Land surveying: the oldest profession?

Richard Furlong - City Surveys Group

Home » Land surveying: the oldest profession?

Published: 15th September 2016

This Article was Written by: Richard Furlong - City Surveys Group


Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China… as we look back in time certain structures stand out; monuments, statues, ancient constructions and maps. All have something in common: the land had to be surveyed in order for these historical landmarks to be created.

Surveying: the act of examining and mapping a specific area of the physical environment, built or otherwise, is one of the oldest trades or professions known to man. All the way back to the beginning of recorded history, for over five millennia, humans have been employing simple tools and techniques (such as rope and peg geometry) to produce ordered measurements for use in the construction of large and small scale projects. Many great city and country boundaries were established after conquest using surveying techniques for the purposes of taxation.

Evidence of land surveying techniques and reports can be found in historical documents for places such as Greece, Egypt, Stonehenge and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) where the earliest survey-specific equipment was used.

The diopter, which dates back to the third century BCE, was used for triangulation by Greek surveyors; imagine a protractor resting on a compass. The groma was a Roman surveying tool first used in ancient Iraq; it is from the groma that the practice of using plumb lines originated by hanging weights on string to delineate straight lines.

Prior to the Romans, surveying wasn’t really a profession to speak of, merely a collection of isolated practises and techniques that were recorded. The Romans added prestige and weight to the field and really brought the profession of surveyor to the fore.

Why were boundaries so important?

Money (to be crass about it). Today when we think of purchasing a house we pay for a Land Registry search to confirm the boundaries of a property, yet at no point in the whirlwind of house-buying would we realise that our actions are linked to the medieval Domesday Book.

William the Conqueror, in the winter of 1085, commissioned ‘The Great Survey’. It contained records for over thirteen thousand settlements in counties south of the Ribble and Tees rivers. England’s Norman overlord commissioned the survey in a quest to understand, with greater accuracy, how much land and resources were owned in England. In other words, how much the victory at Hastings had won him. Ultimately, William was interested in finding out how much tax he could charge the English peoples.

Even the title of the resulting volume bears some relevance to the surveying profession. It is said that no detail was left out of the book and that every yard of land was accounted for. Many compared it to the Christian Judgement Day or ‘Domesday’ because people felt like every aspect of their lives were being accounted for. It’s true to say, that meticulous nature still exists in the profession today.

Speeding up the process

Moving forward several centuries, around 500 years to be precise, we find ourselves in the midst of the Italian Renaissance. This period of huge scientific and technological advancement propelled surveying into the profession we recognise today.

Many of the tools and methods developed in the sixteenth century have never been bettered and are still in use today. Processes and equipment to measure angles, to level, or to determine position and distance were honed to perfection during the Renaissance. These are the mainstay activities of the modern-day surveyor and have remained relatively unchanged since.

The equipment may have become more specialised in modern times but the iconic surveying tools of the Italian Renaissance – the theodolite, the geometric measure and the compass – along with new topographical techniques for cartography enabled surveyors, then and now, to carry out ancient activities with enhanced accuracy and efficiency.

Moving forward again, at speed

The late eighteenth century saw the birth of the Industrial Revolution – a lucrative time for surveyors who assisted the capitalists of the period to construct the buildings that made the Western World.

Driven by demand, new surveying techniques were also developed. They revolutionised the construction of the burgeoning infrastructure of the Georgian period, such as railway and canals, and put surveyors in huge demand.

We must not drone on about the past!

A brief history of land surveying should also take into account the modern technologies and techniques employed in the field. It’s highly probable that if you were to place a technician from another field, with equipment, next to a land surveyor in full flight the level of technology would be unparalleled.  

From GPS and GIS systems to 3D laser scanners, tripods, instruments stands, high-powered computers and programs, the modern surveyor has a diverse toolkit at their disposal; all designed with one goal in mind, accuracy and speed.

And when the task is so immense it requires multiple perspectives the modern surveyor can negotiate measurements from the air with drone technology. No matter how far we have come, no matter how many tools and techniques the modern land surveyor has, it’s interesting to think that the same processes and purposes applied over five thousand years ago still apply today in one of the oldest of human activities.

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