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Pompeii Reveals New Land Surveying Artifacts

Recent archaeological work in Pompeii, the site of a Roman city until 79 A.D., has revealed some interesting information on the practice and profession of land surveying as it existed a long time ago:

Two mosaics uncovered in a house in the volcanically preserved City appear to show the tools of the ancient surveying art. This discovery, if confirmed correct, is consistent with much later pictures and descriptions of roman surveyors's tools including the Roman groma.

Similar to the Roman groma, for a more modern equivalent, see the surveyor's cross circa 1800 here. While both groma and cross are designed to sight along precise perpendicular lines, the more modern surveyor's cross has such short sighting vanes it's suitability is limited to relatively close range work. Note also that the surveyors cross was often equipped with a magnetic compass, an item unknown to the Roman surveyor. However, both modern and ancient surveyors had the ability to orient directions using astronomic or solar references. The compass, widely used in the colonial and subsequent surveys of the Americas, was first used by western Europeans for navigation about a thousand years after Pompeii was destroyed. While convenient and practical, the compass method of surveying has many deficiencies which continue to affect land ownership and legal descriptions to this day.

Colonial Spanish policy in the Americas and the later U.S. policy behind the Public Lands Survey System are all reminiscent of the Roman methods of centuriation - used extensively in colonies in Europe and North Africa. The evidence of the surveyor's work is still visible upon and indeed shaping the use of land today.

For those interested in this topic, see The Roman land surveyors: an introduction to the Agrimensores OAW Dilke - 1971 - David and Charles

And for anyone interested in how Roman principles of land development and possession influenced modern concepts of real estate, see Law and Revolution, the Formation of the Western Legal Tradition Harold J. Berman - 2009 - Harvard University Press

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