Cultural Landscapes the Focus of Leanna Wigboldus’ World Heritage Career

Updated on January 22, 2023 by Meg
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Cultural landscapes are places where man and nature have achieved harmony. While there is much cause for serious concern over the state of our planet and how we interact with Mother Earth, there are also many locales that have a long history of being revered and loved. There is also a legion of people around the globe who have committed themselves to studying and learning from sites where humanity and the natural world have coexisted in sustainable and symbiotic ways.

Cultural landscapes have long been a passion for Leanna Wigboldus, a World Heritage PhD candidate at the University College of Dublin. A lover of culture, history, and heritage, Leanna is a contributor to several organizations dedicated to the conservation of world heritage sites, such as the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and UNESCO.

In this engaging interview, Leanna shares the impetus for her fascination with cultural landscapes, and insight into the many intersecting dimensions of “heritage”. She explains how world heritage organizations define and classify sites, and gives a bird’s eye view of the significance of several locations she has done field work in, including Ireland’s Royal Sites, Al Ain in the UAE, and the U.K.’s Lake District. Leanna also gives an overview of a multi-agency world heritage project called “Connecting Practice” that brings together different disciplines into an integrated approach to heritage. One of those facets Leanna delves into is the spiritual nature of cultural landscapes, which have a personal meaning for her that goes back to her childhood.

If you are a student of cultural landscapes and our human experience, I know you’ll enjoy Leanna’s reflections!

The Interconnection Between Culture and Nature

Meg: You have a passion for history and heritage and are currently a PhD Candidate in World Heritage at University College Dublin. How do you define “heritage” and how has your definition changed as your studies have advanced?

Leanna: When I was younger, heritage was synonymous with history. When I traveled to other countries with my family, we not only visited historical monuments and sites, but also experienced intangible elements such as the food, traditions, crafts, artwork, etc. of the culture.

Then when I started working on my Masters’ thesis and taking focused courses in heritage studies, I was introduced to a whole range of specific and separate definitions related to heritage – cultural, natural, mixed, authentic, tangible, intangible, underwater, and more. My subsequent work with ICOMOS led me to understand heritage more broadly again, not just as distinct definitions and concepts, but that the term is really about ‘connections.’

Whether it’s an individual’s or community’s heritage, the heritage of a country or a region, or the connection between history and identity, all of these ideas are part of heritage. The interconnection between culture and nature, for example, is a major focus of my PhD work and my work with ICOMOS, and is really coming to the forefront of heritage discussion recently where ‘holistic’ management and the connection between nature, culture and social values are being recognized as integral parts of the whole.

Heritage has so many different facets – connection to cultural landscapes, connection to people, connection to nature, spiritual and/or religious connections, connections to identity, etc., so for me, heritage is now a wide range of connections coming together to create one integrated commonality.

cultural landscapes
The Hill of Tara, looking towards the Rath of the Synods

The Meaning of a “Cultural Landscapes”

Meg: You have a particular interest in “cultural landscapes.” How do you define that, and can you give a couple of examples of such places that have particular meaning for you personally, and share why?

Leanna: Cultural landscapes are places of interconnectedness. They are sites that encompass all aspects of nature and culture in a landscape, as well as the social elements of the people who live there, with all intangible and tangible aspects interrelated as a whole. They involve identity, history, world views and resource management, and are particularly important for biological and cultural diversity around the world.

I have always been interested in the stories and legends of different countries and cultures. My MSc at UCD was focused on intangible heritage at the Royal Sites of Ireland (an Irish tentative nomination site which encompasses 6 different ancient landscapes around Ireland), and the legends connected to the land and monuments at these sites. This research made me realize that in order for various intangible heritage elements to make sense and have historical meaning, they needed to be interpreted in connection with their settings (and vice versa!).

