on earth to be a mighty man", "a mighty hunter" and that "he built Ninevah . . . . that is the great city". Traditionally, it is said that masons first became of note at the building of the Tower of Babel, the first structure to be mentioned in the Scriptures (Genesis 11, v. 1-9); also that Nimrod was a master mason who loved the craft, formed his masons into lodges and gave them a charter and a charge when he sent them forth to build all the cities in his kingdom. Although it is impossible at present to date events such as these with any accuracy, they must have occurred around the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution.

(continued at Monumental Masonry)

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