Modern surveying is highly developed. With satellites and lasers, it now looks very different than just a few decades ago. At its core, modern surveying has a lot in common with ancient surveying. In this article, we will be covering the original developers of surveying: the Egyptians and Greeks, and some of the methods and tools they used.
Egypt: The First Surveyors
Ancient Egypt had a problem. The Nile continually flooded every year. While this flooding brought in much needed nutrients for crops, it also erased the boundary markers for the fields.
The landowners needed to know the correct boundary for planting in their own field. Boundary marking was also important for taxation. The tax was based on land acreage. Tax officials needed to know the correct land boundaries to accurately tax landowners.
For this reason, surveying became very important.
Egypt is considered to be the home of the first surveyors. Not only did they mark out the fields every year, but there is evidence of control marks on pyramids, architectural markings in tombs, and sketch plans showing evidence of construction surveys.
The symmetry and proportion of construction in Egypt, such as the pyramids, not to mention how long it has lasted show how skilled these ancient Egyptian surveyors were.
Still, Egyptian surveying was very primitive. Unfortunately, we don’t know a lot about how they worked and what techniques were used.
One surviving instrument is a Merkhet. Primarily used for timekeeping, a Merkhet was a bar with a plumb line. The Merkhet would be aligned with the North star while a second one was used to indicate a North-south meridian. Using this line, surveyors could align a structure.
“Shadow-reckoning” was largely used to figure out the height of the pyramids and water leveling was used to level them. The Egyptians would actually flood a whole area to determine the overall level.
The Greek Thales of Miletus brought Egyptian surveying and geometry with him back to Greece, where it was improved and developed.
Greece: Surveying Elevated
The Greeks, along with the Romans, elevated the surveying technology to the next level. For the first time, more complex tools for surveying were studied and created.
Two of the surveying instruments developed by the Greeks included the dioptra and the odometer.
The dioptra was a rod with a sight at both ends. It is more accurate than the Roman-developed groma. While some credit the development and use of the dioptra to Hero of Alexandria, proof of this has been lost.
The dioptra was used to take heights and levels when self-suspended and horizontal angles when mounted.
The dioptra was used on aqueduct projects. In fact, some think that the dioptra was used to build the Eupalinian aqueduct, a tunnel 4,000 ft long and considered an engineering marvel of ancient times.
The odometer served the exact same function as the ones today – measuring distance. Unlike the digital ones today, Greek odometers were purely mechanical. Some speculate that Alexander the Great used ancient Greek odometers during his conquests. The recorded distances are too accurate to be from