Thousands of years ago men recognised stone as being a superior building material. To this day, countless stone structures, built eons ago, like the pyramids of South America or Egypt, the colossal foundation of Baalbek, or the enigma of England’s own Stone Henge survive as a testament to that fact. The most obvious reason for this is that these structures are composed of stone. However, when one begins to question how the builders were capable of these engineering wonders, he realises he must also consider their technology and tenacity for such feats. Placing one stone on top of another eventually led to fitting them together precisely, which led to the advent of the chisel.
Stonemasonry is rooted in this ancient science, as is the history and many (sometimes religious and mysterious) traditions and ceremonies surrounding the placing of the cornerstone, or, the foundation stone. To this day, urban legends of baby and virgin sacrifices haunt such organisations as the Freemasons. Regardless of such fantastic debauchery, in the case of the British Isles, a slightly more banal history of foundation stones may be exemplified through some otherwise legendary rocks.
Time has all but erased the history of the London Stone, though it is believed to be of Roman origin, and its name can be traced back to the 1100s. This chunk of limestone is but a portion of the original piece once secured into the ground. It was moved in 1742, and it was built into the south wall of the Church of St. Swithun London Stone in 1798. Though the church was demolished in the 1960s, the stone remains.
King’s College Chapel
In 1446, during the Feast of St. James, and shortly before the Wars of the Roses, King Henry VI laid the foundation stone of the chapel that was to be a small part of a greater court. Though his grand scheme was never completed, this example of late Gothic grandeur still stands today.
Royal Tudor Foundation Stone
Only recently, a foundation stone bearing the initials of Henry VIII (H) and his wife, Katherine of Aragon (K), was accidentally re-discovered in the geography department of the University of London. The stone had been obscured behind a false wall for several decades, until spotted during a chance visit by Chris Mazeika (a member of a Deptford community group). Mr. Mazeika was researching the Tudor dockyards at the time, and recognised the significance of the stone. The foundation stone was originally part of the Deptford dockyard, a major naval installation some 500 years ago.
Modern Foundation Stones
It may be impossible to trace the beginnings of ceremonial cornerstone placement, or when it actually became fashionable to carve words and dates into a rock’s stony surface. Perhaps it is a universal behavior of mankind, one which can be traced to the emergence of written languages. The Egyptians, for instance, were quite fond of leaving records chiseled in stone throughout the pyramids.
Today it is common practice to adorn buildings with a ceremonial foundation stone which bears the date the building was erected, commemorates a noted person or special occasion, or marks a historical place or monument. Modern stone masons and letter carvers, such as David M. Gibson, carry on this artisan’s tradition. A blending of art and science, letter carving takes a great deal of skill, patience, and talent; not everyone can wield a chisel without splitting the rock. Many stone masons earn a living carving intricate headstones for the departed, busts and statuary, as well as commemorative foundation stones.