School of Surveying and Spatial Information Systems

The University of New South Wales

Surveying in Ancient Egypt

by Ingrid Salmon

Supervised by Associate Professor Bill Kearsley

Edited by J. M. Rüeger

October 2003


There are many aspects of surveying that are strikingly similar in Ancient Egypt and today. To investigate this, areas of surveying, that are relevant to today’s surveyors, such as mathematics and measurement, orientation, levelling and legal aspects of surveying, have been studied to create a picture of the work of the surveyors of Ancient Egypt. There is little evidence that remains from Ancient Egypt. Most of the existing evidence comes from the paintings on the tomb walls or fragments of papyri. Because of a lack of descriptions of the specific ways tasks were undertaken, theories on the methods used must be considered. The best possible explanation for the surveying methods are given in each case.


Egyptian Mathematics was very simple. An ascending number series, starting at one and increasing by one, was used, as was a descending number series, beginning at 1/2 and then 1/3, 1/4 and so on. Multiplication and Division were carried out by simplifying the numbers so that only two or ten had to be multiplied. That way, every number was essentially broken into smaller numbers that were factors of 10 or 2. The length measures used in Ancient Egypt are summarised in Table 1. For the purposes of surveying, the Royal Cubit was the standard measure. The rope used by surveyors, similar to a surveyors’ chain, was 100 royal cubits long.

1 thumb      
4 thumbs =1 palm    
24 thumbs =6 palms =1 cubit  
28 thumbs =7 palms =1 royal cubit approx. 52.4 cm
100 royal cubits =1 khet    
20 000 cubits =1 iteru approx. 10.5 km  
1 khet x 1 khet =1 aroura =1 setjat approx. 0.25 ha

Table 1: Summary of length measures

The Role of the Surveyor

The duties of the surveyor in Ancient Egypt covered a number of aspects, including boundary definition and in building construction. The need for surveying was a consequence of the civilised society in Ancient Egypt. The annual flooding of the Nile, something that impacted significantly on the life of the Egyptians, often resulted in a change of the shape of the land on the banks of the river, or the disappearance of the stones marking the boundaries. A surveyor was required to re-measure the land and to replace the marks as required, so that any disputes between neighbours could be resolved. Surveyors also provided information for construction work. Of particular interest are the cardinally orientated buildings, namely the temples and the pyramids (tombs), that required a great deal of careful measurement to obtain the orientation required. The role of the surveyor was an important one, as shown by the evidence of the work of the surveyors in the form of pictures on tomb walls. The position of the surveyor in society, a scribe, shows they were one of the upper classes in Egyptian society and well educated.

Legal Aspects of Surveying

From the earliest times in Ancient Egyptian society, there was some sort of land administration system. In the Old Kingdom (2780 - 2100 BC), the King theoretically owned all the land, and delegated its use to others (Trigger, 1983, p. 226). From the third dynasty onwards, the land was given to deserving officials (Schultz, 1998, p. 383), which eventually led to the land being owned mostly by temples or individuals, who then were required to pay tax on the land. There are records that date back to around 3000 BC of the registration of land. Such records are usually found either in the form of writing on tomb walls or on papyri, where details of the land were recorded. A good system of land administration was required to assess land ownership and calculate tax. Due to the constant changes in the land, it was the job of the surveyor to measure each parcel of land annually so that the tax could be calculated. The boundaries of the parcels of land were marked with boundary stelae, a piece of stone with inscriptions. The latter contained information similar to that of a certificate of title today, namely the name of the owner of the land, the king and a description of the extent of the land (Berger, 1934, p. 55). The stelae were registered at the survey department (Murnane, 1993, p. 148) This meant that a permanent record, of where they were supposed to be located, was kept. Scenes of measurement in the fields have been found on tomb walls, such as the picture of a surveyor checking a boundary stone in Fig. 2, found in a Theban tomb.

