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Q: History of ground breaking ceremonies. ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: History of ground breaking ceremonies.
Category: Miscellaneous
Asked by: carringtonpn-ga
List Price: $50.00
Posted: 25 Aug 2004 21:33 PDT
Expires: 24 Sep 2004 21:33 PDT
Question ID: 392734
Where and when does the tradition of ground breaking ceremonies come
from. usually performed as a ceremonial turning of the soil prior to
the commencment of construction of a civic or significant building or

Request for Question Clarification by digsalot-ga on 26 Aug 2004 00:17 PDT
Hello there

I am putting this here instead of in the answer box since there is no
real definitive answer to your question, even with your generous offer
to find one.

When I get to the end of this, I'm not sure how I will describe the
research strategy either.  I'm basically doing an original essay as an
answer to your question.  When it comes to "authority" for what I will
say here, I'm writing as an anthropologist, archaeologist and with
some fairly extensive background in religious knowledge as a Buddhist
priest - sort of from the horse's mouth, so to speak - though some of
my fellow researchers refer to me as another related animal with
longer ears and an extended bray.

To even try and answer answer your question, we actually have to
combine a study of history along with cultural and religious
anthropology.  Groundbreaking and cornerstone ceremonies are one of
those traditions with a multitude of origins and meanings.  Such
'breaking of the ground' traditions originated in Asia, Africa, Europe
- every continent except Antarctica.  And I'm not sure there wasn't a
penguin someplace in that region who didn't try.

So if you need it pinned down to a specific time and place in history,
such a thing will be impossible.

The origin of all these ceremonies was, and is, steeped in religion. 
And in the beginning, in most every culture, the breaking of the
ground and making the related 'sacred deposit' (or cornerstone) were
both part of the same ceremony.  A separate corner stone ceremony came
later in history.  This concept developed because at the beginning of
these traditions, sacrifices and offerings were made and deposited at
the same time the ground was broken and such offerings were part of
any structure's foundation.  Even human sacrifice played a major role
in these earliest rituals.

Religion, mythology and ritual are fundamental aspects of human
consciousness.  Before our modern age, and our hopefully lessening
dependence on superstitious crutches to get by, religion and daily
life were essentially inseparable and there was little, if any,
distinction between the spiritual and the secular. Even with the
benefits of intellectual and technological progress, so much of our
current social behavior originates in the remote past and the human
psyche has been shaped by preceding generations.

As Thomas Barrie points out "We are the same species that painted the
walls of our subterranean chapels in France and Spain with images of
our animal gods, grunted with exertion as we dragged sarsen megaliths
across Salisbury Plain, and knelt in adoration before the relics of a

We have an almost genetic drive to create 'sacred space' and even in a
secularized world that drive takes expression.  A groundbreaking
ceremony falls into that class of activity.

We now exhibit remnants of our former mythological and spiritual life
in quasi-religious behavior. As in other areas of culture,
architecture embraces and appropriates some of these ancient rites,
though often we don't realize it. Groundbreaking ceremonies for new
buildings symbolically 'consecrate' the site, and the later act of
'topping out' marks the finish of the structure by attaching a sprig
of evergreen to its tallest point which symbolizes rebirth and
regeneration.  The groundbreaking ceremony is part of our creating
sacred space, whether the structure is purely secular as in civic
buildings or used for religious purposes.

We have always used myth and religion as a means of explaining the
universe and our place within it.  Architecture and its related
ceremonials serves a similar purpose.  Major buildings transcend
function to respond to symbolic needs, expressing meanings associated
with human existence at its most fundamental level.

These meanings and beliefs are made 'observable' by rituals and
ceremonies that are generators of an amazing number of architectural
forms, whether it be the prayer halls of Islam, the monumental temples
of Buddhism, Mesoamerican and Egyptian pyramids, Greek temples, Jewish
synagogues, Shinto shrines, Christian churches or the great civic
temples of government and commerce.  This diversity is not merely
pragmatic, with architecture acting as a stage for the enactment of
myth through ritual. The meaning is embodied in the form of the
architecture, the act of the ritual and the interplay between them. 
In every single one of these cases, the 'breaking of the ground' is
the fundamental beginning, the 'cornerstone rite' on which all else is

In some ancient and current primitive traditions, the breaking of the
ground is an act which 'hurts' the earth.  The ceremony in these cases
involves offerings and sacrifices asking the earth's forgiveness.  In
other situations, the breaking of the ground consecrates the place to
the use of a particular divinity.  Offerings and sacrifices asking the
divinity to protect and sanctify the site are part of the ceremony. 
In the case of civic and secular structures, offerings, prayers and
sacrifices, or purely the rites of "civic religion" are used asking
divine protection or stating a civic virtue for the structure, the
country, the law court, or for whatever function or power the
structure will be used.

The splitting of the groundbreaking rite into two separate ritual
functions represents merely an evolution in the manner in which
offeratory 'deposits' were housed.  From perhaps building directly
atop a sacrificial victim or other offering, to embedding the victim
or offering in a separate 'container' within the structure.  Today a
cornerstone offering may be in the form of a 'time capsule' containing
historical documents or other items.  But regardless of what it
contains, it is still no more the extension of the primitive offering
made to ensure a 'firm foundation.'

