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Ruined, authentic” Carkeek Observatory for heritage listing

March 31, 2020 April 2020 No Comments

New Zealand’s first – and still surviving – amateur observatory, built by Featherston sheep farmer Stephen Carkeek in 1867, may be granted Category 1 Heritage status within the region’s proposed Dark Sky Reserve,  according to Heritage NZ.

A 45-page report recommending the South Wairarapa’s Carkeek Observatory’s entry onto the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero, has just been circulated for comment by Heritage NZ.

“Amateur practitioners are critical not only in astronomy, but to the history of New Zealand science in general and there are few surviving places from the nineteenth century which tell that story,” the report notes. 

“This local and international exceptionalism affords the Carkeek Observatory outstanding importance as a rare historic place,” it adds in a note calling for public comment on the listing proposal.  

Stephen Carkeek’s descendants have strongly supported efforts by the Martinborough Dark Sky Society (now Wairarapa Dark Sky Association) to ensure protection and preservation of the 1867 timber and iron observatory structure – the oldest remaining observatory in the country.

It also links the region back to Wales, birthplace of Carkeek who became a leading civil servant in colonial New Zealand and the amateur scientist who built the country’s first timeball in Wellington, to provide time accuracy for clocks and ship navigation.

Heritage New Zealand and South Wairarapa District Council have been working with the dark sky preservation group to try and preserve the observatory. It also sees the potential in building a replica for both local enthusiasts and tourists to interact with at its site near Featherston – owned by SWDC. 

Heritage NZ recommends the Carkeek Observatory should be scheduled on the Wairarapa Combined District Plan, and a conservation plan drawn up to “conserve and stabilise … the Carkeek Observatory as a ruin and archeological site.” It notes it has no plan to reconstruct the present “oustanding historical” building.

New Zealand Archeological Association already records the “Obervatory with dome and transit annex, built circa 1867” in its lists.

The Heritage NZ report also notes in passing the use of celestial navigation by Maori settlers who arrived in the south Wairarapa’s Palliser Bay guided by Sun and stars as early as the “the late 1300s.” 

  It says ‘New Zealand astronomical observatories by its date of construction, design and … materials,” – totara timber beams and planks with steel rails and wheels for moving the telescope dome. None of the canvas cover remains.

It adds that research suggests “Carkeek’s Observatory is an internationally-rare surviving Romsey (British designer)-style amateur observatory, with no other “direct equivalent examples” in the U.K., Australia or Canada.  

The report says the observatory has archeological, historical, social and technological significance, qualifies “as part of New Zealand’s historic and cultural heritage,” and should be classified as a Category 1 historic place.

Finally it notes: “The Carkeek Observatory occupies an outstanding position in the history of Aotearoa/New Zealand as the earliest surviving astronomical observatory in the country and a building directly associated with amateurism, a major theme in the history of  New Zealand astronomy and science in general.”

“Ruined yet highly authentic, the Carkeek Observatory evokes the lone amateur astronomer at work, tracking the eternal passage of the stars and planets across the night sky.”

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