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As we buzz around with our heads firmly fixed on our smartphones, just beyond those Angry Birds and emails, right beneath your feet, a nationwide web of secret Masonic symbols has evaded explanation for over 100 years.

This really is a '3d' story as it recounts acts of deception, detection and discovery. It perfectly illustrates  how our minds are predisposed to find patterns, not to discount them. In our distant past this trait was essential for survival, for example; if a person was walking in the jungle and glimpsed a pattern of light and dark stripes in the shadows, it would be prudent to assume that the pattern was a tiger and act accordingly. The consequences of incorrectly assuming that the pattern is not a tiger, far outweigh those of incorrectly assuming that it is.

But as you will read, when applied to random events this primal survival skill leads to errors in judgement.

People in the UK walk over kerbstones everyday without giving them a second thought. However, many of these apparently mundane objects display deeply cut letters and a wide range of curious geometric symbols, and they can be found in almost every village, town and city in Britain.

Who carved them, when were they carved, and what on Earth do they mean?

Only a handful of people have ever attempted to explain the meaning of these kerbstone marks and most experts admit they are at a loss as to what they represent. Several theories have been presented, but none have endured. 

These are the top 3 misinterpretations

3. BENCHMARKS

Before the days of GPS and satellite earth measuring technologies, Ordinance Survey mapmakers and architects measured altitudes above sea level from triangular marks with a single horizontal line – known as benchmarks. In the Victorian era over 35’000 benchmarks were carved through out the UK and their locations are recorded in the OS database. However, benchmarks were always carved into static vertical structures like bridges, buildings and monuments, never carved into kerbstones which could be moved at anytime after flooding or road changes.

Ordinance Survey benchmark.


2.. RELIGIOUS SYMBOLISM

Some researchers have suggested that the carved kerbstones lead to places of worship. I find this to be true in some rural communities where it is not uncommon to find small crosses carved on kerbstones outside churches. But I can assure you that this theory doesn't account for 0.001% of the UK's carved symbolic kerbstones. I have walked the walk, trust me!


1. WARTIME UTILITIES

Members of the Geological Society of London attempted to solve this "historical conundrum" in this paper, but in conclusion they lean towards the marks indicating wartime utilities such as water hydrants, bomb shelters,. electricity couplings, gas pipe connections, much the same as steel street signage does today. However, my research has established that although during WW1 many kerbstones were painted white to assist people moving around during bomb raid blackouts, not a single record exists of kerbstones having been carved for these purposes.


SO WHAT ARE THEY?

Since Dan Brown published his best selling book The Lost Symbol in 2009, many researchers have associated the kerbstone marks with Freemason's symbols, believing the marks guide travelling brothers towards secret Masonic Lodges. Albeit this theory is utter nonsense the relationship between stonemasons and freemasons is central to this story.

 Göbekli Tepe was created about 9000 BCE, at a time humans were believed to have been hunting and gathering, bearly scraping a subsistence.

Highly trained stonemasons have been around for at least eleven thousand years, evident in the Temple complex at Göbekli Tepe in modern day Turkey which was built around 9000 BCE. 

Since, a progressively improving stone web of pyramids, tombs, monuments and temples threaded the ancient world together.

Freemasons symbols are structured around stonemasons tools.

Freemasonry is a late16th century fraternal order that adopted an analogy to stonemasonry for much of its organisational structure. The symbols of Freemasonry are built upon arrangements of stonemason’s tools, but their meaning was allegorised into a series of moral codes delivered to candidates as a series of theatrical lessons known as degrees.

One particular degree is known as the Mark Master, or the fourth degree, a ceremony conferrable only to Master Masons and forms part of a hierarchical organisation. The word Mark refers to the symbol medieval stonemasons adopted to identify their work, entitling then to receive their wages. 

Duncan's Masonic Ritual and Monitor, by Malcom C. Duncan, 1866 tells us:

 

 

"This Degree in Masonry was instituted by King Solomon, at the building of the Temple, for the purpose of detecting impostors, while paying wages to the craftsmen. Each operative was required to put his mark upon the product of his labor, and these distinctive marks were all known to the Senior Grand Warden. If any of the workman-ship was found to be defective, it was a matter of no difficulty for the overseers to ascertain at once who was the imperfect craftsman, and remedy the defect. Thus the faulty workman was punished, without diminishing the wages of the diligent and faithful craftsmen. A candidate upon whom this Degree has been conferred is said to have been "advanced to the honorary Degree of Mark Master."