This led me to a whole new avenue of study and interest in cultural landscapes, which was further enhanced through my work with the Connecting Practice project for ICOMOS/IUCN with its focus on the concepts of natural, cultural and social heritage values/attributes and their interconnectedness as a basis for more holistic management practices. Phase III of the project in particular influenced my PhD research in respect to cultural landscapes, with its focus on the importance of traditional knowledges and biocultural practices in sustaining sites’ continuity.

cultural landscapes
The Oweynagat Cave (also known as 'Cave of the Cats') which is thought to be an entrance to the Otherword in County Roscommon, Ireland. The cave is part of the archaeological complex at Rathcroghan, which is one of the ancient Royal Sites of Ireland and considered as the royal seat of Medb, Connacht's Warrior Queen. There are many historic and mythological connections to the site 

Cultural landscapes that have been particularly meaningful or influential to me would start with growing up in Canada, and learning about the importance of people and their landscapes, from indigenous groups to Quebec culture to east coast traditions, was impressed upon me at a young age. Many of the Irish landscapes, and in particular the Royal Sites, greatly impacted my understanding of history and heritage – the ancient texts, myths and legends which are associated with these landscapes and particular tangible elements that can still be seen today, create continuing bonds between cultural landscapes and people. That continuity and longevity both impressed and interested me, and it fueled my desire to look at other areas where this continuity was ongoing.

One of the most influential cultural landscapes in my heritage work was my visit to Al Ain in the UAE in 2018 where I was completing fieldwork for the Connecting Practice project with a number of other heritage colleagues. The landscape consists of date palms, irrigation systems, desert landscapes and archaeological sites which clearly shows how humans were able to adapt to a harsh environment and thrive by creating something sustainable and life-giving. This deeply impacted my understanding of cultural landscapes, especially in speaking with local managers and authorities about the importance of these areas for local livelihoods, biological heritage and cultural values.

cultural landscapes
Leanna at the base of Jebel Hafeet beside the bronze age Jebel Hafeet Tomb complex. 

Another landscape of particular importance to me is the UK Lake District World HeritageSite. It was my first on-site case study for my PhD in early 2020, and engaging in conversations with stakeholders and local people and community groups really helped me to better understand the important interconnection among cultural, natural and social values. In particular, this visit showed me that in order to protect these cultural landscapes, sustainable practices are essential, and that the best people to continue making these landscapes sustainable are the local fell farmers who are the guardians of the landscape’s traditional knowledge.

cultural landscapes
The English Lake District World Heritage Site, where farmers fields stretch from the water through the hills and up the fells. The area is also well known as a place for recreational hiking! 

There are many other cultural landscapes and places I’ve been that have influenced me personally, but these are some of the major ones!

cultural landscapes
The English Lake District World Heritage Site with the iconic Herdwick sheep in the foreground. 

Important Intangible Values

Meg: Your work has looked at the interconnection between cultural, natural and spiritual values. Can you share what was the catalyst for this interest on your part? Were there specific early experiences that inspired this POV and the motivation to pursue it professionally?

Leanna: Looking back, I had an interest in intangible heritage from a very young age. My favorite part of traveling with my family through a country and its landscapes were the stories that were associated with it. I used to collect folk and fairy tales from the different countries we visited, and I would read them while traveling, which really helped me to visualize the myths and legends related to the cultural landscape. So that would probably be my first experience with intangible heritage in terms of the “spiritual” connection.

Then during university, I took a summer course at Caherconnell in Ireland, which focused on cultural aspects through an archeological dig but was directly connected to the culture and stories related to the site. I also spent a summer working with rock art on the Danish island of Bornholm, and I took a field course at Tanum in Sweden, and in both instances the cultural creations of rock art were integrally interwoven into the natural landscape.

All of these experiences contributed to my interest in focusing on the intangible values connected to the Royal Sites for my Masters’ thesis. The Irish Royal Sites are so steeped in history and myth that you really can’t separate the landscape from the people and the legends and stories that were always, and continue to be, associated with those landscapes.

Leanna's fieldwork group at Caherconnell Stone Fort in County Claire, Ireland.
Leanna's fieldwork team at the Bornholm Museum uncovering prehistoric rock art.

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World Heritage Sites

Meg: Can you share how you define cultural, natural and spiritual “values” and give an example of each?

Leanna: Cultural and natural heritage were originally defined by the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (the ‘Convention’). Cultural heritage is defined as monuments, groups of buildings or sites, and natural heritage being natural features/biological formations, habitats of threatened species, and natural sites for science, conservation and natural beauty.

