In collaboration with the
International Astronomical Union

Initial considerations

A key issue in the evaluation of a given property is whether its value (in the context of the World Heritage Convention) is local, national, or global. Astronomy is just one component among a range of attributes that might define the value of a site. In some cases it may be sufficient to consider the astronomical heritage in the context of the architectural heritage, with the astronomical devices being viewed as only one of a range of architectural attributes defining the value of the monument. However, it will more often be necessary to consider, in a comprehensive and consistent way, the various manifestations of astronomy that are embedded among a broader range of attributes with more complex interrelationships.

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage adopted by UNESCO in 2003 may also provide a way forward. It aims to protect oral traditions and expressions, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and traditional craftsmanship. To date, it has been mainly been applied to traditions such as pilgrimage and to collective practices concretised by local skills, such as traditional cooking and crafts. The inclusion of knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe implies that it could and should be extended to scientific behaviours and methodologies.

This suggests in turn that the possibility should be explored of promoting inter-convention nominations for science heritage in general and astronomical heritage in particular.

A crucial step for every nominated property is the comparative study. In general terms this serves to define the true value of a property in an international and trans-cultural perspective. More specifically, its purpose is to demonstrate that there is room on the World Heritage List for the property and that there are no other comparable sites that might be nominated. This needs good specialists in the thematic field (e.g., history of astronomy, archaeoastronomy, cultural astronomy) aware of the specific aspects of heritage evaluation and management constraints.

There is also the possibility of updating the Management Systems of existing World Heritage Sites that may now be recognised as having astronomical value. For example, the Management Plan for Stonehenge recognises that the site’s astronomical associations form an important aspect of the monument’s overall significance, even though this was not part of the reason for its inscription (see Stonehenge case study). This leads to the recognition of the importance of maintaining as dark as possible a night sky, and of encouraging night tourism in relation to the site. This type of consideration may be appropriate in many cases.


Links between astronomical heritage and other types of cultural heritage

Ulugh Beg's observatory, Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Ph

Ulugh Beg's observatory, Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photograph by Alaexis, licensed by Wikimedia Commons

The material evidence of astronomical practices and uses is often associated with tangible heritage and social value lying outside the domain of science in the modern sense. The legacy of astronomy is rarely isolated but forms part of a broader cultural legacy. Often, the tangible heritage of astronomy must be understood within a broader category of global material legacy of properties, such as a particular type of instrument or observatory, or the places related to astronomy located within a particular historical city or cultural landscape.

This immediately raises the fundamental question of the re-evaluation of sites now on the World Heritage List. Properties—such as monuments, group of monuments, urban sites or cultural landscapes—or individual elements within those properties could have important astronomical value even though the OUV at the time of inscription did not reflect this value. For example, Ulugh Beg’s observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, is one of many elements within an historic city of outstanding civil, military and religious buildings. Such sites might be re-nominated and re-evaluated as major heritage places of the history of astronomy and for astronomical practices among civilizations, with their own outstanding universal value.

Frequently, human beliefs and practices form a fundamental part of astronomical heritage even where they do not constitute ‘rational behaviour’ as judged in modern scientific terms. The question of rationality (as we would judge it) is a secondary question because in each age, and each cultural context, astronomy operates within and is constrained by in a framework of cultural and ideological paradigms that define their own rationality. The definition of intangible cultural heritage—cultural practices and human behaviour—could be far from the modern definition of astronomical laws and facts. We have to take account of human attitudes to astronomical observations and predictions that have crossed many human cultures. For example, astrological practices based upon the complex but predictable movements of the sun and planets within the zodiac have been a common theme in many cultures over the centuries. They are far from today’s rational astronomical attitude derived from the ‘scientific revolution’ of Western civilisation, but remain a cultural fact within human history. Other examples of the relationship between astronomy and culture are not so black and white, but all must be understood as part of the historical anthropology of astronomical practices and eventually linked with the assessment of sites.