Your basic question is:  "Where and when does the tradition of ground
breaking ceremonies come from."

The answer is:  Nobody can say.  

Groundbreaking ceremonies predate the written word.  Groundbreaking
ceremonies are universal.  Solid evidence of their use has been found
in every ancient civilization in the world, historic and prehistoric
alike, and they are still universal in modern cultures.

As I stated at the beginning, you have asked a question for which
there is no definitive or complete answer.  Perhaps what I have
written here may help you in further research.  I hope so.


Some additional resources which may be of interest are:

"Spiritual path, sacred place: myth, ritual, and meaning in
architecture" Thomas Barrie, London, Shambhala, 1996

"Constructing the Sacred: the anthropology of architecture in the
world religions" Simon Coleman and Peter Collins, Architectural
Design, vol 66, no 11/12, 1996

Clarification of Question by carringtonpn-ga on 29 Aug 2004 18:33 PDT
Thank you for the quick responce. I had a gound breaking ceremony at
which I had to make the speach and I managed to checked my email on
the way to the airport last friday. I was able to quote parts of your
responce in my speach and it appeared to go well. As I was able to use
you material in the speach I feel that you have done me a service and
therefor should be paid. As a number of members of the press were
asking for a specific press release on the issue I will ask you if you
can find any more information that could add to what you have supplied
to date. As I am writting to you from Sydney, Australia and the
project we had the ceremony is on the South Eastern coast of Australia
at a place call Merimbula. I would like if possible to add information
that would make it more specific to Australia, with the Australian
aborigines being nomads and building no permanent structures I'm not
sure if they have a history of such ceremonies though they did do have
a close affinity with the land. The likey origin of the tradition in
Australia probably stems from our strong UK roots. Give it a shot but
well done so far.
Subject: Re: History of ground breaking ceremonies.
Answered By: digsalot-ga on 29 Aug 2004 21:03 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello again

I'm glad you found the material to be of use.  I will put this part in
the answer section and you can combine them as you wish.

While the Aboriginals of Australia did not erect enduring structures,
they did, and do, have sacred rites relating to the Earth.  There are
various kinds of sacred land in Aboriginal culture -  ceremonial
sites, djang (Dreaming), and djang andjamun (Sacred Dreaming).

Ceremonial sites are now used for burials, rites of passage, and other
events. At djang sites, a creator passed through, took shape, or
entered or exited the Earth, leaving the site safe to visit.

Djang andjamun sites, however, where the ancestor still lingers, are
considered spiritual hazard zones. Laws prohibit entry to the latter
group of sites. Because features of these areas are linked to the
ancestors, they are considered sacred sites rather than inherited

These sacred sites were/are considered to be that way because of the
actions of the 'creator' ancestors rather than by actions taken by
themselves.  So the "creation" of sacred space did not really enter
their thinking.  The sacred space was already created for them.  The
groundbreaking rites were related more to the opening and closing of
graves than the building of a structure.

The Australian Aborigines speak of something called jiva or guruwari,
a "seed power" which is deposited in the earth. In the Aboriginal
view, every single activity, event, or life process that occurs at a
particular place leaves behind a vibrational residue in the Earth. 
For example, plants leave an image of themselves as seeds. The very
shape of the land - its mountains, rocks, riverbeds, and waterholes -
and its unseen vibrations echo the events that brought that place into
creation. Everything in the natural world is a symbolic footprint of
the supernatural beings whose actions created the world. As with a
seed, the potency of an earthly location is wedded to the memory of
its origin. The Aborigines called this potency the "Dreaming" of a
place, and this Dreaming constitutes the sacredness of the earth. 
Once again, we find that the 'sacred space' is nothing they create
through ceremonial or rite.  It is already - and always - there.

When it comes to just what rites were associated with the Earth, the
secret-sacred aspects of Aboriginal religion has put us at a grave
disadvantage in 'proving' any claim we might make.

Perhaps we could look at the Aboriginal history of the whole country
as a form of "groundbreaking/cornerstone rite" with the continent
itself being the structure.  The Australian continent is criss-crossed
with the tracks of the Dreamings - - walking, crawling, chasing,
hunting, dying, laughing, weeping and giving birth. They performed the
rituals, distributed the plants, made adjustments to the landforms and
water, establishing things in their places, making the relationships
work between one place and another - leaving behind parts and essences
of themselves.

Where they traveled and where they stopped, where they lived the
events of their lives, all these places are the foundations and the
cornerstones. These tracks and sites, and the Dreamings associated
with them, make up the sacred geography of Australia.

Australia itself is the 'sacred space' and is its own cornerstone.

carringtonpn-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
The speed of responce was great and the answer was both an
enlightening and entertaining read.

Subject: Re: History of ground breaking ceremonies.
From: pafalafa-ga on 29 Aug 2004 19:04 PDT
Very nice work, Digs...I've think you've broken some new ground, here.


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