IUCN and ICOMOS definitions of heritage are governed by the UNESCO classifications of Outstanding Universal Values. There are 10 criteria applicable to World Heritage Sites, with 6 mainly cultural criteria and 4 criteria focused on natural values. Spiritual or social values are generally related to intangible heritage which is a separate category under UNESCO, although some of the 10 main criteria also emphasise intangible heritage aspects and connections. Mixed sites which include both cultural and natural values are also recognized, but there are only a few of these and they are often difficult to inscribe on the World Heritage list.

So, for example, a cultural heritage site would be something like Stonehenge, while a natural heritage site would be the Great Barrier Reef. However, if you’re thinking about the interconnections for these areas like I would, I’d say that Stonehenge seen as purely an ancient monument neglects the importance of its natural setting and its connections to ancient people, rituals and history. Similarly, the Great Barrier Reef may be a natural site, but it has important connections with Indigenous people and the history of Australia.

cultural landscapes
The Great Barrier Reef, Australia.

Read More: Are you interested in Middle-Eastern architecture? If so check out our post on Persian architecture.

Cultural Landscapes and Connecting Practice

Meg: You’ve been involved with an IUCN and ICOMOC initiative called the “Connecting Practice” initiative. Can you share a little bit about what IUCN and ICOMOS are, and give some background on the impetus for Connecting Practice?

Leanna: I’ve been involved with the Connecting Practice project since January 2017. Following completion of my MA and a 3-month internship with Heritage Malta, I moved to Paris and began working at the ICOMOS International Secretariat. ICOMOS stands for the International Council on Monuments and Sites and is one of the Advisory Bodies for UNESCO as part of the World Heritage Convention. ICOMOS reviews cultural heritage applications for the World Heritage List, but there are also many ongoing projects relating to cultural heritage, restoration, culture/nature, individual site assessments, etc. and Connecting Practice is one of these other projects. The project is joint with IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature), which has as one of its purposes the evaluation and assessment of natural heritage.

So, these two organizations, together with ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property), work with cultural and natural heritage around the world. While each of ICOMOS and IUCN has its own established definitions and frameworks for heritage, the Connecting Practice project aimed to move them away from their usual institutional practices and restrictions to create a joint project focused on a fully integrated approach to understanding heritage. The interconnection between culture and nature was coming to the forefront of heritage discussion and Connecting Practice was an opportunity to explore these connections a bit further.

In addition, it was a move away from the institutional, top-down approach that previously characterised their interaction with sites to a new approach where local people, communities and stakeholders could interact with international colleagues to encourage a more in-depth approach to understanding the connections at sites. The reports for Phase I and Phase II are available, and the Project is currently finalizing Phase III.

Giants Causeway
Leanna connects with the cultural landscape of the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim on the north coast of Northern Ireland.

Read More: Get insights into Irish culture in this fascinating interview with a preservationist!

Agro-Pastoral Continuity

Meg: You are presently working on case studies in three areas: the Lake District in the U.K., the Agricultural Landscape of Southern Oland (Sweden) and Hortobagy National Park (Hungary). Can you give some context for the case studies and an overview of the key take-aways from each case study?

Leanna: The three case studies are part of my PhD project looking into agro-pastoral landscapes and the importance of biocultural practices and traditional knowledges for their continuity. This relates to how past practices and knowledges have contributed to sustainable landscape structures, and how these can help to support and maintain future landscapes.

The goal of my project is to create a framework for these types of continuing landscapes that can be used to assist in more holistic management of heritage sites globally. Obviously, this will not be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, but the aim is to get a better handle and understanding of the types of systems that work at these sites which assist with their continuity. Each of the three case studies selected are agro-pastoral landscapes with a long history of continuity and interconnection between cultural landscapes, nature and people. While I conducted my site visit research in the Lake District in early 2020, I have not been able to complete the on-site case studies in Sweden or Hungary yet.

In the English Lake District, the agro-pastoral connection relates primarily to hill farming. The traditional farmers in the area, particularly those associated with the Herdwick sheep (an iconic Lake District animal) have specific knowledge that helps maintain not only the natural area and its characteristics, but also supports the strong cultural traditions and identity in the Lake District. In addition, the Lake District has a long history relating to art and literature, with authors including Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth taking inspiration from the land and crafting well-known literature reflecting it, further integrating the various heritage elements.

cultural landscapes
The English Lake District showing an example of Herdwick sheep on the fells. 

