Web Exclusive: Positioned for Prominence

Figure 1: Scene from the tomb of Djeserkeresonb. Djeserkeresonb and his assistants carry out a survey of the fields. The coil of rope cannot be seen due to the damage done to the wall, which may have been done to obliterate the image of Amun whose worship was later prohibited under the reign of Akhenaten.

The role of surveyors in ancient Egypt was one of importance. Their duties covered a number of aspects, including boundary definition and building construction. Much of the need for surveying came about as a consequence of the civilized society in ancient Egypt and their pattern of government, which was largely created around the issues that arose due to the annual flooding of the Nile, the importance of the fertile land, and taxes that were imposed on the Egyptians according to their land and its yield. As it is today, the surveyor’s work was legally recognized so that disputes that arose over the ownership of land could be resolved through the surveyor’s work and records held for the land parcels. This important work of surveyors not only gave them an elevated status in life but also in the afterlife.

The Life-Giving Nile

The annual flooding of the Nile, a well-known event of ancient Egyptian life, was one of the most significant reasons behind the need for surveyors. The change in the water level of the Nile was a critical event for the Egyptians. The importance of irrigation for agriculture impacted their well-being and survival.

Each year, once the floods had subsided, farmers reclaimed their land and disputes erupted over the location of one man’s property with respect to the other. Boundary marks, which were not firmly placed, were washed away, and a good system of accurately re-parcelling land was required to re-determine boundaries [1]. This led, in turn, to the surveyor being called to measure and re-determine the exact location of the boundaries.

This aspect of civilization--where the measurement and legal rights to land and other property had value--can essentially be traced to the inundation of the Nile. The flooding created fertile lands that could grow produce, and it required the Egyptians to use the river fluctuations and the water it brought to the land most efficiently. Glanville, a professor of Egyptology, sums it up: “The Nile’s annual flood is the key to success or failure of agriculture. Most that is significant in ancient Egyptian civilization derives from this fact--from the central control of Government to the conservative temper of the peasant.”[1]

A Steadying Influence During the course of the development of civilization, the need for surveyors and both their knowledge and skill arose. J. K. Finch said, “due to the fact that [the surveyor] dealt with careful measurements and facts, he has had a steadying influence on man’s efforts to achieve.”[2] It is noted that despite the slow development of the surveying practice during these times, it represented achievement and progress.[3] Others would disagree saying that the Egyptians had a changing and developing culture just as much as any other.[4] Arguments for both sides can be supported; despite a seemingly basic existence that in some respects did not change over thousands of years, the ancient Egyptians are attributed with the development of many basic ideas and methods that still exist in today’s society. These include the use of geometry as well as the development of the concept of a cadastre, that is, the definitions and recording of parcels of land for tax purposes.

Surveying was also required for the setting out of buildings, including the sacred buildings of the Egyptians, the temples and pyramids. The orientation and accuracy to which such buildings were built in ancient times is astonishing to comprehend today and could not have been achieved without the knowledge of the surveyor.

Figures of Prominence

The position of the surveyor, a scribe, was one of the upper classes in Egyptian society. The scribes were educated in such areas as mathematics, which, of course, would have been extensively used by surveyors. The importance of their work is shown by the existence of paintings on tomb walls and other historical evidence that demonstrates the position of surveyors in society. Interestingly, the Ministry of Finance, which was the body that determined the amount of tax to be paid according to the land surveys, was established as early as the second dynasty (2890 – 2686 B.C.). However, despite the fact that the work of the survey department was mentioned in legal texts from this time, it was not until the 18th dynasty (from 1539 B.C.) that we find surveyors and their work being depicted on the tomb walls.

The evidence that surveyors were actually buried in tombs shows that they were, indeed, important members of society. They were considered worthy enough to have their lives recorded and to be sent into the afterlife with proper respect and dignity. Whether due to the individual work or achievements that were worthy of recording, ancient Egyptian tomb illustrations are good indications of the role surveyors played. The tombs of surveyors Djeserkeresonb and Menna illustrate this status and give an appreciation of the work of the Egyptian surveyor.


Although not as well known as other prominent Egyptian surveyors, Djeserkeresonb’s work was still worthy of recording. Djeserkeresonb had his own tomb, which dates to around the end of the reign of Tutmosis IV (around 1386 B.C.) in the 18th dynasty. In the tomb, scenes of field measuring are shown (Figure 1). Djeserkeresonb’s role probably included control of lands that were subject to an annual tax for the temple. The tomb depicts Djeserkeresonb, third from the left, with his two attendants following him. They carry the papyrus rolls and a tablet for recording the measurements. The rope-stretchers can also be seen taking measurements of the field. Some of the scene has been obliterated--probably because it showed the head of the ram Amun on the coil of rope. Under the later reign of Akhenaten, the worship of Amun was prohibited.

