‘This blessed plot, this earth:’ The UNESCO World Heritage Register

Survived Week 2! Turns out life isn’t so bad when you’ve not got a cold – this whole crazy commuting thing might turn out alright after all!

After our Week 1 crash course on history and theory, we have finally gotten to the fun bits: actually getting our hands dirty with the real work of conservation. My first attempt to survey the dimensions of a room using a ruler, a compass, and a technique called “triangulation” was pretty comical, but we’ll leave aside tales of me on my hands and knees crawling under antique furniture and poking my nose into really really dirty corners of staircases to examine their construction for another post, when I have a better sense of what I’m actually doing.

This week was also our first taster of elective courses, and mine – World Heritage – is totally awesome. By now pretty much everyone has heard of the UNESCO World Heritage sites – if you’ve ever seen the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall of China, Notre Dame de Paris, Westminster Abbey, visited Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, or set foot in the city of Edinburgh, congratulations! You’ve experienced a monument of “outstanding universal value” to the entire race of mankind. Really the list is quite extensive – now over a thousand entries – and growing every year. Here’s a version from the World Heritage Centre’s own website, grouped by country: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/

But the rationale behind the list might be surprising. Okay, the sights I listed above – you might think the Statue of Liberty, how *yawn* very American (even though it’s French) – seem like an obvious “who’s who” of tourist destinations, almost to the point of being trite. But really the list (which you should totally spend a couple hours poking about and getting lost in), is a lot more complex in its composition. Even though lots of people turn it into a kind of to-do list, the “attraction” of the site, or the ability to take a selfie in front of it, takes a backburner to the significance of the site, which might not be that instagrammable, or even suitable to visitors. If the list were all just castles, cathedrals, and national parks, it would hardly be a comprehensive representation of globally valuable heritage. No, the scope is so much broader, and encompasses, for instance, sites that illustrate progress in human development. Yes, the Golden Gate Bridge is very impressive, but think of the power of a site that tells a story not just about one nation at one time in history, but actually links in with our evolution as a species. For example this site near Mount Carmel in Israel, contains an unbroken record of human habitation, stretching back over 500,000 years, leaving archaeological remains that actually trace our development from pre-human species, to hunter-gatherers, to settled cultivators of the land. But pictures won’t tell you that, and millions of tourist feet tramping over the site would only damage it. (This is one of the unfortunate consequences of the list. Inclusion on the list does not come with funding for maintenance, but it does usually come with hordes of tourists who use UNESCO as a sort of hit list)

Apart from including sites important to humanity, UNESCO also tries to include a diversity of types of sites, that can be representative or typical of some particular aspect of nature or culture. This includes sites of colonization or settlement, such as L’Anse aux Meadows, the site of pre-Colombian Viking settlement in Canada, as well as testaments to human technological and industrial achievements, such as the Wieliczka Salt Mines outside Kraków, Poland.

Natural sites are fair game as well, and are selected for inscription based on their extreme aesthetic beauty or remarkability, for their perfect illustration of geologic phenomena, or by representing phases of the earth’s formation. The Grand Canyon seems a no-brainer judging by its listing description as “the most spectacular gorge in the world.” The Galápagos Islands were the very first site to be listed, based on their clear evidence of the volcanic processes that formed them, and on their status as a “living museum” of evolution.

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More recently, the focus has shifted to sites that span both the human and the natural worlds, under a category called “cultural landscapes,” that illustrate ways in which spectacular natural formations have interacted with outstanding human settlement or achievement. This encompasses sites such as Thingvellir National Park in Iceland, where the medieval Norse settlers used the dramatic rift between the North American and European tectonic plates as a titanic ceremonial stage for their sophisticated and participatory system of law.

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The spectacular and dramatic formations of South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains are littered with prehistoric human settlements and contain the largest concentration of cave paintings south of the Sahara. And the Tokay Wine Region in Hungary is remarkable for its centuries-old tradition of a very specific, highly regulated viticulture, making use of the landscape and traditional methods to make [really really delicious] wine. In an otherwise unremarkable region of Sweden, one large hillside is littered with the remains of an ancient people, who carved tens of thousands of images into the rocks of the landscape, over a period of several thousand years. The Tanum Rock Carvings depict an amazing variety of very human images, such as two lovers embracing, or a woman mourning a man, and they interact with other archaeological features in these hills, such as enormous chambered cairn tombs.

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Here are the 12 sites that comprised the very first list published in 1973, and from which the present list has grown: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/13/travel/unesco-first-12-world-heritage-sites/

Check it out, and prepare to be surprised – given what we think of as the world’s great tourist sites, the ones that made the list of the dozen most important sites in the world as of 1973 are probably not what you’re expecting… 🙂