How Walls Become World Heritage Sites

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The year is 2269. The place: a bustling desert town along the border between the United States and Mexico. Tourist now flock by the droves to gaze up at the preserved pieces of metal pillars installed hundreds of years ago by the American authorities. What once formed a controversial wall fabricated to separate and govern the lives of civilians between two neighboring countries and fell into ruin some hundred years after, now serves as a world heritage site celebrated and honored across the globe for its design and authentic exemplification of retired immigration management techniques. Such a future, though distant for us, is not simply an escaped figment of the Twilight Zone, but as the late Rod Serling once said, “This is not a future that will be, but one that might be. This is not a new world. It is simply an extension of the old one.” The old world, in this case, being the long-standing observable patterns in the formation of heritage sites.

Figure 1: Contructing Wall along border between Mexico and California

These patterns have cemented themselves time and time again over the course of history and nowhere is it more evident than in the use of walls. In some cases, they encircle towns or forts, in others they define the furthest reaches of a nation or stand to protect from invading forces. In any case, they are created to divide people and groups and typically protect those within them, but what of when they no longer serve that purpose? They fall into ruin as wars end, borders change, and rulers lose power. From there they sit in varying states of decay long enough for their context to be forgotten or change entirely into something more in line with an artifact or relic. Soon enough, these once purely functional sites become monuments to a fading past in need of preservation to tell their stories.

To understand how Trump’s wall could become a future World Heritage Site, we must take a step back and discuss various case studies throughout human history of walls in cities, towns, and nation borders.

Walls of World Heritage: Examples of World Heritage sites with walls. Complied by

Phases of Walled Heritage: function, decay, and preservation as heritage

Phase 1: Function

Walls were used by many different nations and continue to be used to represent an idea of protection and to “other” another group of people. One of the best examples of this is Hadrian’s Wall. Built in 122 CE under the orders of Emperor Hadrian of Rome, the 130 km long wall, along with its associated forts and outposts, runs across Britain and was meant to separate the Roman providence of Britannia from the Northern “Barbarians”. From its inception, the function of this wall was symbolic to mark where Rome, the civilized empire, ended and to “other” the people outside the wall. Building something this grand was symbolic of Hadrian’s power, control, and the wealth of the Empire.

Figure2. Remains of Hadrian’s Wall.

The wall was abandoned for a short time after Hadrian died and Antonius Pius became emperor and built a wall farther north of Hadrian’s. His wall, the Antonine Wall, is part of the same World Heritage site: Frontiers of the Romans Empire. The auxiliary troops that manned it eventually moved back and Hadrian’s wall was returned to use for a couple hundred more years.

Phase 2: Decay

A wall generally experiences a period of decay after its initial functional phase. For example, after the Romans left Britain, Hadrian’s wall was scavenged for stones until scholars started studying and trying to preserve it beginning in 1700s.

The decay phase, is a time when the wall is no longer needed for its purpose and is forgotten. Evidence of this phase can be observed at The Great Wall of China, a World Heritage Site that millions of tourists visit each year. The wall that people are familiar with and millions of tourists visit is only a fraction of the wall remaining. Most of the wall has disappeared throughout the centuries, during a period where the wall was not in use and in a period of decay. For Trump’s wall to become a World Heritage Site, it would need to fall out of use. Trump’s wall would experience a period of decay.

Phase 3: Preservation as Heritage

Once the walls have crumbled and been abandoned, a community or town can enter the third phase — preservation as heritage. In this phase walls are reintroduced and reinterpreted as part of the history and heritage of the area. Separated by decades or even centuries of neglect, new generations can approach the walls and find new meaning in their construction and purpose, bringing the community back as a site of heritage and part of heritage tourism.

The Castle of São Jorge de Mina (Ghana)

The Castle of São Jorge de Mina, in Elmina (present-day Ghana), is part of the Forts and Castles, Volta, Greater Accra, Central and Western Regions World Heritage site. The fortification was initially constructed and settled by the Portuguese as a trading fortification, and part of the slave trade. Its eventual decay and neglect can be found in two roots: the end of the slave trade and decline of the worldwide empires established by Western European states. As the slave trade was gradually abolished around the world the demand for the major resource of the castle began to dry up as other fortifications and settlements created competition for trading, transforming the anchor of Portuguese trade into a relic. Trade continued, but its migration into cities and communities within Ghana further weakened the power and position of the fortifications, leaving them to be neglected as old structures without a purpose.

Figure 3. A fortification at the Forts and Castles, Volta World Heritage site

The Castle of São Jorge de Mina became part of the World Heritage list in 1979. In this third phase, the once functional, then neglected, is now reinterpreted as part of the Ghana’s heritage.

“…is one of the oldest European buildings outside Europe…,”

is “…believed to be the location of the first point of contact between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans…,” and that

“They can be seen as a unique “collective historical monument”: a monument not only to the evils of the slave trade, but also to nearly four centuries of pre-colonial Afro-European commerce on the basis of equality rather than on that of the colonial basis of inequality” (UNESCO).

Trump Wall as World Heritage

Walls are a universal aspect of heritage and go through three phases, typically over several centuries, before they are nominated to the world heritage: function, decay, and preservation as heritage. Walls are a very popular architecture type that is celebrated on the World Heritage list. Let’s hope that someday if Trump’s wall is constructed that future generations can look at the ruins of the wall with the same delight, we look at our orld heritage of walls today.



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Stance Hurst, PhD

I am an archaeologist at the Lubbock Lake Landmark and Graduate Faculty at Texas Tech University. Passionate about archaeology, cycling, and Apple technology.