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In modern times bubble levels and water levels are used to check if a surface if strictly horizontal/vertical.

How did people ensure vertical/horizontal surfaces in older times?

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Well, the Romans did lots of surveying and built some excellent roads, using the Groma.

The plumb line is still handy...

Also, water find its own level so a crude level is also available and before lasers came along, many large sites were set up with flexible pipes with transparent sections to provide a level across a longer distance, 20 or 30m or more.

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Egyptians used shallow water trenches as level complemented with "Merchet and Groma" to build the great pyramids.

In old Persia they had plumbed levels and used ropes and triangulation. They used those tools to great accuracy to build those Qanats, (subterranean irrigation canals)

In the old Roman empire they recognized surveying as a profession and had skilled masons.

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