On 7 July 2019, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared 29 more properties World Heritage sites. Among the new additions are Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria, and Jodrell Bank, two places of great astronomical significance. They are the first astronomical properties to be inscribed as World Heritage sites, and this happened as a result of the advocacy of the Astronomy and World Heritage Initiative (AWHI), a collaboration between UNESCO and the IAU.
Astronomy is often considered the oldest science and is embedded in human history, culture and technology. Established in 2003, the AWHI seeks to promote recognition of the cultural value of astronomical properties, which have been underrepresented on the list of World Heritage sites. The IAU has worked closely with UNESCO on this thematic initiative since 2008, and was involved in the process that led to Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria and Jodrell Bank attaining World Heritage status. In particular, the IAU Commission C4 on World Heritage and Astronomy played a key role in making the case that these properties deserve such special recognition.
The Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria is a cultural landscape that was inhabited by the ancient Canarians, an ancient civilisation that was isolated from the outside world for nearly 15 centuries. Risco Caído, the symbol of the property, is a site built into this landscape that demonstrates the practical and cultural value astronomy had for this people. Cave 6 at the site is an artificially-excavated cave with a parabolic dome and an oculus through which celestial light shines, illuminating the inside. It is constructed such that the light of the rising Sun shines through the oculus for about half of the year, from around the time of the Spring equinox to close to the Autumn equinox. It is thought that this cave served both as a solar-lunar calendar by which the ancient civilisation would plan their agricultural activities and as the location of rituals and ceremonies relating to fertility, as did other relevant sites on the property such as Roque Bentayga or Cueva Candiles. Vice-President of IAU Commission C4 Juan Antonio Belmonte argues that “this recognition represents the apex of a quarter-century of archaeoastronomical research in the Canary Islands that forms the foundations of the candidature”.
Jodrell Bank, a much younger property, is the first twentieth-century astronomical site to be given World Heritage status. It is recognised for its pioneering role in radio astronomy, which has greatly expanded the scope of study of the Universe. Its dominant feature, the Lovell telescope, was the largest telescope in the world at the time of its completion in 1957 and is still the third-largest today. Though young compared with other sites, it has played its part in history; it tracked many spacecraft during the early years of space exploration, printed the first photographs of the lunar surface, and even served as a spy during the Cold War. Jodrell Bank continues to evolve with technological progress and remains at the forefront of research, demonstrating a distinction between sites of scientific value and other World Heritage sites; architectural sites are generally considered to have greater value if they remain unchanged, whereas changes to scientific sites may indicate progress, enhancing their value. Clive Ruggles, the IAU’s co-ordinator for the AWHI and the past-President of Commission C4, said “The inscription of Jodrell Bank shows that the heritage of modern astronomy, and indeed of modern science in general, is now fully recognised by UNESCO as a key component of the most valuable global heritage of humankind“.
The granting of World Heritage status to these properties signals the first success of the AWHI, and may precipitate the proposals of many more astronomical candidates in their wake. Such an outcome would improve widespread recognition of the universal value of our astronomical heritage, ancient and modern, and inclusion on the prestigious list would afford these sites special protection to preserve them.
The IAU is the international astronomical organisation that brings together more than 13 500 professional astronomers from more than 100 countries worldwide. Its mission is to promote and safeguard astronomy in all its aspects, including research, communication, education and development, through international cooperation. The IAU also serves as the internationally recognised authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and the surface features on them. Founded in 1919, the IAU is the world's largest professional body for astronomers.
Juan Antonio Belmonte
Lars Lindberg Christensen
IAU Press Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 320 06 761
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