World heritage designation brings money, protection

Nunavut, Nunavik sites could use status to attract visitors, discourage vandals


ALTA, NORWAY — Anyone can pick up a piece of ancient mummified wood in Nunavut’s High Arctic, or write graffiti over Nunavik’s delicate rock carvings.

Protecting fragile Arctic prehistory is not an easy task. But when a site has the status of a World Heritage Site, the job is much easier.

Money, attention and protection: these are among the benefits of being a World Heritage site, which can be seen in Alta, Norway.

There, several thousand rock carvings, some of them more than 6,000 years old, have been on the World Heritage list since 1985.

This listing has opened doors to new money and global publicity. Now thousands of people from all over the world come to Alta, far above the Arctic Circle, to see the rock carvings and visit the interpretation centre. At the same time, strict laws protect the rock carvings.

The carvings in rock, of people, boats, animals and fish, show some of the beliefs and rituals of the ancestors of today’s Saami people, the original inhabitants of this part of the Arctic.

The rock carvings are thought to be a link between the people and spirit world, and the tranquil shore zone where the early Saami carved these drawings where the world of spirits and people met.

An international agreement governing World Heritage Sites preserves and protects these places to highlight mankind’s cultural and natural heritage.

Neither Nunavut nor Nunavik have any sites on the World Heritage list, but in 2005, there were 812 of them around the world.

Top candidates for World Heritage sites status in Canada’s Arctic are the ancient rock carvings near Kangiqsujuaq, and the fossil forest on Axel Heiberg Island.

The rock carvings at Alta are painted orange-red, because more recent rock art in Norway was painted that way.

But Hebba Helberg from the University of Tromsø says there’s no proof that this is the way they were originally painted.

“When you paint them, you’re interpreting them in a way,” he says.

The curators of the Alta site plan to let people experience the carvings as they are in nature, as a way of encouraging visitors to return as often as necessary to see the carvings.

This summer, Helberg is supervising students who remove lichens from the rocks and uncover more carvings.

This kind of constant research is what the status of a World Heritage Site listing can provide — something Canada’s two vulnerable Arctic sites do not yet enjoy.

Qajartalik is home to the only major rock carving site in the Canadian Arctic. The rocky island looks like a dark strip of soapstone. On its 130-metre-long kayak-shaped ridge, lichens camouflage what some have dubbed “devil’s faces.”

Qajartalik’s etchings resemble the tiny carved masks archeologists associate with Dorset culture, believed to have flourished in the Eastern Arctic 1,000 to 1,500 years ago.

Some display cat-like features, and appear to have horns. Lines radiate from many of the mouths, perhaps symbolizing the breath of a shaman, archeologists speculate.

Residents of Kangiqsujuaq have always known about this site, along with another site with fewer carvings. Anthropologist Bernard Saladin d’Anglure first officially noted Qajartalik’s carvings in 1961.

Researchers returned to the island in the 1970s, but residents of Kangiqsujuaq declared a moratorium on further study after someone removed a block of stone from the island.

Nunavut’s top candidate for protection as a World Heritage site is the so-called fossil forest on Axel Heiberg Island. The fossil forest is a testimony to an earlier, much warmer Arctic, and mummified remnants of a large tropical forest 45 million years old, stretch across the Geodetic Hills.

Despite their remote location, both sites are susceptible to harm.

At Qajartalik, natural processes such as water and wind erosion threaten the site. Vandalism and looting — some by passengers of cruise ships — have also caused damage.

Qajartalik’s location also makes protection a challenge. It’s outside the Pingualuit Park, so it doesn’t receive protection, and because it’s an island, it’s looked at as federal turf. As a result, Ottawa and Quebec City haven’t agreed on how best to protect the rock carvings or how to provide money for research.

Since 1996, Nunavik’s Avataq Cultural Institute has been studying Qajartalik, in the hope that further study will eventually lead to better protection for the rock carvings.

Daniel Gendron, an archeologist with Avataq, says the federal government asked Avataq nine years ago to submit an application for the Qajartalik site to be named as “a native place of historical significance,” without any success or response to date. Gendron calls the long wait “unacceptable.”

“However, the situation has not changed recently. It will soon be different (hopefully) with the final agreement on the offshore islands, which should come into effect sometime in 2007. In the meantime, I’m trying to find some time to reactivate the Parks Canada file, which would lead to its official recognition by Canada as a place of historical significance,” Gendron says.

As for the fossil forest, its mummified remains of ancient plants and trees have been catalogued, excavated and sometimes looted. But the fossil forest, which lies outside the borders of Quttinirpaaq National Park, is still unprotected from the damage that visitors can inflict.

The precious mummified wood has been used for camp fires by unknown persons or taken away by tourists on Arctic cruises. Every August, passengers from cruise ships arrive to tour the site, unsupervised. Canadian military helicopters have been known to land on the most sensitive areas.

But it takes a plan, a will and action for a site to become on the protected list.

To become a World Heritage Site, sites have to be nominated by governments to the World Heritage Committee, an intergovernmental body set up under the terms of the Convention.

The World Heritage Convention was established in 1972 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The World Heritage List set up by the convention includes natural sites, and a wide variety of cultural sites such as landscapes, historic monuments and even towns.

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