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The Foundation Ceremony For Ancient Egyptian Religious Buildings


About Egyptian Pyramids

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Alan Winston

 

 


 

Items from a foundation deposit

 

Most all of Egypt's best built monuments, the ones still around for us to see today, were somehow related to religion, and all construction of religious buildings in ancient Egypt began with ceremonies of very ancient origin. Today, we call these foundation rituals. The rituals involved leaving a foundation deposit buried not only under the corners of, for example, a temple, but sometimes at the apex and even at the corners of individual halls, courtyards and shrines as well as underneath pylons, columns and obelisks. They have been a valuable source of information for Egyptologist throughout the years.

 

However, the foundation ceremony consisted of much more than leaving the foundation deposits. Comparison of text and other material indicates that the ceremony actually consisted of ten discrete rites. These were, in theory, personally conducted by the king himself assisted by various deities and part of the rites occurred at the beginning and end of construction. The rites included:

 

Beginning the Construction

 

1. "Stretching the Cord", thereby fixing the plan of the building.
2. Purifying the area to be built upon by sprinkling gypsum.
3. Digging the first foundation trench
4. Filling the foundation trench with sand
5. Moulding the first brick or bricks
6. Burying the foundation deposits
7. Initiation of the building work

 

Completion of Construction

 

8. Purification of the completed temple
9. Presenting the temple to the deities to whom it is dedicated
10. Offering of sacrifices

 

During the Greek (Ptolemaic) period, a ceremony was even made of the king leaving his palace and arriving at the temple site, but the above list sets out all the rites of the earlier lists such as that depicted on the walls of the Small Temple of Tuthmosis III at Medinet Habu.

 

The first of these rituals became, over time, the most important. Known as pedj-shes, or "stretching the cord", it was of such importance that the whole ceremony, or at least that section leading up to actual construction, was called by the same name. The reason this rite was so important was that it aligned the whole temple by careful astronomical observation and measurement.

 

This was probably done by sighting northern circumpolar stars through a notched stick called a merkhet. This was perhaps accomplished by sighting the star on an artificial horizon as it rose in the evening, and again as it set. Determining the halfway point between these two points would give the builder's true north.

 

Theoretically, the king carried out this ritual with the aid of Seshat, or Sefkhet-Abwy, the scribal goddess of writing and measurements. In reality, trained temple personnel probably carried out the measurements and the king's role was probably purely symbolic. In fact, while we do not know how often the king actually participated in the rites, symbolically at least, all stages of a temple's construction were performed by him.

 

After the initial phases of the ceremony were completed, the foundation deposits would soon be placed in a pit that was sometimes lined with brick. These pits could be as large as several meters across. Their composition varied widely, but often included small votive plaques, bricks, models of building tools or good offerings, and often the head of a bull and a goose. These objects were normally models of a purely symbolic nature. The items were most often made of clay, wood or other simple materials and were rarely of expensive or rarer substances. In the Late Period, they sometimes also included samples of materials actually used in the building's construction.

 

Normally, these items were not even inscribed, but when they were, mostly during the Middle and New Kingdom period, they usually only stated the name of the king who commissioned the construction and perhaps the deity to whom the temple was dedicated. These inscriptions usually followed a formula such as "The good king (King's name) beloved of (Deity's name) Lord of (City or Temple name). In the 12th Dynasty, we also find "Excretion Text" listing the enemies of Egypt written on figurines and pottery, and buried beneath the construction so that they were symbolically "smothered".

 

The most famous example of a foundation deposit is probably those found in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri. This temple had fourteen brick lined pits measuring about one meter in diameter and between 1.5 and 1.8 meters in depth. Each was placed at a crucial junction in the plan of the temple. The contents included food offerings and materials used in the construction of the temple. They also held scarabs, cowroids, amulets, travertine jars and models of tools, such as crucibles and copper ore, lead ore and charcoal for smelting). The introduction of model tools and building materials within the deposits were meant to magically serve to maintain the building for eternity.

 

 

Recreated foundation deposit from the temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri

Recreated foundation deposit from the temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri

 

These foundation deposits have demonstrated to be invaluable in determining chronologies, agriculture practices and diet, and the order of the kings.

 

Specific Items found in some Foundation Deposits:

 

Location

Tools

Vessels

Miscellaneous

Temple at Abydos (deposit 82)

4 tool blades

1 large dish

1 alabaster ointment jar

 

Temple at Koptos (deposit 7)

about a dozen model tool blades

1 saucer inside a larger vessel

1 alabaster saucer

12 alabaster ointment jars

2 grinders/grindstones

Amun-Kamutef bargue station at Thebes (deposit 1)

 

2 model saucers

 

Mortuayr temple (portico deposit)

 

 

166 carnelian beads

Temple at Deir el-Bahri barque station (deposit 3)

4 each of wood brick moulds, hoes, adze, axe, knife, chisel, various gravers, mallets, surveyor's stake

4 oval circular baskets

5 basketwork sieves

4 grinders/grindstons

1 string of carnelian beads

Temple at el-Kab (deposits 1 & 2)

 

small cups of brown clay

 

 

 

Return to Pyramid Construction Index

 

References:

 

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.

2000

Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05100-3

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul

1995

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas

1988

Blackwell

None Stated

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian

2000

Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2

 

 

Last Updated: June 13th, 2011

 

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