Shah-i Zinda, Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photograph by

Shah-i Zinda, Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photograph by Patrick Ringgenberg, licensed by Wikimedia Commons

Such links between astronomical sites and human cultures could be summarised as:

  • cosmologies, theories and beliefs about the universe, sun, Earth, moon, planets, stars, etc.;
  • (modern/contemporary) Scientific paradigms, ‘rational’ (in the above sense) laws governing celestial objects;
  • false/’non-rational’ (in the above sense) astronomical determinations for predictions or astrology;
  • the cultural influence of celestial objects on daily-life and human attitudes; and
  • the ‘magic’ and the religious dimension of astronomy in cultural and historical contexts.

The intellectual process of astronomy in the context of any particular cultural property always operates in a broader social context and in some cases in the context of global culture. It may or may not conform to modern scientific logic. A framework of processes that characterise the historical anthropology of human practice in the field of astronomy might be as follows:

  • the progression from astronomical observations themselves to the results of those observations;
  • the progression from raw results to notation, understanding and interpretations of 
those results;
  • the integration of interpreted results into a cosmological system and/or global human thinking and knowledge;
  • the compilation and transmission of knowledge;
  • the eventual application, practical uses and material consequences of that knowledge;
  • the eventual influence within social practices and spiritual beliefs; and
  • the social, political and scientific context and decisions regarding observation projects and their organisation (which leads back to the top of the list).

Astronomy is characterised by a continual interplay between tangible and intangible aspects, and between facts and culture, within a given human society. Analysis of this network of relationships provides an indispensable basis for the assessment of a site’s value, helping to justify the selected criteria and eventually to demonstrate OUV.


The issues of ‘integrity and authenticity’ in the context of scientific heritage

Royal Observatory, Greenwich, United Kingdom. Phot

Royal Observatory, Greenwich, United Kingdom. Photograph © National Maritime Museum

Generally speaking, it is essential to tackle these two issues in order to give a credible demonstration of the OUV of cultural properties nominated for inscription on the World Heritage List. In this section we briefly examine integrity and authenticity issues that are specific to the evaluation of an astronomical site and, by extension, to any scientific site.

At the outset, we must emphasize the close connections that exist between technological sites and scientific sites. Innovation and modification are traditional and necessary in science as in the development of technology. A technical achievement, an industrial production process or a scientific tool are designed and frequently constructed to evolve, to change, and to take account of innovations and improvements in science and technology. The capacity for change and evolution typically forms part of the value of material devices in science and technology. This distinguishes science and technological heritage, as a class, from many other forms of heritage for the purposes of integrity–authenticity analysis, and suggests that it may be productive to develop particular ways of approaching these two concepts for this class.

Integrity concerns the completeness of all the attributes that contribute to the value (and, potentially, the OUV) of a site. Focusing on astronomical heritage, physical integrity is manifested in different and complex ways for mechanical, optical, or electronic instruments, computer software, etc., and the complexity of the physical and technical attributes increases rapidly when we reach modern and contemporary astronomy. Added to this, attributes may include not just physical objects but also their uses, innovation, and types of maintenance. Integrity analysis must take into account the logic of maintenance and innovative evolution of instruments, in the context of the duration of their uses for continuing and successive astronomical objectives. In order to support the concept of integrity at a science or technological heritage site in general, it may be useful to regard the site as a global scientific instrument, demonstrating its integrity through a typological analysis of the evolution of the site and its constituent instruments (components of the whole ‘instrument’). Moreover, through the Convention and the Operational Guidelines, the material attributes of the property need to be identified as supporting its OUV; the integrity issue then is whether they are all within the site and none is under threat.

Attributes such as the architecture and the landscape skyline of the site are merely a part of the overall integrity of the property. Of course, they do form an important and symbolic element of popular landmark recognition, an example being the traditional European ‘dome observatory’. Furthermore, the architecture and the completion of the landscape are important attributes that contribute to the assessment of the value of the laboratory/observatory, but they may not be the most important. On the other hand, in the case of archaeoastronomy or modern astronomy when applied to monuments and territory management, the architectural and cultural landscape attributes remain crucial components of integrity.