 

 

Within this degree candidates are presented with two tools, a chisel and a mallet. 

Tools of a Mark Master.

Tools of a Mark Master.

Duncan's Masonic Ritual and Monitor explains the Masonic interpretation of the two tools:

 

"the mallet morally teaches the candidate to correct irregularities, and to reduce man to a proper level; so that by quiet deportment he may, in the school of discipline, learn to be content. What the mallet is to the workman, enlightened reason is to the passions: it curbs ambition, it depresses envy, it moderates anger, and it encourages good dispositions, whence arises among good Masons that comely order"

 

To learn more about stonemasons symbols and the origins of Freemasonry, I visited The Mother Lodge of Scotland situated in the Ayrshire town of Kilwinning on Scotland's west coast to examine the Masonic museum and the Freemason's Temple. 

Author Ashley Cowie at Mother Lodge  Kilwinning. The 12th century blonde sand stone abbey can be seen behind the red brick lodge.

This old and ancient Lodge of Freemasons dates back to the building of Kilwinning Abbey around 1140 by Hugh Morville, Constable of Scotland. It was dedicated to Saint Winning, being intended for a company of monks of the Tyronesian Order from Kelso. 

The Mother Lodge at Kilwinning has a unique history second to none in the Masonic world. Before the forming of Grand Lodge in 1736 Mother Kilwinning was a Grand Lodge in her own right issuing charters and warrants to Lodges wishing to enjoy the privileges of Freemasonry.

A secondary purpose for my visit to Kilwinning was to interpret the Masonic symbolism on several gravestones surrounding Kilwinning Abbey.

An old Masonic legend tells that King Robert Bruce, King of Scotland created the Order of St. Andrew of Chardon in Kilwinning, after the battle of Bannockburn, which was fought on the 24th of June, 1314. This Order was united with the older Order of Herodem, for the sake of the Scots Freemasons, who formed a part of the 30,000 troops with whom he had fought an army of 100,000 Englishmen at Bannockburn.

However, some Masonic historians argued that the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) No.1, which is designated number 1 on list of Lodges of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and as it possesses the oldest existing minute of any masonic lodge still operating, dating to July 1599 is the oldest Masonic Lodge not only in Scotland, but the world.

Within Freemasonry hands on stonemasons are referred to as Operative Masons, whereas Freemasons are known as Speculative Masons. Exactly why stonemasons decided to allow non-stonemasons to join their lodges in the 18th century is not clear, although many theories exist ranging from mildly crazy to absolute insanity.

There were many factors which allowed this to happen but the most influential is most probably the explosion of building activity occurred in the 16th century. As a result, he stonemasons guilds had an increasing requirement for legal representation from educated noble families int trade and building disputes. Even back then there was no such thing as a free lunch!

Mason's marks in several 11th to 15th century buildings.

In the Masonic Museum I leafed through an old leather bound book...

Hundreds of books have been published which categorise stonemasons marks which appear in some of the oldest early medieval buildings in Scotland. Many Freemasonic Lodges in Scotland have a register, or roll, of their Mark Master's marks, since the early 18th century. 

Many of these marks perfectly match with the kerbstone symbols. I felt its was safe to conclude that the kerbstone symbols were the signatures of Victorian stonemasons and I began writing my paper laying it all out. 

Then, my world was turned upside down.


THE BRITISH MUSEUM'S SYMBOLIC BLUNDER

Soho Square, London were artist Mary Drescher found the carved crosses.

By 2008 I had the beginnings of a useful database of photographs of Glasgow and London's Victorian Kerbstone symbols. I had noted that Soho Square in London boasted over 60 symbolic kerbstones mostly styalised triangles, crosses and letters.

I had developed the habit of creating a Google Alert for the street names in Glasgow and London where I found a proliferation of symbols, just incase anyone else in the world noticed them and posted something.

I added the words Soho, symbols and kerbstones to Google Alerts on the 28th November 2008. Almost two months later, on the 30th January 2009 at 8.30pm, I heard my computer bing in the corner of my office.

The West End Extra had published this article, about New York born artist, Lauren Drescher, who had counted 47 kerbstones in Soho Square in London which were all carved with crosses. She noted "the markings do appear religious in nature and are reminiscent of gravestones". Then she claims to have reached out to the Soho Society, the British Museum, the Museum of London, Westminster Archives and the Worshipful Society of Freemasons who confirmed they were stonemasons marks.

