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Why a Surveyor Must Rely on the Foundation of the Past

by Norman on June 6, 2014

‘The professors of this science [of land surveying] are honored with a more earnest attention than falls to the lot of any other philosophers. Arithmetic, Theoretical Geometry, Astronomy, and Music are discoursed upon to listless audiences, sometimes to empty benches. But the land surveyor is like a judge; the open fields become his forum, crowded with eager spectators. You would fancy him a madman when you see him walking along the most perilous paths. But in truth he is searching for the traces of lost facts in rough woods and thickets. He walks not as other men walk. His path is the book from which he reads; he shows what he is saying; he proves what he hath learned; by his steps he divides the rights of hostile claimants; and like a mighty river he takes away the fields of one side to bestow them on the other’  - Cassiodorus, Roman Statesman 490-585 A.D.

 
Not too long ago, Las Vegas hosted a conference targeting land surveyors. The theme for the event was along the lines of ‘With a foot in the past and an eye to the future,’ so why would that slogan attract a surveyor? When we observe surveyors performing their duties these days, often they are providing construction layout for contractors and developers; however, the surveyor’s primary task is the reestablishment or establishment of boundary lines. The future part of the slogan, I suppose, must have to do with the advancement in technologies providing the profession with newer tools such as LiDAR, other types of scanning, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAV) or future services like BIM. Although the themes’ future may simply provide new tools to the surveyor, or suggest opportunity for marketable services, a land surveyor definitely has both feet in the past; the past serves as the foundation upon which decisions regarding boundary lines are made.
 
Once mankind decided that settling in one place, building an abode, and uniting with neighbors who shared a common bond was more desirable than hunting and gathering, he developed a need to measure, quantify and establish or reestablish the limits of his lands. This eventually required a specialized individual with knowledge of measuring, the history of the land as well as the laws or kingly edicts on how to establish those boundaries; hence, the catalyst for one of the world’s oldest professions, Land Surveying. Evidence of the surveyor can be shown on millennia old Babylonian Kudurru (boundary marker, pictured) where the name of the surveyor who set it as well as boundary information was inscribed upon it, along with a few dozen curses hexing anyone brave enough to disturb it (if only that worked today). After the Nile River flooded the adjoining lands each spring, surveyors had to reestablish the boundary markers washed away by the torrent. The tomb of an Egyptian priest contains hieroglyphs depicting Hardenonaptai (rope stretchers) measuring land. The Roman Legions took along Gromaticia to perform engineering layout, camp alignments and other measuring tasks; Agrimensor measured the fields and established boundaries. The Kahuna in Hawaii was that person who had that special knowledge of boundaries on the islands and how to reestablish them. In colonial America, some of the most influential men were land surveyors. Mount Rushmore is carved with the relief of three land surveyors and one other president (Teddy Roosevelt did take part in mapping a tributary of the Amazon River, but we can’t count him as a land surveyor).
 
It is said that when retracing a boundary on the ground, the surveyor must take the deed by the four corners, for therein lays the intent of the parties, and then set his markers. Many times it isn’t that easy, and the surveyor must rely on the “footprints” of surveyors past, a good understanding of the elements of land law and his own experience. Often, he examines the language and customs of those long gone, antiquated methods or bygone units of measurement and other supporting (or conflicting) documentation. While performing a survey, the surveyor may temporarily don the hats of architects, archeologist, paleontologist, geodesist, geologist, attorneys and engineers to arrive at the location of a boundary. He searches for monuments or other evidence sometimes centuries old and hidden, he must be able to discern that which is relevant and what is suspect. Land surveying is so much more of an art than a science, even so, Cassiodorus’s 1500 year old exultation of the surveyor still rings true today.