Land Surveying in Ancient Times: Egypt, Greece and Rome

Although today land surveying often makes use of GPS, computer models, and other recent technical developments, the profession of surveying actually dates back centuries. Evidence of surveying techniques can be found throughout much of recorded history. In fact, land surveying principles date back nearly as far as the idea of land ownership. As soon as individuals or groups owned specified areas of land, there was a need to describe or delineate who owned what, particularly to solve land disputes. This is where land surveying came in, although of course today land surveying is utilized for many other purposes too.


Ancient Egyptian surveying activities were particularly modern for their time period. When the Nile River overflowed its banks, washing out the existing boundaries between farms, these boundaries were re-established through the use of simple geometrical concepts by a surveyor. In this time, surveyors were known as rope stretchers because the measuring device they used was a knotted rope.


Other examples of ancient Egyptian surveying prowess can be seen in the Great Pyramid of Giza. Built around 2700 BC, the pyramid exhibits nearly perfect squareness and a north-south orientation. Despite its massive size, its orientation and squareness are each off by only a matter of inches. The Egyptian land register, created around 3000 BC, is the first known land ownership record. This record showed the owners of various areas of land and also recorded the locations of this land. Surveys such as those used to create the land register were based on geometry, as well as declarations by landowners of the believed boundaries of their land.


In ancient Babylon around 1200 BC, a limestone tablet known as the Babylonian Kudurru was inscribed and set in the land. This boundary stone, the earliest known example of one, held the description of the property, the name of the surveyor and the owner, and the ownership history. This stone also contained lengthy curses for anyone who would deny the owner’s right to the land or move the stone. This early tablet represents one of today’s land surveying methods, which is the placing of a boundary stone or other marker at the corner of the property.


By 500 BC, the Greeks had adopted many Egyptian surveying techniques. It is known that mathematicians including Thales and Pythagoras traveled to Egypt to study geometry, returning to impart their knowledge on mathematicians and surveyors in Greece. In Greece, legendary figures, including Aristotle, Plato, and Archimedes made the city of Alexandria a great center of science, surveying, and related endeavors.


The Roman Empire is another civilization noted for its land surveying prowess. The Romans established land surveying as an official profession; land surveyors in this time were known as agrimensores. From the first century AD, agrimensores in Rome were known for creating perfect straight lines and right angles. These lines would be used to dig shallow trenches, some of which are still in existence to this day. Many Roman surveying methods were based on those used in ancient Egypt and Greece. Some surveying tools have been uncovered at the site of Pompeii, covered in ash in the year 79 AD.  Although ancient maps and land surveys were much less accurate than today’s, it is quite impressive that they were created without the use of GPS and other sophisticated technologies.