There is a similar situation for the concept of authenticity, which relates not only to the architectural components of the laboratory/observatory but also to each element of the machine or instrument. Authenticity is about the ability of the attributes of OUV to convey their meaning truthfully. In terms of scientific sites, the use of the instruments and the buildings that encompass them could be key attributes of OUV, in which case authenticity relates to how well they still display those uses. Questions could also be raised about the authenticity of design of the laboratory/observatory itself, viewed as a global contrivance, through its evolution and changes.

In order to maintain its efficacy, a working machine/instrument must be maintained over a period of time under strict conditions. For example, fragile or dynamic elements must be carefully checked, and in some cases regularly adjusted, or replaced with new spare parts. If not, the use and consequently the ‘living state’ of the instrument could be compromised.

Furthermore, the use of astronomical instruments with a high level of scientific efficiency must follow the innovations and improvements regularly offered through the availability of new technical components that are stronger, more precise, etc., and sometimes through radically new individual or collective technical solutions to existing astronomical problems. The renewal of materials and instruments, and sometimes their rebuilding and/or complete replacement to make a ‘new’ instrument/machine, is a living aspect of science/technology in general, and of instrumental astronomy in particular. A key question, then, is how the value of a property is balanced between its original components and the ability of each instrument to continue functioning. This is a question that every potential dossier must study in depth, in relation to the other attributes of the site’s value.

At the same time, outside the sphere of modern scientific astronomy and its precursors, regular reinforcement by direct observation may not be necessary to the continued perception of, say, a sacred or religious site as directly connected with the sky or with particular celestial objects or phenomena. Thus modifications to a structure that render impossible a direct observation do not necessarily detract from the meaning of the site that derives from that observation. Indeed, in some cases a direct observation that is perceived to underlie the value of the site may never need to have been made at all.

These dimensions of change must be carefully studied through site authenticity analysis. In the case of modern scientific instruments the issues are typical of science heritage in general, and of movable objects in particular. But there are also significant consequences for traditional architecture. From the science heritage perspective, architecture might well be seen as an environmental aspect of the materiality of science, and not as the core attribute of the property. The relevant concept would then become that of ‘architecture as part of a global machine’, in other words as a protective envelope for the core process. The leading principle of the evolution of buildings is firmly imposed by the strategy of the group of astronomers in charge of the property with a clear scientific mission. The terms used for naming theses constructions—observatory, great telescope dome, spectroscopy lab, hall of heliometers, etc.—are also important, and totally justified, in terms of the meanings of the property. The buildings certainly have a specific architectural function, but their historical role and value is directly dependent upon the scientific purposes of the site. They need to be assessed in the material and instrumental context of their construction and in their history of use, not just for their architectural associations and for the way the form of the buildings displays their purpose.

The complete history of the property should pay careful attention at every stage to the correlations between scientific purpose and architectural choices. Thus a building analysis of an astronomical property that is only couched in terms of the history of architecture and urbanism, referring only to dimensions, harmony of forms and landscapes, is totally insufficient. Conversely, a detailed chronology of use and evolution of the site is an essential prerequisite. Thus giant and monumental forms of construction that lack appropriate materials such as (in the historical or modern case) associated documentation, or whose function was relatively limited, or where only secondary scientific results were achieved (for whatever reason—such as a poor strategic scientific decision) might not reach outstanding universal value. In the case of archaeoastronomical sites, the appropriate materials would need to include strong archaeological/archaeoastronomical evidence supporting the case for astronomical significance.

In these ways, astronomical heritage sites, and science heritage sites in general, require. professional evaluation of the material and intangible issues to which these dual concepts give rise. Authenticity of use is probably a central issue in assessing the level and quality of the scientific operation of instruments by important astronomers, for a significant region, nation or internationally, and for a clearly identified historical period. The relevant notion may be ‘authenticity in its scientific context and use’.


Evaluating an astronomical heritage site

Creating a credible dossier


Return to “Preparing a nomination dossier”


The contents of this page are based upon text in the ICOMOS-IAU Thematic Study no. 1 (2010). Original text © Clive Ruggles, Michel Cotte and the contributing authors.