Of Henges and Heritage

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From July 25th through August 3rd the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is meeting in Brazil to consider additions to the list of World Heritage sites. In countries with limited resources or political will, having a site put on the World Heritage list can mean the difference between preservation and destruction (it can also mean welcome tourist dollars). Many of the sites that modern Pagans make pilgrimage to, or think of as their spiritual and religious heritage, the Acropolis, Delphi, Stonehenge, Avebury, and Bath, are all Heritage sites. This year Ireland’s government is nominating the Hill of Tara, along with several other sites, for consideration. In anticipation of this, they’ve debuted a new website featuring the already-listed and “tentative” Heritage sites.

The Minister [John Gormley] expressed his hope that the website would support tourism and increase both national and international interest in our World Heritage properties. “Tourism is a significant contributor to the Irish economy in terms of revenue and employment and Fáilte Ireland has identified heritage as a potential growth area for Ireland’s share of tourism” he said.

The problem with drawing “international interest” in the sites is that many believe the Irish government has been systematically destroying the Hill of Tara and surrounding monuments with a highly criticized highway expansion. One that barreled through despite protests and direct action, and accusations of the government altering research that didn’t line up with what they wanted. Now TaraWatch, Save Newgrange, and human rights lawyer Matt Schwoebel, are launching an online survey they hope will provide the basis for a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee and UNESCO.

Vincent Salafia of TaraWatch and Save Newgrange said:

“Many Irish people feel their human rights to heritage and culture are being continuously violated by the Irish Government, and we are offering them a chance to do something about it.

“We are launching this survey today to protest against the cynical way in which the Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, has waited over three years, until the M3 motorway was opened two months ago, to nominate Tara as a UNESCO Site and ask for UN protection.

“We are also asking the UN to intervene immediately and address the threat to Bru na Boinne World Heritage Site, since the Minister Gormley supports the bypass route, and has also delayed delivery the new National Monuments Act by two years, meaning planning permission for the N2 can be granted before stronger protections are put in place,” he said.

If you would like to participate in this survey, you can find it here. Both the Irish government and the activists are now looking to UNESCO, but will pressure from that body, if it comes, stop further motorway expansion? Other World Heritage sites have been deleted for ill-advised construction, and Ireland could be endangering the World Heritage status of Bru na Boinne with the planned expansion. Even if Tara is listed, will it be enough to stave off further encroachment and harm? One has only to turn to Stonehenge in the UK to see how that World Heritage Site has been treated in recent years. Long in need of improvements, the budget for a new visitor center and to close a nearby road was eliminated by the new coalition government (announced right before the Summer Solstice).

Sky, a pagan from Devon, broke off from a drumming session to explain how crucial it was that Stonehenge was improved. “It’s the most wonderful place and it’s a disgrace that we’re still waiting for a new visitor centre and for improvements to the roads. I bring people here from abroad sometimes. They’re amazed by the stones – but also amazed at how crummy the facilities are. I’d like that David Cameron to come down here and tell us why Stonehenge, our national treasure, is being treated so shabbily.”

English Heritage are still trying to move forward with improvements, but I can’t see how anything will be completed before the 2012 Olympics, when a massive influx of tourists from around the world will want to see the national treasure. A treasure made ever more valuable by ongoing discoveries and revelations.

Britain’s Stonehenge once had a long-lost twin just a stone’s throw away from the prehistoric monument, archaeologists announced Thursday. The discovery, made completely without digging, suggests that now solitary Stonehenge may have been surrounded by “satellite Stonehenges,” archaeologists say. “This finding is remarkable,” said survey-team leader Vince Gaffney, an archaeologist the University of Birmingham in the U.K. “It will completely change the way we think about the landscape around Stonehenge.”

Can the government find room in their new austerity to preserve and improve on the site? UNESCO World Heritage might wield political muscle with countries that desperately need the recognition and tourism revenue, but they can only shame more prosperous nations, and that might not be enough to stop highways from being built or to loosen a tightened national budget. For those of us with an emotional investment in these sites, but who don’t live in Ireland or the UK, it can seem like we are merely spectators to the slow erosion of these precious links to our ancient past. But while we may not walk on those lands, we have friends and family who do, and we can light flames of solidarity, stay informed, and participate in the opportunities presented to us, in hopes that it will have some small effect on this process. So that we can see the heritage passed to another generation, so that they can be moved, inspired, and educated by the lands that so many of us honor.

Thanks to Kathryn Price NicDhàna for providing some of the links used in this post.