History of the Legal Aspects of Land Surveying Research Paper

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Metes and Bounds: The History Of the Legal Aspects of Land Surveying

Anyone who has ever flown across the country can readily testify to the regular square and rectangular shapes that divide large tracts of land. This grid-like appearance did not just happen, of course, but was rather the result of legislation that tasked land surveyors with dividing the states into regularly sized segments which were then sold or otherwise allocated. Despite innovations in technology that have made land surveying more efficient and accurate, the basic tools and techniques used by modern land surveyors were invented thousands of years ago in Babylon and Egypt and subsequently refined in Greece and Rome. In order to gain a better understanding of the legal aspects of land surveying today, including the resolution of boundary disputes and ethics and moral responsibilities of modern land surveyors, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed, scholarly and organizational literature, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Historical Aspects of Land Surveying

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The history of land surveying is truly ancient, with its roots traceable to Babylon and Egypt (Dampier 1949) as well as Greece and Rome (Lewis 2001). According to Dampier, for instance, in Babylon around 2,500 BCE, "The beginnings of geometry illustrate the origin of an abstract science from the needs of everyday life, and are to be found in the rudimentary formulae and figures for land surveying. Plans of fields led to more complicated plans of towns, and even to a map of the world as then known" (1949:2). The practice of land surveying became more sophisticated over time and it was applied with good effect to the needs of the people of Egypt. In this regard, Dampier adds that, "Geometry, as its name implies, arose from the practical need of land-surveying, and this need was greatest, and was best met, in Egypt, where the inundations of the Nile periodically removed the landmarks" (1949:40).

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Two millennia later, land surveying in Rome reached a high level of accuracy and precision and evidence of these efforts can still be found today. For example, Cuomo reports that, "Roman land-surveying has left many archaeological remains; the most spectacular are large-scale grids, still visible in many parts of France, Spain, the former Yugoslavia and especially Italy and North Africa" (2001:154). While the artifacts of these early land surveying efforts are most easily discernible when viewed from above, it is also possible to detect their remains on the ground as well. According to Cuomo, "On the ground, the lines are walls or roads, or remains of ditches which produce surface irregularities" (2001:154). Based on the regular outlines of these patterns, researchers have located stones that were used to demarcate land boundaries. In this regard, Cuomo notes that boundary stones were used to "indicate the ownership or lease of a plot of land or its position with respect to some reference points" (2001:154).

The practice of land surveying by ancient Romans established many of the techniques that remain in use today. For example, grids were typically established by beginning with two designated main perpendicular axes, usually paths or roads, and were generally orientated to the four points of the compass, known as the decumanus (east-west) and the cardo (north-south) (Cuomo 2001). Subsequent lines were then laid out parallel and perpendicular to these grid lines at regular distances from the primary axes (Cuomo 2001). According to the Surveyors Historical Society, "Two learned Romans, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, and Sextus Julius Frontinus, wrote of surveying practices in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ. Undoubtedly there were more works from their time, but many classical works were irretrievably lost in the destruction of the Alexandrian library in 642 a.D." (Roman surveying 2010:2).

Figure 1. Groma Surveying Tool used in Ancient Rome

Source: Surveyors Historical Society at http://www.surveyhistory.org/images/groma.JPG

One of the instruments used by Roman land surveyors was the groma (see Figure 1 above). In this regard, Cuomo reports that, "The groma and other sighting instruments were used to keep the lines straight; measuring rods were used to ascertain distances; and sun-dials helped lay the cardo and decumanus in the right directions" (2001:155). The Romans termed the division of land using these early surveying instruments "centuriation." As explained by Cuomo, "The whole operation was known as 'centuriation' (the territory as 'centuriated') from centuria, a unit of measure corresponding to two hundred iugera, equivalent to two-thirds of an acre" (2001:155). Representative centuriations discerned from above in Rome is shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2. Examples of Centuriation in Ancient Rome

Source: Cuomo 2001:156

The grid-like patterns that are characteristic of modern land surveying therefore evolved from the practices developed by the ancient Babylonians and subsequently refined by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Indeed, these early land surveyors encountered many of the same types of challenges and constraints to laying out these grids, with similar outcomes being experienced in the modern practice of land surveying as well. For example, Cuomo notes that, "Physical or man-made obstacles, such as rivers or irregular borders or temples, often got in the way of the surveyor, but, on the whole, the centuriated territory became in effect a geometrical landscape" (155). Interestingly, the legal aspects of land surveying during this period in history were directly related to the whims and moods of the ruling elite. In this regard, Cuomo adds that, "The emperor often figured as the author of the survey, even when this had been in fact carried out by mensores [surveyors]. Clearly, surveying the land was a mark of power; it was up to Caesar to divide, parcel out and assign" (155).

Notwithstanding this regal caveat, though, the practice of land surveying by Greeks and Romans served many of the same purposes that land surveying provides today. According to Lewis, land surveyors in ancient Greece and Rome "carried out relatively localized work on the ground surface. He might record the exact shape of an existing expanse of ground such as a field or an estate and calculate the areas enclosed. He might divide land into plots, normally rectangular, whether in the country for distribution to settlers, or in a town for setting out a grid of streets, or in a military context for laying out a fort" (2001:3). In fact, the connection between land surveying and military objectives became even more closely related over time, and by the early 18th century, military land surveyors were dividing the burgeoning United States up into similar grid-like patterns. According to Smith, "The close relation between the history of topographic land surveying and the military should not go unnoticed. Military command accounted for most of the surveying of American public domain, and military organization dominated the field" (1976:310).

In the late 18th century, the U.S. Congress passed the Land Survey Ordinance Act of 1785 that set out the plan by which the lands were to be disposed of, providing first of all for a system of surveys which has become known as the "rectangular," or "rectilinear" system (Hockett 1940:267). The implications of this legislation would be profound and far-reaching. According to Opie, "The Land Survey Ordinance of 1785 changed the western United States from formless wilderness into a remarkable national geometry of gigantic squares and rectangles varying from 640-acre sections to 23,040-acre townships" (1994:2). Over time, there was a need to further subdivide these minimum 640-acre township sections. In this regard, Opie adds that, "Later the minimum tracts would go down to 320-acre half sections, to the famous 160-acre quarter sections, and even to 40-acre quarter-quarter sections. A continuously expanding gridiron would eventually crisscross the western two-thirds of the emerging United States" (1994:2).

Just as the ancient Romans centuriated a large segment of land into legally definable components, the early practice of land surveying in the United States used almost identical methods. For instance, Hockett reports that, "By this method a 'base line' is first laid out running due east and west. North and south across the base line, at intervals of six miles, meridians are marked off. Then lines parallel to the base line, six miles apart, mark off the surveyed area into blocks containing thirty-six square miles" (1940:265).

As shown in Figure 3 below, each of these tracts of land is termed a "township"; in addition, each tier of townships between meridians is termed a "range" (Hockett 1940:265). The Land Survey Ordinance of 1785 also stipulated that the first survey would contain seven ranges as measured "along a base line running due west from the point where the Ohio River crosses the boundary of Pennsylvania" (Hockett 265). Townships were further divided into sections which contained one square mile each, and each of these sections could be further subdivided. In this regard, Hockett notes that, "Each section can be subdivided into halves and quarters, each quarter into quarters, and so on indefinitely" (1940:265).

Figure 3. System of Land Survey used in the United States: Township on enlarged scale showing sections and subdivisions… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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