The Doctrine of Monuments

There can be no question but that monuments reflect society’s interest in the preservation and stability of land boundaries. Although surveyors rarely argue over their importance, the nuances surrounding the doctrine are perhaps not as universally held. In this, the start of an intermittent series, I will explore the foundations of the concept and lay the groundwork for further discussion. (You know there will be further discussion!) Later installments will likely provoke debate.

When considered in the abstract, it becomes clear that monuments are central to the practice of all surveying—not merely retracement. A monument is nothing more than a place holder, a bookmark of sorts, allowing one to quickly return to the spot without repeating the effort required to establish the position. We will never be without them—indeed, the practice of surveying would be impotent without their contributions; even control stations and traverse points are monuments.

But the doctrine of monuments is generally associated with boundary retracement. Markers have been essential in the management of land since man first recognized differences between "mine and thine." Ancient literature makes many references to landmarks and the curses to be visited upon those who tamper with them. More recently, the value of markers delineating the bounds of various interests has been recognized by jurist and layman alike. There has yet to be discovered a substitute that satisfies the needs of society in protecting the rights of adjoining owners.

Tangible Objects

The courts have afforded monuments deference primarily for two reasons. First, through long experience, the courts found that surveyors’ measurements were prone to error and thus were inherently uncertain. Nearly all of our boundary law can be traced to the inability of early surveyors to render reliable measurements. We have not eliminated this problem even today; witness the proliferation of adjustment algorithms to deal with measurement error. Were we to render completely error-free measurements, in every survey, every time, we might have grounds to begin an argument in favor of measurements controlling boundaries (although we would lose on other grounds). But we do not. We have smaller errors, perhaps, but errors nevertheless. Thus, what was recognized centuries ago remains valid today. So the courts, rightly, have looked elsewhere for retracement guidance. Now, if the ultimate goal of retracement is to stand where the original surveyor stood, the only remaining evidence of the survey consists of the objects that the surveyor either encountered or planted as he proceeded along the route. This tangible evidence—that which can be seen and touched—would also be less likely to be misdescribed by the surveyor than intangibles like lists of numbers (measurements). Reflection confirms the reasoning. We all are guilty of transposing numbers occasionally, yet it would be the rare surveyor indeed who mistook an iron pipe for a stone. Common experience taught that the description of the object was the least likely source of error in a surveyor’s writings.

Second, because monuments are tangible reminders of the survey—and thus the boundary—occupants of adjacent properties rely on them and, more importantly, erect improvements consistent with them. Should later surveys reveal that the monuments were in the "wrong" place, the adjacent owners would be faced with the expense of relocating the improvements, or worse, the expense of litigation to force removal by others. Subsequent surveys could ignite the controversy anew. Pin-cushion corners (boundary corners marked with two, three or more physical markers) demonstrate the likelihood of such a scenario. Wisely, the courts preempt such controversies by presuming that the original, undisturbed monument, no matter where it is, controls.

Monuments, of course, are not without their drawbacks. Being tangible carries with it all the threats confronting physical objects. They get lost; they get disturbed; they get moved by unscrupulous neighbors. A monument’s true role is as a marker. Its significance survives only as long as it remains undisturbed, for it is the original position of the monument, not the monument itself, that is paramount. Once disturbed, the original location is lost, and with it much of the monument’s importance. Retracement surveyors are faced with the dilemma of trying to determine (1) whether it was disturbed, and if so (2) where it originally was. The longer the period since the dislocation, the more difficult the task of discovering the original place; in fact, the harder to detect the disturbance at all.

Identification is a second problem. Clearly a call for a monument anticipates a single object to control the location; if that object cannot be identified with any certainty, or if more than one object in the vicinity matches the description, the certainty of the call itself is jeopardized.

But none of these problems outweighs the presumptions in favor of monuments outlined above. Try as we might, it is unlikely that anyone will improve upon the doctrine of monuments.


Technology will not diminish the concept. Most surveyors realize that without control stations (i.e., monuments), survey-grade GPS would be impossible. More fundamentally, the System itself depends on the stability of the ground tracking stations that monitor the location of the satellites. The stations send ephemeris data to the satellites informing them of the eccentricities of their orbits, which in turn allows the satellites to broadcast that information to the users on the ground. But all of that depends on the positions of the tracking stations being known with certainty—and as important, remaining fixed. The tracking station itself, then, becomes a monument upon which the reliability of the System depends. It is intriguing that when exploring the flood of technology known as GPS, we find at its headwaters the most ancient of surveying aids: monuments. We will never be without them, for they anchor our future as certainly as our past.

Copyright © 1998 By Joel M. Leininger, LS