Figure 2: Scene from the tomb of Menna showing surveying of the land for the calculation of taxes. Menna is depicted in the top left and bottom right--his face obliterated.


Menna also had his own tomb and lived in the late 14th century B.C. in the 18th dynasty. Menna was one of the officials of the king. He was the scribe of the cadastral survey and Estate Inspector who undertook the task of measuring the crops in the field. This would have determined the tax to be paid on the yield on an individual’s land. Menna was described on the walls of his tomb as “Scribe of Fields of the Lord of the Two Lands.” The painting in his tomb (Figure 2) is one of the most detailed as far as evidence of surveying is concerned. Only a part of the entire scene, in which Menna is shown a number of times, is printed here. In this section, Menna is shown with the gnomon, (in the bottom right-hand corner) and with a scroll (in the upper right-hand corner); his face has been obliterated due to vandalism. This, however, was probably not a result of the curious searching for antiquities in modern times. It was more likely the work of Menna’s enemies in ancient times in order to impair his prospects in the afterlife. In the top row, the harpedonaptae, the field assistants are shown with the coiled rope used to measure the fields. In the bottom row, other assistants are recording the measurements of the grain in the fields.

Land Administration and the Legal Aspects of Surveying

Expanding on the importance of surveying in the civilization of ancient Egypt, it could be said that the legal aspect of surveying was the reason that surveyors had such prominent position in the society of the day. Due to the structure of society and the physical attributes of the country, it was necessary for the work of a surveyor to determine mathematically the limits and restrictions of the land in order for society to be equitable for all. There are surprising parallels in their and our current system of land administration and record keeping as well as in their marking and measuring of land. Despite the modern technology that is now available, the principals and the fundamental reasons behind the surveyor’s work has changed very little.

Land Ownership. In the early Old Kingdom (2780-2100 B.C.), the king theoretically owned all the land and delegated its use to others.[5] The land was divided into administrative units of around 23-54 arouras (approx. 15-37 acres), each overseen by an official.

From the third dynasty onward, the king gave land to deserving officials.[6] This practice eventually led to land ownership being transferred to temples and individuals who had the right to sell, buy and lease the land.[7]

In the 12th dynasty, during the Middle Kingdom, under the reign of Senusret (1956–1911 B.C.), alterations were made to the agricultural system.[8] The land that was not owned by priests or soldiers was divided into portions and assigned to the peasants who had to pay an annual tax. This tax was calculated after the yearly survey so that any deficiency of the land, as a result of the Nile flooding, would be taken into account. Herodotus attributes the beginnings of mensuration to Senusret’s reign. [8]

The Wilbour Papyrus, which dates from the time of Ramesses V (20th dynasty, around 1143 B.C.), is the main source of information on land tenure from the time of the New Kingdom (1539–1060 B.C.).[5] It shows the surveyed land divided into large estates and small farms, and the tenants and plots of temple property and state land. It is imaginable that the landowners could have rented out their estates for half their annual yield, paying tax on that income.

In papyri dating from the time of Ramesses IV and Ramesses V (1153–1143 B.C., 20th Dynasty), the temples are shown to be the greatest landowners. However, the significance of this is not known, for the papyri only show a small area of land. Therefore, conceivably, the land not shown could have been owned by vastly different groups or individuals. It is also not known to what extent the government was able to tax these temple lands. By the late 20th dynasty, due to the changing of ownership of land since the 3rd dynasty, it is believed that temples and private individuals in effect ‘owned’ most of the cultivatable land. [5]

Figure 3: Fragment of the Tebtunis Papyrus showing the registration of land [10]

Records of Ownership. There is evidence that dates back around 3000 B.C. of the registration of property belonging to Methan, an official in the third dynasty.[8] In a biography of Methan, which is found on the walls of the tombs at Saqqara, the land he received was said to be “placed in [his] possession by the king’s writings [in] every place.” [9]

A number of papyri dating from later times give details of land registration and other land-related matters.[8]One such papyri is the Tebtunis Papyrus. In figure 3, a part of this papyrus is shown. Approximately 17 cm left to right in size, it is a record of the register of land ownership. Dimensions of the lots of land are given in skhoinos. Most of the lots given on the papyrus are privately owned, while one is recorded as owned by the queen.

Figure 4: A surveyor checking the boundary stone. The picture was taken from a Theban tomb probably belonging to Nebamun.[7]

Taxation. Although originally all the land was deemed to be owned by the king, by the end of the process of conveyance in which the land was gradually handed over to the temples and individuals, in effect the land was held as if by right, to be sold, bought and rented. [7] And so, the land, privately worked and owned was then to be subject to taxation, for which assessment of the land was required.

