What world heritage?
Right now in Ireland bulldozers are cutting through the middle of the ancient ritual complex at Tara - separating the main monuments set on the ancient hill from the outer defenses erected at a later period to protect the seat of the High King of Ireland from invaders.
Almost forgotten until comparatively recently, there can be no doubt that Tara is a newly "discovered" World Heritage Site and it unfortunate that the Irish government is apparently yet to make this discovery.
Tara is a place where the legends became temporarily displaced from the location, and for the short time that we forgot where Tara was she has been treated like most of our "ordinary" ancient sites - with a lack of respect little short of malice.
A new motorway, the M3 is being built straight through the complex at Tara, without much regard on the potential impact on such an important yet little understood monument complex - Tara has maintained a place in history for more than sic thousand years and for many is symbolic of Irish spirit.
Campaigners claim that their proposed alternative route would not only avoid Tara, but would actually shorten the motorway, saving up to 50 million Euros and reducing end to end travel time. They are also keen to point out that it is the decision to place a major junction within Tara's ritual landscape that is all the more worrying, for junctions mean increased development pressure.
In Britain, a similar confrontation between modern society and ancient culture is being played out at Stonehenge, where a single carriageway road is planned to be upgraded to a dual carriageway.
But the difference in attitude between Stonehenge and Tara could not be more stark. Stonehenge is part of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site and the proposed doubling in width if the A303 road, which passes within half a mile of the stones at Stonehenge is no laughing matter. The approach favoured by the British government until recently was to hide the entire road under a two mile long tunnel so as to minimise the visual impact of the development. The cost of this tunnel at £400m proved to be too great and plans have recently been shelved - many people are now of the opinion that the road should be closed off and an alternative route by-passing Stonehenge altogether put in place.
So what is the difference between Tara and Stonehenge? Both places are seen as ancient sacred places of imternational significance. If anything Tara can lay claim to an even richer inheritance for unlike Stonehenge, Tara continued to hold a central role in Irelands heritage until well after Stonehenge had ceased to play a role in society - leaving behind a rich legacy of myths involving the miraculous feats of prospective High Kings and even Christian Saints.
The main difference between Tara and Stonehenge is that one is recognised as a World Heritage Site and is therefore a thing of national pride, the other is not. For whilst it is true that World Heritage Status does not in itself confer any specific legal protection for a site - the example served by Stonehenge clearly illustrates the difference in attitude.
Whilst Tara is a clear example of of the differing attitude that can exist due to the lack of official recognition, England has a good example of its own. One only has to look a couple of hundred miles north of Stonehenge to the site described in 2004 by English Heritage as "the most important ancient site between Stonehenge and The Orkneys".
The Thornborough Henges in rural North Yorkshire are part of Britain's largest ritual monument complex. The site of Thornborough itself was built at the same time as Tara and was potentially Britain's largest communal ritual meeting ground. The site comprise of three great henges - each more than four times the size of the henge at Stonehenge.
At Thornborough the worst possible of fates is being played out, its entire ritual landscape is being quarried - hundreds of acres of land containing monuments, burials, settlements and ritual places all belonging to the Thornborough Henges complex are being removed to a depth of more than 20 feet, the remaining land is being left to fill with water and create lakes - completely transforming this most ancient and important of ritual landscapes.
Just like Tara, Thornborough was forgotten when it came to drawing up the World Heritage lists and it seems the "system" is likely to wait until it is too late before recognising the inevitable - that these places are paramount and the need to build roads in this specific area is not.
Whilst many argue the contrary, World Heritage Status can be an extremely important factor in the preservation of our most important sites. In most countries, it is the only designation that recognises the value of the wider landscape - for ancient sites such as Stonehenge, this has preserved a large number of yet to be discovered remains that would otherwise be consumed by innapropriate but perfectly legal developments. World Heritage status is taken into account by planning authorities and it attracts significant funding for landscape preservation.
Surely a key part of the problem must be the sluggishness of the system - the method of allocating World Heritage Sites.
UNESCO operate the list of World Heritage Sites, as well as a list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. Many would rightly argue that Tara is certainly worthy of a listing alongside Stonehenge and the other cultural sites listed, but it appears time is not on Tara's side, for the system of listing is a complex one, no doubt made doubly so by internal politics.
In order to be considered as a site of World Heritage, a place must first be entered onto a country specific "tentative list". In each country that is bound by the World Heritage Convention, it is up the the State Government to propose sites for inclusion by way of a Tentative List.
The Tenetative List is usually adminstered by an in-country organisation such as ICOMOS, which has national committees, for example ICOMOS-UK.
The Tentative List for each country is reviewed every six years or so by UNESCO, from each countries Tentative List it would be fortunate for a single one to be included in the list, thus it can easily take decades for a site to go from being considered for inclusion in the Tentative List to obtaining World Heritage Site status.
For many it is certain that both Tara and Thornborough will one day be listed as World Heritage Sites. But it seems the "process" for having them allocated as such may take 20 years or more and is fraut with obstacles that include such whimsy's as the politics of the day. Neither sites are even on the tentative lists drawn up by each country for submission to UNESCO for consideration for inclusion in the list.
Tara, being a site that is placed under threat by the member state is unlikelly to be nominated for inclusion in the near future, but it's inclusion is considered by many to be innevitable.
In twenty years time, Thornborough may have none of its ritual landscape left and it is more than likely that Tara will have it's own out of town shopping complex - a testimony to a system unable to deal with issues and far too willing to stick its head in the sand.
Of course, UNESCO does not hold the key for all sites under threat, and the granting of World Heritage Status obviosly takes a good deal of push from the state government in question. But this apparently simple decision could cause a dramatic turn of fortune for a few extremely deserving cases and it is worth considering if a more independant and proactive approach would not be of significant benefit to our cultural heritage.
It has also been argued that a new designation is needed for sites of particular regional significance that recognises the importance of the wider landscape in a similar way to that of a WHS. This could enable a larger number of lesser, but no less irreplaceable sites to have additional protection.
For more information
UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in Danger - http://whc.unesco.org/en/danger/
UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites - http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/
ICOMOS ICOMOS International Council on Monuments and Sites http://www.icomos.org/
Information on the campaign to Save Tara - http://www.tara-skryne.org/
Information on the campaign to save Thornborough - http://www.timewatch.org