A sacred site is a place in the landscape, occasionally over or under water, which is especially revered by a people, culture or cultural group as a focus for spiritual belief and practice and likely religious observance.
In addition, to satisfy this stem definition and reflect its wide and rich variety, a sacred site must also have one or more of the following nineteen characteristics found under the headings: Descriptive, Spiritual, Functional and Other. Having more or less of these characteristics does not imply that the site is more or less sacred but it may usefully reflect the complexity and rich variety of its sacred qualities.
a. It is a specific focus within a wider and possibly dynamically interconnected sacred landscape.
b. It is, or is founded upon, a natural topographical feature, e.g., a mountain, mound, rock, cave, tree, grove, forest, spring, well, river, lake, the sea, an island, etc.
c. It is recognised as carrying special manifestation of wildlife, natural phenomena and ecological balance.
d. It is embellished with man-made symbols or artifacts, e.g., rock-carvings, painting, holy or religious objects.
e. It is partially or wholly man-made, e.g., menhir, temple, church, wayside shrine.
f. It is a memorial or mnemonic to a key recent or past event in history, legend or myth, e.g., a battle site, creation or origin myth.
a. It is recognised as having a palpable and special energy or power which is clearly discernible from that of a similar landscape or surrounding.
b. It is recognised as a special place which acts as a portal or cross-over to the spirit world.
c. It is recognised as the dwelling place of guardian or ‘owner’ spirits which care for and oversee the site and possibly its wider environs.
d. Its spiritual forces or ‘owner’ spirits are in a mutually respectful dialogue with local people with specialist knowledge acting as guardians or custodians, who play important roles as mediators, negotiators or healers between the human, natural and spiritual dimensions.
e. It is identified as a place where the ancestors are present and especially respected, e.g., burial grounds.
f. It is a place of spiritual transformation for individual persons or the community, e.g., healing, baptism, initiation, religious conversion, rite of passage, funeral, vision quest.
a. It is a special place where relationships, both interpersonal and throughout the whole community, can be expressed and affirmed, often through a specific form of observance, e.g., prayer, songs, chants, dance, ritual or ceremony.
b. It is a place especially associated with resource-gathering or other key cultural activities, e.g., gathering medicinal plants or material for sacred or ritual ceremony or objects, fishing, hunting, cultivation, burial of ritual objects, giving birth.
c. It is a specific pathway or route between significant or sacred places, e.g., songline, sacred pathway, pilgrimage route. It is a focus of past or present special visits of religious observance or pilgrimage.
d. It is a cultural sacred-secret, with its location and/or specific religious function only known to a limited number of people.
e. It has a significant relationship with astronomical order and/or calendrical phenomena, e.g., astronomical alignment, celestial-Earth correspondence, seasonal ritual or festival.
a. It clearly satisfies the stem definition but has unique cultural features that are not represented in the previous eighteen characteristics.
Using the definition, a sacred site could then be described as satisfying the Thorley/Gunn definition (TGD) in one or more characteristics out of the four categories. These could be, if necessary, reduced to a briefer encoded form, e.g., TGD categories 1, 2, etc. To give two practical examples, Stonehenge in England could be represented as “TGD categories 1. a, d, e; 2. a, e; 3. e, f” and a sacred beach for fishing in New Zealand Maori culture might be represented as “TGD categories 1. b; 2. e; 3. b.”
Thorley and Gunn, “Sacred Natural Sites: An Overview.”