History of Land Surveys

Ever since ancient man decided that one piece of land would belong to one tribe and another piece of land to another, there’s been a need for land surveys. While the technology and means of mediation have definitely become more sophisticated over the years, the basic need to define our boundaries remains. Every major civilization in the history of the world utilized land surveying, some with more sophisticated and accurate results than others.

One of the first examples of surveying by mathematical means was by the Egyptians. The Great Pyramid at Giza, build around 2700 BC, demonstrates their prowess and knowledge of surveying techniques. When the Nile overflowed its banks and flooded the plains, the ancient Egyptians redrew boundary lines by using basic geometry. Also, an Egyptian Land register existed as early as 3000 BC. Though miles ahead of other civilizations of their time in regards to their surveying and irrigation techniques, nowadays we prefer a much more scientific method of marking boundaries rather than declaring “I swear by the great god that is in heaven that the right boundary stone has been set up,” when the boundary stones were replaced after the flooding waters of the Nile had receded.

Building upon the example of the Egyptians, the Romans went one step further and established Land Surveyor as an official position within the Roman Empire. They were called agrimensores, collectively known as Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum and they performed various tasks throughout the Empire. They were remarkably thorough and precise in their methodology; they would create straight lines and right angles using simple tools. Once the lines were measured, they would create a furrow or a shallow ditch to represent the lines. Texts have been found which date as far back as the first century AD, and some furrows created by them still exist today.

In England in 1086, William the Conqueror wrote the Domesday Book, which covered all of England and contained the names of the land owners, the amount of land they owned, the quality of said land, and specific information about each area’s resources and peoples. While the breadth of information was impressive for the time, the technical surveying skills were lacking. The maps were not made to scale and did not accurately show locations.

It should not surprise anyone to learn that Napoleon Bonaparte was enthusiastic about proper surveying. When you’re trying to conquer the known world, it helps to have accurate maps. In 1908 he founded the cadastre, a comprehensive register of the property of a county, which included ownership details, location as precisely as possible, and as much information about the value and usage of the land. It also included maps drawn to scale both at 1:2500 and 1:1250. The usage of the cadastre spread quickly, but ran into problems in the more sparsely populated and disputed areas, as it needed to be updated every time anything changed. Napoleon felt that the establishment of the cadastre would be his greatest accomplishment in civil law.

Land surveying has even more applications today than in those of our predecessors. As our means of recording and preserving our history becomes more sophisticated, so do the means by which we measure and record our boundaries and land.