Figure 2: Surveyor checking the boundary stone (James 1979, p. 29)

Nilometers were another tool used by the Egyptians in their calculations of the change of the land. Nilometers were generally steps cut into stone that descended to the Nile (Fig. 3). A scale was carved along the side of the steps. On this, the height of the river inundation could be measured and then recorded, so that the proportion of tax to be paid on the land could be adjusted.

Figure 3: Nilometer of Elephantine (Schultz, 1998, p. 377)

Surveying Instruments of Ancient Egypt

The surveying instruments of Ancient Egypt were primitive. For levelling, a simple A-frame shaped level with a plumb bob was used. Marking the centre point, of where the plumb bob hung, and turning it 180 degrees could even calibrate the level, in the event the legs were of unequal length. Surveyors used a gnomon, a vertical staff or pole. This was a device that they could use to create shadows to mark out the path of the sun. This was important for their establishment of orientation. A measuring cord or rope, similar to the Surveyors' Chain used not so long ago, was used to measure the fields. The rope, often pictured coiled, was 100 cubits long. Knots were used to mark each cubit.

Prominent Figures in Surveying

Djeserkeresonb is an example of a surveyor from Ancient Egypt. His work was recorded on the walls of his tomb (Fig. 4). The scene depicts Djeserkeresonb, the centre figure, with his two attendants following him (left) recording the measurements. On the right, the rope-stretchers, taking the measurements, can be seen. A similar scene exists in the tomb of Menna, who was described as the “Scribe of the Fields of the Lord of Two Lands” (Campbell, 1910, p. 85). Menna’s work also consisted of measuring the fields so that tax could be determined (Fig. 5). The figure of Menna is shown in the top left and bottom right corners. In the centre of the top register, the coiled rope is shown.

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Figure 4: Scene from the Tomb of Djeserkeresonb (Livet, 2001)

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Figure 5: Scene from the tomb of Menna (Schultz, 1998, p. 376)


There have been a number of proposed methods of orientation. By looking at each method, and comparing the correlation between the errors obtained by using that method, and the errors that can be observed in structures such as the pyramid, we are able to gain a better assumption of the true method of orientation, as used by the Ancient Egyptians. Any method proposed must also be simple, in line with all other aspects of Egyptian society. The most plausible method of orientation, particularly from a surveying point of view, is that of the use of the sun and its shadows to find the direction of the meridian line. Once this line has been found, it can be extended, probably in the ‘stretching of the cord’ ceremony, that was carried out by the ancient Egyptians.


Like the orientation puzzle, the ability of the Ancient Egyptians to produce level surfaces has also meant the creation of a number of proposed methods. Despite the use of water by many civilisations in early times to create level surfaces, this seems to be quite unrealistic for Ancient Egypt, where a desert landscape, far from any water source, is home to the level surfaces on which the pyramids were built. Instead, it is believed that the Egyptians used their levelling tool to create their level surfaces. The accuracy achieved is comparable to the (low order) standards of today, with some level surfaces deviating only 11 mm over 325 m.


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

Campbell, C. 1910. Two Theban Princes. Oliver and Boyd. Edinburgh.

James, T. G. H. 1979. An Introduction to Ancient Egypt. The Trustees of the British Museum. London.

Livet, J. Djeserkareseneb. OsirisNet. 2001. [online] Available: [viewed 27 September 2003]

Murnane, W., Van Siclen, C. 1993. The Boundary Stelae of Akhenaten. Kegan Paul International. London.

Schultz, R. 1998. Egypt. The World of the Pharoahs. Könemann. Cologne.

Trigger, B. G., Kemp, B. J., O'Connor, D., Lloyd, A. B. 1983. Ancient Egypt: a social history. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Further Information:

For more information, please contact:

Assoc. Prof. A. H. W. Kearsley

School of Surveying and Spatial Information Systems
University of New South Wales

Phone: +61 (2) 9385 5308
Fax:     +61 (2) 9313 7493