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Exploring the Mysteries of World Heritage Sites

4-Session Evening Course

Tuesday, November 10; November 17; December 1; and December 8, 2020 - 6:45 p.m. ET
Quick Tix Code: 1J0063
 $60 Package Member
 $70 Package Non-Member
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  • This program is part of our Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
  • Platform: Zoom
  • Online registration is required.
  • If you register multiple individuals, you will be asked to supply individual names and email addresses so they can receive a Zoom link email. Please note that if there is a change in program schedule or a cancellation, we will notify you via email, and it will be your responsibility to notify other registrants in your group.


There are 1,121 UNESCO World Heritage sites throughout the world. Each of them offers a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of complex civilizations, empires, and religions. Some, however, are more mysterious than others. Historian Justin M. Jacobs offers an in-depth overview of four of the most intriguing—and sometimes misunderstood—UNESCO World Heritage sites, including both well-known and lesser-known locations. Each richly illustrated program goes far beyond the typical tourist experience by incorporating the insights of the latest scholarship and research. 

Please Note: Individual sessions are available for individual purchase.

NOV 10  Paleolithic Cave Art

The prehistoric cave art painted on the walls and ceilings of the Altamira in Spain and Lascaux and Chauvet in France offer tantalizing clues about the origins of humankind and the development of abstract thought. Jacobs analyzes recurring motifs and patterns in Paleolithic cave art, examines why and how such images were created, and revisits some of the leading theories about their meaning.

NOV 17   Chinese Oracle Bones

The oracle bones found in the “ruins of Yin” (Yinxu) represent the earliest surviving records of the Chinese script and have yielded unique insights into customs during  the reign of the kings of the once-legendary Shang dynasty. Jacobs recounts the fascinating history of the accidental discovery of what was once thought to be “dragon bones” at the turn of the 20th century and provides a new picture of Chinese civilization at the dawn of history—one filled with human sacrifice, communion with the supernatural world, and powerful women on the battlefield.

DEC 1  Easter Island

The instantly recognizable moai statues of remote Easter Island pay silent tribute to the extraordinary seafaring skills of Polynesian migrants and their inventive stewardship of an ecologically fragile island. The rediscovery of Easter Island by Western explorers in the modern era has given rise to spirited debates about how its original settlers were able to reach such a distant location, how they were able to carve such large and mysterious statues, and how these statues were transported. Jacobs draws on the latest scholarship and theories to explain how these giant statues came to dominate the most remote inhabited island in the world.

DEC 8   Machu Picchu

The picturesque monuments of Machu Picchu are perhaps the most recognizable yet least understood of the world’s famous monuments. Jacobs explores the world of the Inca empire and analyzes Machu Picchu’s original function as a royal estate for successive Incan kings during the last century of indigenous rule prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. He covers the innovative layout of the site, the type of structures that have survived, the reason for their abandonment, their rediscovery by the American explorer Hiram Bingham in the early 20th century, and their popularization.

Jacobs is an associate professor of history at American University and the author of several books, including The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures. He is currently producing a 24-episode series on UNESCO World Heritage Sites for The Great Courses.

4 sessions


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Photo caption (upper right): Clockwise: The ocher horse, Altamira cave, Spain; Oracle bone, Anyang, Henan Province, China; Moais at Easter Island, Ahu Tongariki, Rapa nui; Panoramic view of the city of Macchu Pichu in Peru

This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.