The Story of Land

by John Powelson
Published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Cambridge, MA

Review by Stephen Traub, ASA

Copyright © 1994 Property Valuation Advisors, Newburyport, MA

[Bookcover] IF YOU HAVE an interest in real estate and history, this book should interest you. Aptly named, the book is titled The Story of Land. The book covers the history of the various forms of land ownership and land taxation back to 4,000 BC.

Powelson found that land ownership was originally considered portable. When a tribe wandered, their land "wandered" with them. Permanent real estate ownership got its beginnings when permanent settlements began about 4,000 BC. But then land was communally owned: it was typically owned by the "god or goddess of a city-state and controlled by its priests."

By 2,000 BC, in Mesopotamia, private ownership of land began to develop and at the same time real estate taxes began as well.

800% Interest Rates

Early land ownership tended to remain in families for many generations and once acquired was held at all costs. Few sold what they owned. In fact in Mesopotamia, when the ordinary person couldn't afford to pay their tax, they borrowed to pay it, often at interest rates as high as 800% per month. "To service their debts, families would first sell their daughters, then their sons, and only as a last resort would they sell their lands."

Later, in ancient Rome, land ownership became more formalized and the laws began to reflect the complexity of a variety of forms of ownership. Laws also came to be based upon precedent and became the primary basis of the laws throughout the European continent.

[Ancient Papyrus Property Deed]

Fully Conscious Owners

Ownership of land came not only with rights, but also with obligations. The Roman concept of ownership was termed dominium. Under Roman law, owners not only had to possess their land physically, but also were required to be fully conscious of what they were doing. Neither the mentally disabled, nor children, therefore, were allowed to own or possess land.

Unlike the transfer of less important objects, when a transfer of land took place, it required a public ceremony to take place at the physical site. "The transferee would declare: 'I say that this land is mine ... and was bought by me.' [The transferee] would strike a token coin against the scales and hand it to the transferor. Silence by the transferor indicated acquiescence." Another method of acquiring land ownership was by its use. Whoever possessed land for two years was deemed its owner.

Poaching Permitted

All forms of ownership had limits, however. For example, wildlife did not to belong to the land owner. Therefore, poaching was permitted. Buildings were neither allowed to be erected, nor land cultivated within two and a half feet of its boundary. Also, if a neighbor's branches overhung into your yard, your neighbor had the right to enter your property to collect any fallen fruit.

The book further goes on to cover feudal ownership in Europe as well as a wide range of other periods and regions. Other areas covered include: Early Russia, The Middle East, Dynastic China through the eighteenth century, Japan, Pre- and Post-British India, as well as Latin America and parts of Africa. If you have an interest in the diversity of the forms of land ownership and how present property ownership has evolved, this book -- although not the last word on the subject -- is one of the more comprehensive and focused you will find on this topic.

The book above is available on-line at Amazon Books.

Stephen Traub, ASA, the reviewer, is chief commercial appraiser for Property Valuation Advisors, 63 Hill St., Newburyport, MA 01950. He is a certified general appraiser in NH, ME and MA.

To contact the author of this review, e-mail to: [Mailbox] or contact him at the address above, or call 978-462-4347.

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