In Southern Öland, the landscape has seen animals and farming for generations, and the traditional land-use patterns are still used today to organize the villages of the area. Here again there are connections to local identity, continuity of land-use, and maintenance of traditional knowledges in ensuring that a fairly harsh landscape continues to thrive.

The Hortobágy National Park is yet another example of agro-pastoral continuity. The traditional farmers and herders continue to live and work in the landscape and maintain the strong bonds that have existed for generations.

All of these cultural landscapes reflect important connections to the past, but are also key to the future, as the local people and farmers have developed systems which have adapted and changed to maintain landscape continuity and support sustainability.

Spiritual Dimensions, Belief Systems and Tradition

Meg: Can you delve into the spiritual dimension of cultural landscapes?

Leanna: Wherever there are ties between people and their environment in an emotional or expressive way, these can be considered landscapes with spiritual connotations. In thousands of landscapes around the world, links between faith, belief systems, world views, philosophies, religions, and resource management, education and teaching practices, land-use traditions.

The cultural landscape categories for World Heritage do include a section entitled ‘Associative Landscapes,’ which are landscapes defined as: “justifiable by virtue of the powerful religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element rather than material cultural evidence, which may be insignificant or even absent.” But while this is identified as a separate category, I’d emphasize again that many cultural landscapes around the world have some sort of spiritual/religious/sacred connections.

‘Spiritual’ connections also don’t necessarily include religious connotations – this could simply be connections with elements in nature. For example, in many Irish landscapes (and particularly areas like the Burren which have a historical connection to this), you can spot 'rag trees' , usually located near a water source. They're usually Hawthorn trees and mostly found beside Holy Wells where people tie healing rags on. Modern day interpretations are ribbons sometimes, but the rags were from the clothes of an ill friend or family member and they would be tied on the tree to help the person get well again.

cultural landscapes
Clootie Well, at Munlochy near Inverness, Scotland, where a "clootie" or rag is tied to trees in a healing ritual.

In many areas, fairy trees are important enough that they influence where development occurs – often roadways are planned and routed to avoid damaging or destroying these trees. This doesn’t mean that these places are necessarily still believed to be important for or visited by fairies, but these spiritual connections with the landscape have existed for so long in the collective minds of the local people that damaging these trees in the landscape would be a tragedy.

Sacred or spiritual beliefs which are connected to natural sites are often quite important for conservation practices as well, as the importance of land and water are reflected in most belief systems, and so protection and preservation of them is fundamental. For people interested in exploring this further, there are some great resources like Sacred Natural Sites: Guidelines for Protected Area Managers.

Read More: Virtually explore Thingvellir National Park and learn about magnificent Icelandic landscapes!

Childhood Folk Tales Still Intriguing Today

Meg: I love the anecdote about you collecting folk and fairy tales as a youngster in your travels! Is there one in particular that had a memorable impact for you, and, if so, could you share a little bit about it?

Leanna: Most of the stories I enjoyed as a child were Scottish and Irish – fairies, selkies, kelpies, brownies, and everything in between! Some that I remember particularly enjoying are:

The Children of Lir – The stepmother of Lir’s four children (daughter Fionnula and sons Aodh, Fiachra, and Conn) becomes jealous of the attention they receive from Lir. She casts a spell over them forcing them to live as swans for 900 years until a bell was rung that heralded the arrival of St. Patrick.

The Gold of Fairnilee – Story of a boy named Randal, being stolen from his home by the fairy queen, and how his childhood friend, Jean, found him, saved him, and returned him to the human world.

Katherine Crackernuts – Two stepsisters run away from their stepmother who has bewitched the younger sister by putting a sheep’s head on her. Katherine undergoes a number of tasks in the fairy world, and manages to restore her sister’s head and save the life of a young prince who then marries her.

There are many more, but those are the ones that stand out from when I was younger that I was fascinated with. My mom read them to me while we were driving through Scotland and Ireland and Wales, and were read so many times that the book is basically falling apart at those spots! All of these stories have very important landscape elements that really brought the myths to life as we explored the country settings.

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