Of Gods and Boundaries

The April 1988 Newsletter posed the question of a patron saint for surveyors. This writer may have been to rash to condemn the idea, there is plenty of reason to believe that we surveyors needed the help of the immortals from the beginning.

The role of the survey and its function have been closely and inseparably tied in with the progress of civilization. so wrote Frank Emerson Clark in his: Clark on Surveying and Boundaries. Delineation of land ownership predates written history, and boundaries assumed very early a jealously guarded, sacred character. Giving the inherent difficulty in preventing destruction of monuments and obliteration of poorly marked lines, it is not surprising that surveyors allied themselves with the powers above.

It may all have started in Mesopotamia where land ownership originated and the first surveyor was born. The practice of corner moving, either by accident or by malicious intent, was very likely invented the day after the invention of the cornerstone. Surveyors soon tired of returning to the same spot again and yet again to re-establish and re-monument, and in desperation called upon big brother.

The gods had long been underemployed and were ready. In the ancient land of Sumer dwelled Ninib the mighty god of boundaries. To engender his wrath was no laughing matter; he also was the god of war and of storms and had the means to retaliate. He could fill the offenders irrigation canals with mud and his pastures with thorns, and trample his crops in the field. The Babylonian surveyors went to great length to write powerful, fear inspiring curses on their monuments. If anybody monkeys with this monument: . . . may Ninib remove his son who pours the water for him it reads on a boundary stone (kudurru) now on display in the British Museum. Ninibs wife Gula, goddess of healing, was called upon to cause bloody diarrhea until the culprit lacked the strength to pull up his pants, let alone surveyors stakes.

The Egyptians and their multitude of anthropomorphic gods had a problem unique to the valley of their great river. The annual floods of the Nile brought fertile soil to the fields but also swept away the boundaries. The land had to be parceled out each season, a task that was performed by the royal scribes who were surveyors as well as tax assessors. They kept detailed records, knowing that surveys without records are useless. Theirs was an exalted and envied position, never again have surveyors been held in such high esteem. Their patron was Thoth, ibis-headed god of writing, inventor of measurement and of numbers. His temple stood at Hermopolis and it was a bad idea to offend him.

The pastoral Hebrews recognized that in order to live in peace with their neighbors they had to maintain the integrity of the corner stones. According to Curtis Brown, boundaries are mentioned eighteen times in the Bible . Cursed be he that removeth his neighbors landmark, warns Deuteronomy 27:17. Unlike the demanding surveyors of Babylon, the Israelites left the particulars of the punishment to the judgment of God.

The Greeks had troubles too, and to no ones surprise, as the gods themselves contributed to the vandalism. There is a passage in the Iliad where Pallas Athene, generally regarded as protector and defender, got into a scrap with Ares, the god of war, after he had taken a jab at her hind end with his spear. Homer tells us that: She drew back and with her strong hands seized a stone that was lying on the plains great and rugged and black which men of old had set for the boundary of a field. With this she struck Ares on the neck and brought him down. And, we might add, the corner location went down with it.

Tinia, supreme god of the Etruscans, guaranteed the inviolability of the sacred land law of Etruria. Knowing the greed of men and their desire for land, . . . Tinia warned those who moved boundaries, . . .whoever shall touch or displace them in order to extend his property and diminish that of others shall for this crime be condemned by the gods . . . and his whole race shall perish. By comparison this makes the $250 fine imposed by the General Land Office look like a reward.

The Romans trusted in Terminus, god of boundaries, who had neither feet nor arms to symbolize that he never moved from whatever place he occupied. To keep on good terms with Terminus and to perpetuate the ancient boundary marks, annual celebrations called terminalia were held in the villages on February 23 of each year. The practice in some jurisdictions of annually walking the boundaries may be a faint echo of these ancient rites.

Christianity did away with the Pantheon and conveniently got rid of the surveyors. It would take more than a millennium before anybody again needed a land survey. In the mean time the medieval knights marked their boundaries with the blood of any challenger.

About the Author

Fred Roeder, LS

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns. Many surveyors are good writers, especially about technical or legal matters. However, it's not often that we find a surveyor/story-teller who can present historical facts in a manner that makes them fun to read. Fred Roeder is such a writer and we are pleased to present more than 80 of his stories here. Bibliography is a list of the books Fred used in his writings, and includes a numbered index of the articles. Index is a list of all the articles Fred has written and when. Editor's pick: The King Who Had No Title
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