Land administration was required as a means of organization for taxation to be calculated. The taxation on land and land ownership meant that the definition of parcels of land becomes significant. The difference between many civilizations and ancient Egypt was the impact that flooding had on the land, both in its physical existence and the parcel boundaries and on its fertility.

Boundaries. Boundaries marked out areas of land owned by different parties, similar to today. Being a civilized society, the need for areas of land to farm required separate and defined areas for each landowner and not a free-for-all use of land as associated with a nomadic lifestyle. Boundaries between lots of land were also marked with boundary stones and had a similar purpose to marks today. Boundaries between parcels of land were marked with boundary stones or boundary stelae, which is a piece of stone or similar with carvings or inscriptions.

Most boundary stelae contained information similar to that of a certificate of title today. They would contain the names of the owner of the land, the king, and a description of the extent of land.[11] The dimensions of the land, date of decree and the reasons as to why the boundary stelae required placement could also be included.[12]

The lack of permanence of the boundary stones meant that each year the boundaries would have to be re-defined in order for each person’s tax to be calculated. Each year, as the floods subsided, disputes between neighbors over land ownership would frequently arise as boundary stones marking their land had been washed away. In some cases, land would be lost to the river itself. The stelae were sealed and registered at the survey department.[12] This meant that when a landowner went to the department to say that their boundary stelae have been removed--either by someone else or because of the action of the Nile--by checking on the records, the dispute could be resolved.

Scenes painted on tomb walls illustrate the measurement of fields. One such example is found in the Theban tomb, probably of Nebamun, from the 18th dynasty.[7] The painting (Figure 4) depicts the surveyor checking the boundary stone, the white tablet, in the corner of the field. The hieroglyphs above his head is the oath he swears, which show that he is a sworn official from the survey department whose job it is to verify the work of the surveyors to make sure that the taxes will come in full. [11]

Figure 5: Nilometer in Elephantine. The scale carved into the rock is used to measure the height of the flooding waters. [6]

Nilometers. Nilometers were used to measure the highest level of the water during the inundation, which was then used to calculate the proportion of tax that was to be paid on the area of land. Nilometers, such as the one at Elephantine shown in figure 5, were used to measure and record the rising and receding of water levels. The steps shown are between two walls, which descend to the Nile, with a scale alongside carved into the stone.[13] There have been conflicting opinions as to the number of digits that were used to the cubit in this particular Nilometer. However, generally, the scales used were divisions of a cubit. Nilometers were located at various places on the Nile flood plains and were looked after by an official who job it was to record the readings taken.

Modern studies of the ancient Egyptians show that, in many facets, they were an advanced society for their time and their surveying practices prove no different. Perhaps what is more interesting to us today are the parallels between surveying methods and purposes in ancient Egypt and today’s modern society. Despite our obvious advancement of tools through technology, the reasons behind our need for surveyors have changed little--as has our desire to place value and ownership on land.

Editor’s Note: Look for more of Chapman’s insights into the practice of surveying in ancient Egypt in future Web exclusives.

1. Cottrell, L. 1950. The Lost Pharaohs. Evans Brothers Limited. London.
2. Finch, J. K. 1925. “Our indebtedness to the Old Surveyor” The Military Engineer, July-August. Society of American Engineers.
3. Kiely, E. R. 1947. Surveying Instruments: Their History and Classroom Use. Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University. New York.
4. Neugebauer, O. 1957. The Exact Sciences in Antiquity. Brown University Press. Providence.
5. Trigger, B.G., Kemp, B.J., O’Connor, D. & Lloyd, A. B. 1983. Ancient Egypt: a social history. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
6. Schultz, R. 1998. Egypt. The World of the Pharoahs. Könemann. Cologne.
7. James, T. G. H. 1979. An Introduction to Ancient Egypt. The Trustees of the British Museum. London
8. Lyons, H. G. 1927. “Ancient Surveying Instruments” Geographical Journal. Vol 69. Royal Geographical Society. London. pp. 123-143.
9. Breasted, J. H. 1906. Ancient Records of Egypt. (5 Vols). University of Chicago Press. Chicago.
10. Proffit, M. The Tebtunis Papyrus Collection and Advanced Papyrological Information System project at The Bancroft Library”. U C Regents. 1997. [online] Available: sunsite/berkley.edu/APIS [5th June, 2003].
11. Berger, S. 1934. “A note on some scenes of land-measurement” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology Vol. 20. The Egypt Exploration Society. London. pp.54-56.
12. Murnane, W & Van Siclen, C. 1993. The Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten. Kegan Paul International. London.
13. Wilkinson, Sir J. G. 1853. A Popular Account of The Ancient Egyptians. (Vols 1 & 2) Brackon Books, London. rp. 1988.

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