Intangible Cultural Heritage

Heritage refers to practices or characteristics that are passed down from one generation to the next. I may have long misunderstood the definition, conditioned to think that heritage is embodied only in places and things, -- in castles, chateaux, churches, and monuments, in paintings, drawings, objects, and other physical remnants associated with the great events, institutions, and movements in our history. Frequently, we lament the lost of such last great places, or endangered spaces wherein took place defining elements of our civilization.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, is the international agency charged with identification and protection of such places. Many of you will be aware of the World Heritage Site designation, a list of the most monuments and cultural remnants considered the most important worldwide; to see all these places in a lifetime would be an education worthy of the time, energy, and cost of getter there.  For those of you interested in the maritime examples on the list, visit

There is also a second designation of “intangible cultural heritage,” defined by the UNESCO Convention as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history… (in the form of) oral traditions and expressions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.”

Here are the four ocean-related practices paraphrased from their UNESCO descriptions:

In Belgium, “Twelve households in Oostduinkerke actively engage in shrimp fishing, using Brabant draft horses, walking breast-deep in the surf, parallel to the coastline, pulling hand-woven funnel-shaped nets held open by two wooden boards, with an attached chain dragged over the sand to creates vibrations, causing the shrimp to jump into the net to be emptied into baskets hanging at the horses’ sides. The event takes place twice a week, except in the winter months, and culminates in a two-day Shrimp Festival for which the local community spends months building floats, making costumes, preparing street theatre, and introducing shrimp catching to over 10,000 visitors every year.”

In Iran, “Lenj vessels are traditionally hand-built and are used by inhabitants of the northern coast of the Persian Gulf for sea journeys, trading, fishing and pearl diving. The traditional knowledge surrounding Lenjes includes oral literature, performing arts and festivals, sailing and navigation techniques and terminology, weather forecasting, and wooden boatbuilding. Iranian navigators could locate the ship according to the positions of the sun, moon and stars, using special formulae to calculate latitudes and longitudes, and special vocabulary to estimate water depth, type of wind, and the characteristics of approaching weather.”

In Mali, “the Sanké mon collective fishing rite takes place in San in the Ségou region every second Thursday of the seventh lunar month to commemorate the founding of the town. The rite begins with the sacrifice of roosters, goats and offerings made by village residents to the water spirits of the Sanké pond. The collective fishing then takes place over fifteen hours using large and small mesh fishing nets, followed by a masked dance on the public square featuring Buwa dancers from San and neighboring villages who wear traditional costumes and hats decorated with cowrie shells and feathers and perform specific choreography to the rhythms of a variety of drums.

In China, beginning on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, people of several ethnic groups throughout China and the world celebrate the Dragon Boat festival. The festivities vary from region to region, but they usually include a memorial ceremony offering sacrifices to a local hero combined with such sporting events as dragon races, dragon boating and willow shooting; feasts of rice dumplings, eggs and ruby sulfur wine; and folk entertainments including opera, song and unicorn dances.”

Each one of these events, and more than 200 more on the list, strengthens the tangible bonds between the participants, families, neighbors, and visitors. Each is based on the harmonious relationship between humanity and nature, individual imagination and collective creativity, identity and continuity, community and cultural diversity – revealing, conserving, and communicating a vivid sense of cultural identity that we can see, touch, feel, and celebrate.