The boundary marker at the border of Hungary and Romania.
The boundary marker at the border of Hungary and Romania. Public domain

In a plot of forested land in Austria, not too far from the Danube River, but not close to anywhere in particular, there stands a stone pillar, a little more than four feet high, with writing on all five of its sides. Strass. Etsdorf. Engabrunn. Feuersbrunn. Gösing.

The pillar sits on a stone base shaped as a pentagon and, according to the court book of Etsdorf, was placed here on May 10, 1678. For almost 340 years, it has marked the boundary between five 17th-century parcels of land whose borders met at this obscure point. If a small group of geodesic experts and their allies have their way, it could one day be part of a World Heritage site.

This unusual pentagonal monument features in a project begun by the Austrian Society of Surveying and Geoinformation that’s since extended to eight additional countries. Its aim is to create a unique World Heritage site around boundaries and boundary markers in Europe. The work and science that went into measuring out and marking land borders, the group argues, is a marvel of human ingenuity, “an enormous technical, legal, and organizational performance,” and the result—a precisely measured net of property lines dividing the world into neat parcels—a “man-made world wonder.”

The border between Switzerland and France.*
The border between Switzerland and France.* Thomas Bresson/CC BY 3.0

The idea of imagining boundaries around a piece of land and marking them off with stones is an old one: as the project’s working group writes, the Bible warns against removing a neighbor’s landmark. But starting around the 16th century, European rulers started employing newly professionalized surveyors who had to pass tests and take an oath of impartiality, according to Roger Kain and Elizabeth Baigent, authors of The Cadastral Map in Service of the State. Surveying could be a dangerous profession, too. As Kain and Baigent write, the treasurer to Emperor Charles V “received death threats from villagers, who realized how much they stood to lose.” After a new survey was complete, “their suspicions were fully justified,” the scholars write. Rents went up.

Cadastral maps weren’t used only to raise rents, though. States used them to assert control over large stretches of land, to attract interest from investors in underdeveloped places, and, yes, to raise taxes. Cadastral surveys could also help resolve ownership disputes. But the very technical accomplishment of mapping land divisions, argue the leaders of the European boundary heritage project, represents a much bigger achievement. “Surveying and documenting all boundaries of parcels is a giant work, a huge and very tiny task, important for a country’s social peace between neighbors and for peace between states, for peace in the world,” says Peter Waldhäusl, an emeritus professor at TU Wien, who originated the project. “It’s a typical UNESCO topic.”

A marker at the boundary of Germany and Austria.
A marker at the boundary of Germany and Austria. Wolfgang Stanglmeier/CC BY-SA 3.0

The idea of creating a World Heritage site for boundary markers grew from a 2004 report by the International Council for Monuments and Sites on gaps in the World Heritage canon, including wonders of civil engineering. Waldhäusl, whose expertise is in geodesy—the measurement of the Earth—and surveying, ended up serving as an evaluator on a proposal to add the first heritage site recognizing a geodesic accomplishment, the Struve Arc. (Created in the early 19th century by a Russian scientist, the arc is a chain of triangular surveying calculations that stretches through ten countries, from Norway to the Black Sea, and was the first accurate meridian measurement.) The idea to propose a World Heritage site of a “Network of Boundaries and Boundary Marks” sprang from that work.

The Austrian Society of Surveying and Geoinformation started working on a proposal centered around Austria’s boundary system, which was regularized in the early 19th century under the Habsburg Monarchy. It is, says Waldhäusl, “one of the oldest and best” land administration systems in the world, notable in its scope and its documentation. A UNESCO heritage site, the group thought, might include a few of the most interesting boundary markers, distinguished by their location, history, design, or shape, along with other landmarks of cadastral history, such as the south tower of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, which was used as a reference point by surveyors.

As the project progressed, its scope increased. The UNESCO World Heritage Centre advised the group that their project would work better as an international application. They’re now cooperating with eight additional countries, including Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, to craft a proposal. If the application is accepted, they expect the project to grow even more, as other countries join on.

Even in this initial group, there’s a wide range of cadastral history. “The oldest examples [of stones] we will include in the application date back to the 16th century and have been designed by artists,” says Gerhard Navratil, a professor at TU Wien who’s working on the project. In some of the formerly Soviet countries, cadastral monuments that old were stolen or destroyed. “In this case, the first stones placed after the communist era could have a tremendous cultural importance for the country even if they do not have a significant design,” Navratil says.

A border marker in Germany.
A border marker in Germany. Zumthie/Public domain

Creating a new World Heritage site can be a very long project. The Austrian working group started in 2011; the larger group now plans to have its project on the Tentative list of UNESCO sites in each of the nine countries involved by 2018, at the earliest. After that, the group has to prepare nine parallel nomination files. If the project is approved, it wouldn’t be until early next decade, 2022 or even later.

“We are not in a hurry,” says Waldhäusl. “Everything has to be done properly with a lot of research concerning the different parts of our proposal. The response is great, but the administrative workload is enormous for such projects—and each step needs a lot of time.” There is some worry that these isolated stone markers might be stolen or removed under development pressure. But many have stood in the same place for hundreds of years, marking the lines that men once imagined crisscrossing the ground. They will remain in place, the group hopes, until UNESCO is ready to recognize their charm and the massive achievement they represent.

*Correction: This caption originally named Austria instead of Switzerland.