So good so far? Well this is where things GET WEIRD.

Not accepting the answer she was given by five historical societies she wrote "the only real explanation I’ve had is that they’re masons’ marks but that just doesn’t seem to add up." 

Hold on a second, it adds up just fine!

She continued; "Any cut in stone can be referred to as a mason’s mark – it’s too facile and masons’ marks are usually much more ornate. Plus a lot of the stones have more than one cross on them. In fact the Masons’ society have told us they’re not masons’ marks so that rules that out."

WTF! "In fact the Masons’ society have told us they’re not masons’ marks so that rules that out?"

Really?

If indeed someone in the Masons’ Society claimed these marks are NOT masons’ marks, it must have been an outright moron. Every club has one! Having rejected the correct answer Drescher went on to present her own theory claiming that because the kerbstones bearing crosses looked similar to mini-grave stones they "commemorate the hundreds of thousands of people who fell victim to the pestilence."

This whimsical skewing of historic facts flagrantly undermines the ancient heritage of millions of Freemasons and stonemasons in the UK. Not cool.

THEN THINGS SPIRALLED OUT OF CONTROL.

As a result of Dreschler's remarkable discovery the British Museum invested tens of thousands of pounds of tax payers hard earned cash and installed an enormous map detailing the locations of Drescher's 47 cross marked stones.

They hoped someone would come forward and corroborate Drescher's theory, and not unpredictably, seven years later and not one single person out of the tens of millions of people who have been presented with the evidence at the British Museum has come forward with a shred of evidence in support the theory.

BECAUSE IT'S NONSENSE.

It's outrageous that qualified staff at the British Museum swallowed the interpretation of an artist on a historic problem! The Royal Society of Portrait Painters wouldn't approach a historian to help them solve a art mystery, so why on Earth did the British Museum accept the whims of an artist as a solution to a historical problem?And to support the claim that the symbols are "not stonemasons marks" is an outright manipulation of facts to suit a predetermined religious theory. Not cool.

All things considered, it is not hard to forgive an aspiring artist for failing to adopt a scientific approach to this problem. Maybe Drescher fell victim to the fact that our minds are programmed to see patterns, as explained in the opening paragraph. Maybe?

But it's harder to forgive the British Museum. A scientific institution simply cannot base such an important  historic interpretations on casual, artistic observations. Especially using a minuscule sample of 47 stones located in one square of streets in London when the available data set contains hundreds of thousands of carved stones spanning from the Shetland Island in the north of Scotland to Dover in the south of England. Not cool.

Furthermore, if anyone from the British Museum had actually bothered to walk around Soho Square they would have counted not 47, but over 60 kerbstones bearing various symbols; arrows, letters, dots and triangles. It would have become immediately apparent that Drescher presented the 47 kerbstones that suited her story and failed to mention the others. Not cool, again.

You see, I love museums. To me, they are castles of the scientific method and showrooms of mankind's journey through time.

But this fiasco beckons the question, which other artefacts in this globally respected cultural establishment are based on pure artistic fantasy? Please don't think I'm having a go at the British Museum only to create controversy in my article, but if their interpretation wasn't 100% nonsense, then I'd probably not have piped up.

Questions lead to adventures and adventures lead to new discoveries. 

When a respected scientific institution presents an artistic concept as a definitive historical answer, it serves only to dissuade other people from questing for real answers to this, and other unanswered historic mysteries. 

If I had walked into the British Museum and seen Drescher's map, I would never have asked the questions required to have unearthed the following discovery, which gives us a unique insight into the lives of a the men who built Britain. 


DECODING THE LOST SYMBOLS

Mason's Marks from the 12th century Melrose Cathedral.

From the eleventh century highly skilled European stonemasons began travelling in the UK to work on the many castle, church, cathedral, abbey and palace building projects. Over the next six centuries master masons developed oral and demonstrative systems of teaching their highly valued trade secrets to apprentice stonemasons. 

We cannot begin to conceive how expanded these mens memories were to have retained the hundreds of geometrical, geological and mechanical principals associated with working with stone.

 

As we learned earlier, every stonemason had a unique sign, letters or a monogram which they carved onto their finished stones and structures. At the end of a workweek stonemasons presented their stone-mark to the quarry master and received wages according to the number of dressed stones they had produced. This was the birth of Piecework.

