The principles of land surveying date back almost as far as the idea of land ownership. Ever since ancient man determined that one piece of land would belong to one group, and the other piece to another group, there was a need to mediate between land disputes. This is where land surveying came in, although today surveys are also used for many other purposes.
Since then, every major civilization in the history of the world has used some type of land surveying, although they have certainly become more sophisticated over the years both with changing laws and improved technologies. Today, GPS and other technologies allow for a much more exact survey than was possible just a few short decades ago. As you can imagine, ancient maps and land surveys were even less accurate.
One of the first examples of a land survey using mathematical means was in ancient Egypt. The Great Pyramid, built around 2700 BC at Giza, demonstrates Egyptians' knowledge of surveying techniques. Ancient Egyptians also redrew boundary lines using basic geometry after the Nile River flooded the plains. An Egyptian land register existed as early as 3000 BC, or five thousand years ago, to record the owners of various pieces of land and their locations. These early surveying efforts by the Egyptians were years ahead of other civilizations, as was true in many other areas of Egyptian technology as well. These surveys were based on geometry as well as simple declarations that they believed these boundaries to be correct.
In the Roman Empire., the Romans actually established 'land surveyor' as an official position. They were called agrimensores. Texts describing their actions date back to the first century AD. Thorough and precise, they were known for creating impeccably straight lines and right angles using simple tools. After measuring these lines, they would dig a shallow ditch to represent the lines. Amazingly, some of these ditches still exist to the present day.
In eleventh century England, William the Conqueror wrote his now-famous Domesday Book. This book, covering all of England, meticulously covered the names of all land owners, the quality and amount of this land, and information on the people and resources in each area. Although the amount of information contained in this book was quite impressive, this was not a technical survey, and the maps were not drawn to scale and were not very accurate.
Napoleon Bonaparte was the first to mandate a cadastre, in 1808. At times, Napoleon even thought that the cadastre would be his greatest contribution to civil law. The cadastre is a thorough register of the property in a given county. The information it contains includes ownership details, location (as precisely measured as possible given then-current technology), and as much information about the value and usage of the land as was available. This cadastre included scale maps at both 1:2500 and 1:1250. Cadastre use spread quickly, and indeed it was the origin of today's cadastral surveys. However, it was difficult to make a cadastre in rural areas or those where land was in dispute.
Today's surveys are much more accurate than those done in decades or centuries past thanks to sophisticated means for measuring and recording boundaries and land features. There are many more applications of land surveys than simply recording land ownership.