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Discovering the World’s Astronomical Heritage

What places best describe humankind’s fascination with the universe?  Try Navajo star ceilings, the Temple of Isis in Egypt, or Stonehenge.  Maybe it’s Qing Dynasty instruments at the Beijing Ancient Observatory or mountaintop telescopes in Chile.  Austria even has a “starlight reserve” and a dark-sky oasis.

Navajo star ceilings, like this one in Middle Trail Canyon, Arizona, consist of stars painted or stamped on overhanging ceilings of natural rock shelters. Photo © Von Del Chamberlain

These places are now recognized as astronomical heritage sites as part of a joint initiative of UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union.  Their newly launched Web portal—created to encourage discovery and discussion of our astronomical heritage through buildings, monuments, objects, and places—might leave you, well, a little starry-eyed.

What’s beautiful about browsing through the list of sites is how they connect a breadth of cultures across time and space.  You can pick up a bit of history reading through some of the general “heritage themes,” such as Islamic astronomy  and the development of radio astronomy.

The first batch of approximately 50 sites and objects was selected last month at the IAU’s General Assembly meeting in Beijing. They date mostly from 5,000 BC to modern day, though a few go back much further.

The Cerro Tololo observatory in Chile stands at an altitude of 7,200 feet. Photo © Arturo Gómez and José Velásquez / CTIO

In Australia, Aboriginal stone arrangements from as far back as 25,000 BC correspond to the position of the setting sun at the solstices and equinox.  In France, a bovine bone fragment from the Thaïs cave (circa 10,000 BC) bears engraved markings that suggest a record of lunar and solar observations.

“That’s one of my favorites because it gives me the feeling that astronomy has a very long history and is really old,” says Ruediger Schultz, one of the site’s creators.

The online portal stems from a joint project between UNECSO and the IAU to promote sites of potential “outstanding universal value.”  Being recognized as an astronomical heritage site “might be the first step toward being on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, with all its implications,” says Schultz.

Our understanding of the universe and techniques for studying it may have changed over time, but one thing is clear: Our wonder for the cosmos hasn’t ebbed in the least.