Quarries and building sites sometimes employed hundreds of stonemasons with a wide range of skill sets. In the 1800s most Victorian stonemasons worked up to 14 hours a day, six days a week. There was no sick leave, no holiday leave, and employers could sack employees at any time, without giving a reason. Working outdoors in all weathers stonemasons were renowned as a hardy breed of man, physically and mentally. In such an unpredictable and extremely hazardous environment loss of limbs was commonplace and many stonemasons were often crushed to death.

But it was not only the men who laid the streets that used marks.

Lumper uppers chaining a 15 ton lump of rock before swinging it onto a trailer.

  • Lumper uppers risked their lives prising massive sections of rock from quarry faces. The probability of accidental amputation was very high for both men and horses. When a massive rock was cut, it was marked.

 

  • Teams of cutters hammered, sawed and split rocks into approximate kerbstone shapes, around 70% accurate to the shape of the final stone, which was marked

 

  • These rough stones were then chipped careful into shape by scelpers who with dedicated chips formed a rectangle to about 95% accurate to the shape of the final stone, which was marked.

 

  • Finally, highly skilled dressers polished the stones to less that 0.5 degrees of accuracy, ready to for delivery to the  street in which it was to be set, which was marked.

A Victorian scelper chipping a stone into form.

Masons marks were not only used to calculate how much a stonemason was to be paid, but also for quality control purposes. Penalties were issued for poor workmanship and guilty masons could be singled out and their wages docked, rather than reprimanding an entire crew of conscientious workers.

Over time, as the costs of building in stone reduced, and the demand for stone buildings increased, as did the value of the stonemasons secret skills. In 1598 William Schaw, Master of Works to James VI of Scotland for building castles and palaces issued rules and codes of conduct for stonemasons stating:

"upon admission to the guild of Stonemasons, every mason had to enter his name and his mark in a register."

 

Having turned my back on Drescher and the British Museum's claim that these "are not masons marks" I had created a fresh and clear working hypothesis;

The kerbstone symbols are Victorian stonemason's marks created at different stages of production and usage.

I think the primary reason the UK's street symbols have proven so difficult to interpret is because historians look at them as a single data set and get confused. They are actually a mixed bag of symbols from various stages of Victorian stone production crafts and building skills. It is only when the different stages of stone production and usage are looked at individually, then interpreted as a whole, this entire mystery can be solved with every loose end tied up neatly.

Lets do that now.

At the primary stages of kerbstone production at the quarry face, stone producers and merchants used marks to brand their products in various ways. The top stones on completed pallets would be carved with a symbol to indicate they were shaped and ready to be polished. Or, to indicate they had been polished and were ready to be delivered to a street. When a pallet entered stock facilities again the top stones might have been carved, and possibly again when it was signed out.

The triangle was a commonly used query mark indicating a pallet of polished stones ready for delivery to the street.

Arriving at the location they were to be used, the kerbstones were unloaded by gangs of stonemasons who specialised in furnishing streets with skills of orientation and delineation and interpreting street designers plans.

Once the stones were offloaded, some were carved with layout marks, triangles, crosses and arrows. these were functional stones used to delineate the positions for other stones in an overall street plan.

Located on University Avenue in Glasgow, Scotland this stone is on the tip of a right angle turn and points precisely to 45%. Essentially from this arrow the masons could sting a perfect right angle on the street corner.

When a gang of stonemasons had finished a days work laying out kerbstones, signature marks pertaining to a particular gang of masons were carved onto the last stone laid that day. I imagine back then, a stonemason, surveyor or street planner could glance an intersection and without even thinking about it he would know which were quarry brand marks, stock marks, transport marks delineation marks and those of a gangs of street builders.


NEW DISCOVERIES

It was over ten years ago that I spotted a carved letter ‘H’ on a kerbstone in London’s Baker Street and the following week spotted a second almost identical mark in Scotland, in Glasgow’s George Square. I embarked on a decade long research project photographing the kerbstone symbols and recording their exact locations. Having walked over 4000 miles across the streets of Glasgow and London I have now correlated the world’s largest database of photographs and GPS coordinates of these mysterious symbol stones.

To help people perceive the size of these carvings correctly, and to aid in locating them, my photographs deliberately include yellow and red parking restriction lines, water drains and street garbage. By October 2013, I had correlated big data. I had over 3500 photographs of individual kerbstone symbols which I deemed was more than enough data to begin analysing the results.

