Foundation Rituals of Ancient Egypt: Elaborate Rites Conducted to Protect Great Monuments
In modern times, it is common to initiate a new building with what is known as a "ground-breaking" ceremony. This tradition symbolically marks the beginning of a new project in many cultures and is often attended by dignitaries and luminaries. The ancient Egyptians had an equivalent tradition known as a “foundation ritual.” In this ritual, the gods were asked for protection over the work of the building and the finished structures. Almost all of Egypt's best monuments were tied into religion, and the construction of these buildings began with ceremonies of ancient origin.
The foundation ceremonies for temples consisted of eight rituals (eleven during the Ptolemaic or Greek Period). The rituals were supposed to be conducted by the pharaoh, but in most cases they were generally conducted on his behalf. However, the pharaoh would take on his role in the ceremony during the building of the most important structures.
The stages of the rituals were as follows:
- Pharaoh leaves his palace with his royal standard bearers and travels to the site of the temple (Ptolemaic Period)
- Pharaoh arrives at the construction site and is greeted by the priest representing the god to whom the temple will be dedicated (Ptolemaic Period)
- “Stretching the Cord” (astronomical alignments of the building)
- Hoeing the earth and digging the first foundation trench
- Molding the first brick
- Pouring the sand
- Burying foundation deposits
- Beginning construction
- Purifying the completed building
- Dedicating the temple to the gods
- Pharaoh leaves the palace to visit the completed building (Ptolemaic Period).
The first of these rituals, Stretching the Cord, became, over time, the most important one. The reason was because it aligned the whole temple by careful astronomical observation and measurement. The “cord” was the mason’s line which was used to measure the dimensions of the building and align the building with the stars or points of the compass. This ritual had three distinct phases; marking out the four corners of the building at night, “stretching the cord” or driving stakes into the four corners, and tying the cord to link them and loosening the cord (so that it slipped down the stakes and lay on the ground marking the limits of the building). This ceremony was closely associated with the Seshat, the goddess of writing and measurements.
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It has been noted that Ancient Egyptians were highly accurate in the laying of foundations and the orientation of their buildings. It is thought they used a tool known as a “market”, a notched stick through which the constellation of the Great Bear could be viewed to enable the builders to calculate the position of true north and thus align their buildings.
The constellation Ursa Major (The Great Bear). Wikimedia Commons
“Hoeing the ground” comes closest to resembling modern ground-breaking ceremonies. In this ritual, the pharaoh, (or priest representing him) was considered to be the heir of the Earth god. He would begin the first foundation trench of the temple with a wooden hoe, which was thought to symbolically cut through the earth to the “water table”. It represented the upper limit of Nun, the primeval water god. The pharaoh (or priest representing him) would then use a wooden mold to make a mud brick to represent the bricks which were originally used for all buildings. These single mud bricks were often inscribed with the name of the king who dedicated the building and were then buried in one of the foundation deposits. The Pharaoh would then pour a thin layer of sand from the banks of the Nile into the foundation trenches and the workmen would fill in the trenches with Nile sand to create a smooth level base for construction.
Ancient Egyptian priest burning incense. Public Domain
To begin construction, the pharaoh would place a large stone block at one corner of the temple using a wooden lever to manipulate the block. This signaled the initiation of the construction. Once the construction was completed, the building had to be purified before it could be dedicated. The ritual was known as “Strewing of the Besen”, with Besen translated as either gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate also known as Plaster of Paris) or natron (a mixture of naturally occurring salts).
The final ritual was the dedication of the completed temple to the god for whom it was built. The pharaoh would stand before a shrine in which an image of the god sat, and would make offerings and say prayers to dedicate the temple. The ceremony was known as the “Opening of the Mouth of the Throne-of-the-Protector-of-my-Father”. This ritual allowed the god to inhabit their statue (which was not yet divine as it had been created by a human). Animals were then sacrificed and offerings presented to the god. Finally, the ceremony was repeated for the entire building officially making it the home of the god.
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The earliest ancient Egyptian foundation deposits that have been found date from the Dynastic Period and end in the Christian period. During the Old Kingdom, deposit pits tended to be small and included food offerings, ceramics and grindstones. By the Middle Kingdom, the pits were larger and included inscribed model tools and bricks. These practices reached their height during the New Kingdom (c. 1550 - 1070 BC) when items were often mass produced and included more extensive inscriptions and a wider variety of amulets and objects. Deposits were rarely inscribed outside of the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom, and even then inscriptions tended to be fairly brief; often noting only the name of the pharaoh, the building, and the names of gods to whom it was dedicated. Dating to the 12th Dynasty, “Excretion Texts” have been found listing the enemies of Egypt written on figurines and pottery, and buried beneath the construction so that they were symbolically “smothered”.
Foundation deposits were buried at key places around sites with the location of the deposits dependent on the type of structure it was. Temples would have a deposit at each corner, while tombs would have deposits by their entrances. Deposits were also placed under obelisks, columns, halls, sanctuaries and along the central axes of buildings. The deposits were generally placed in pits lined with mud-bricks which varied greatly in size. Pits were generally circular or semicircular, but occasionally square or rectangular. The contents varied considerably, but often included; models of building equipment and offerings; bricks or molds for bricks; votive plaques (generally made of faience, limestone, or wood); ceramic saucers; and bowls.
Reconstruction of a Foundation Deposit. Egyptian, Dynasty 18, joint reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III ca. 1473-1458 BC. Peter Roan/Flickr
A foundation deposit (ritual foundation peg), Babylonia (Iraq), c. 2500 BCE, terracotta. Public Domain
Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri contains fine examples of Egyptian foundation deposit. The temple has fourteen pits, lined and made of bricks, with a diameter of one meter (3.2 feet) and a depth of about 1.5-1.8 meters (5-6 feet). Each pit was placed at crucial points in the temple’s plan. The foundation deposits included materials that were used at the temple’s construction, as well as food offerings. There were also amulets, models of tools (like lead ore, copper ore, charcoals), scarabs, and travertine jars.
The Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri. Wikipedia Commons
As well as in Egypt, foundation deposits have been found beneath royal pyramids in Sudan.
The elaborate rituals and deposit goods found today reveal the fascinating religion and culture of the ancient Egyptians. In addition, deposits provide invaluable information such as the local diet, agriculture, industry, trade, and not least the chronologies and order of royalty.
Foundation deposit of Nectanebo I. Credit: Trustees of the British Museum
Featured image: Sunk relief of personified provinces of Egypt bearing offerings for the temple god. Temple of Ramesses II at Abydos. Wikimedia Commons
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