UNESCO–IAU Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative


The thirteen towers of Chankillo, a 2200-year old solar observation device in Peru (Iván Ghezzi/Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy)

Bentayga Almogarén temple

The Bentayga Almogarén temple can be found in the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria, Spain, and is listed on the UNESCO–IAU Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy. (PROPAC/Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy)

Jodrell Bank Observatory, United Kingdom

Jodrell Bank Observatory, United Kingdom. (Tim O’Brien)

Astronomical World Heritage has come of age. Back in 2008, when the IAU teamed up with UNESCO to identify and promote astronomical heritage, there was only one property included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List explicitly because of its connection to astronomy. Now there are three, with three more nominated and (if successful) will be added in 2019 or 2020, and yet more being included on national tentative lists — an essential first step towards nomination.

UNESCO’s Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative (AWHI) was actually created back in 2004 as a means to recognise science in general on the World Heritage List. Astronomy seemed a good place to start, partly because every human community has a sky, but also because sky knowledge is commonly linked to other aspects of culture, such as calendars, navigation, religion and ritual.

But recognising a new type of World Heritage site takes time. National governments have to be convinced that heritage of this type may be acceptable as potential World Heritage site, and UNESCO’s advisory bodies have to develop the tools to assess whether heritage of the new type has “Outstanding Universal Value” (OUV) — in other words, it is of such exceptional significance that it is important to all of humankind, both now and in the future.

The first astronomical World Heritage Site was Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve’s 19th-century Geodetic Arc — a triangulation network stretching from the north coast of Norway down to the Black Sea — which was inscribed in 2005. Several other outstanding examples of astronomical heritage could also be found on the World Heritage List at that time, but they were only included because they formed part of sites recognised for their broader significance. Examples include Newgrange neolithic passage tomb in Ireland, with its famous light phenomenon at the winter solstice (part of the “Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne”) and St. Petersburg Observatory in the Russian Federation (part of the “Historic Centre of St Petersburg“).

In the decade since the IAU first became involved in AWHI, members of its Working Group on Astronomy and World Heritage, which in 2015 became Commission C4, have cooperated directly with UNESCO’s advisory body for cultural sites, ICOMOS, to produce two thematic studies to examine what constitutes the most valuable heritage of a given type.

Alongside this, they have developed and maintained the UNESCO-IAU Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy — a website that provides a range of advice on developing a World Heritage nomination dossier and case studies useful for comparative analyses. The whole project covers a huge range, from ancient sites and artefacts with celestial symbols or alignments, through to modern observatories with dark skies.

As a result of all this, we are now seeing a steady progression of astronomical World Heritage nominations. China and India have led the way, with the successful inscription of Dengfeng Observatory and the Jantar Mantar Observatory, both in 2010. Currently, three countries are progressing very different astronomical World Heritage nominations: in the United Kingdom, Jodrell Bank Observatory; in Spain, Risco Caído and the sacred landscape of Gran Canaria; and in Peru, the Chankillo Astronomical Complex.

At the annual World Heritage Committee meeting in July, UNESCO announced its intention to broaden AWHI to include the heritage of science and technology in general. The vital role that both cultural astronomy and scientific astronomy will play within this much wider brief, and that the IAU’s Commission C4 needs to play in the future, is recognised in the title of the new initiative: “Thematic Initiative on the Heritage of Astronomy, Science and Technology”.

Why should the IAU have its own list?

A large number of places of evident importance in the history of astronomy could never, for one reason or another, demonstrate OUV. It may be that there is very little or nothing in the way of extant remains, or that, despite playing a vital scientific role, a site may not stand out as exceptional in comparison with some of its contemporaries.

For this reason, and following a suggestion made in 2016 by IAU General Secretary Piero Benvenuti, Commission C4 decided to develop its own list of Outstanding Astronomical Heritage (OAH) sites. This initiative was formally launched at the GA in Vienna on Tuesday, 28 August, during the Business Meeting of Commission C4, and information will gradually be added to the UNESCO–IAU Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy in the coming months.

During the GA, the UNESCO–IAU Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy project will also be launching “Places connected to the sky“, allowing the public to nominate additional places of interest in relation to astronomy on a more informal basis. These sites will be included in a supplementary list that can be displayed on the Portal alongside the official case studies.

Clive RugglesCLIVE RUGGLES is Emeritus Professor of Archaeoastronomy at the University of Leicester, UK. He is the outgoing President of Commission C4, World Heritage and Astronomy; former President of Commission C41 (now Commission C3), History of Astronomy; and a member of the Working Group on Star Names.