I was to adopt a relatively controlled scientific approach, accommodating for symbols found nationwide, compared that of an artist looking at a mere 47 symbols on one street in London.

It dawned on me that maybe we had all been looking down to hard. I needed to figure out how to best question my database so to determine if any pattern existed in the overall placement of the symbols on any given street in a village, town or city. 

I'm one of those guys that knows his limits. I was brought up in the analogue era and I was dealing with a digital database, so I employed Alex Laing an accomplished Glaswegian computer programmer to help me visualise the data. To begin with he devised an algorithm enabling me to shoot kerbstone symbols with my smartphone, anywhere, and for the images to be uploaded directly to a series of interactive Google maps on my website.

On a Mac

If you’re using a Mac, you can access your GPS information by simply right clicking on the photo file you want to view and then picking “get info.” 

On a PC

Right click on your image and pick “properties.” From there, a similar window should pop up showing all the EXIF data, including the location of the picture you just took.

Alex's next step was to reverse into my photograph collection and create a line of code which would strip the EXIF data from each of my images. EXIF data is stored behind most digital photographs recording the GPS coordinates of every photograph you take. I have added a section opposite which will help you access your photographs EXIF data from a Mac or a PC.

After a week uploading over 3500 high resolution images to my website we pressed the GO button and pins peppered across the map. My mind boggled as we watched a single line of computer code bring alive an almost lost era of British history.

The red pins are the locations of carved stones derived fromEXIF data  and presented on Google maps. This image shows all the stones marked with initials on the Southside of Glasgow.

Stones bearing the letter H around Cromwell Road, West London.


Every step I had taken in the last ten years was laid out in front of me like a trail of breadcrumbs.

To progress research I randomly selected a street in the Southside of Glasgow, Holmbank Avenue, just of Kilmarnock Road. I opened up the five photographs of symboised kerbstones pertaining to that street. All five symbols bore the initials J. H. and what is more I noticed that the symbol stones were located almost equal distances apart.

This pattern instantly told me that the placement of the symbols was systematic,  not random! 

I returned to Glasgow last month and walked Holmbank Avenue to discover the initials appeared on every 13th or 14th kerbstone! If these specific symbols were quarry, merchant or delivery company branding marks their placement on the streets would be random.

Finding such a strong pattern suggested the symbols were most probably carved by individual stonemasons or gangs of masons after being set in the street, perhaps marking a day(s) work – like a Victorian factory clocking system.

Carved stones laid every 13 to 14 stones in Holmbank Avenue, just of Kilmarnock Road, Glasgow.

To develop this hypothesis I expanded my search zone to a one kilometre block. I found the most common incisions in the kilometre test zone were the letters:

  • J, H & T.

Pairs and triplets of the following letters are very common;

  • J.Z –  J.A. –  J.P. –  J.H. – H.T. – P.J. – and H.T.J being most prevalent.

Several finely carved kerbstones bear all four letters;

  • H.T.J.T.

and less frequently:

  • E.H.V.

Because larger stones are slower to move it made perfect sense to find larger kerbstones separated by between 11 and 12 stones, and the smaller ones by 14 to 16 stones.


CONCLUSION

My claim that these symbols are stonemasons marks is not only supported in the evidence I have presented in this article, but also in basic statistical analysis. The following fact wraps everything up with a bow on top.

80% of the UK's kerbstone marks are symbols and less than 20% are letters. It is no surprise to learn that over 80% of Victorian stonemasons were illiterate thus they signed of their work with a unique symbol rather than letters.

I get a little buzz when social facts back up theoretical assumptions because this is precisely whats the scientific approach is all about.

In the western world explosives, computerised stone cutting tools and heavy machinery have almost eradicated the requirement for stonemasons. But the next time you’re out walking, look down and keep your eyes peeled. Kerbstone symbols are mini monuments to a very hardy, resilient and clever type of man, with a massive memory capacity. 

The stonemasons who built Britain worked in the harshest life threatening conditions, facing death everyday, to survive and feed their families. So remember, the legacy of the stonemasons is not only present in the buildings above you, but its imprinted on the kerbstones below your feet.

If you happen to find one, please attach your photograph to an to email and send it to ashley@ashleycowie.com and it will be added to the database of symbols.


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