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What is Historical Archaeology in New South Wales?
In New South Wales historical archaeology is the study of archaeological remains dating after 1788, the beginning of British settlement in New South Wales. As historical archaeologists we study the remnants of our past: sites buried in the ground and the artefacts they contain, old sections of roads, cemeteries, rural buildings and works, mining sites, brickmaking and pottery works, and other types of rural and industrial sites.

50-72 Union Street, Pyrmont
50-72 Union Street, Pyrmont
  Why is our archaeology important?
Archaeology offers new, exciting and tangible evidence of our Australian past. Whether it be the convict huts (c. 1790) of Parramatta with their ephemeral remains of decayed wattle and daub houses, storage pits and locally-made pottery; the growing affluence of Parramatta's early leaseholders; the substantial stone docks of the 1810s Macquarie-period dockyards; the buried landscapes and road system of the c. 1820 Government Stables; 1820s dairying in the Haymarket; an 1830s brickfield with remains of a clamp kiln; working-class housing in Surry Hills and Pyrmont and an early twentieth-century Chinese furniture factory in Surry Hills. All of these sites tell their own stories. These are stories about the hardship and survival of early settlement; the grand designs of Governor and Mrs Macquarie and the other governors to establish British settlement on the far side of the world. As we move through the 19th century we can reveal the developing evidence of industrial and urban lives, squeezed into the inner city and packed in on each other.

The settlement Australia is a rare experiment in the world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and as such its archaeological evidence is valued and recorded, and sometimes kept, as part of how we manage heritage and development in the 21st century.

Relics Provisions

Archaeology and the NSW Heritage Act 1977 (amended)
The main legislative constraints protecting archaeological remains are the relic provisions of the NSW Heritage Act 1977, Sections 139, 140-146.

According to Section 139:
  1. A person must not disturb or excavate any land knowing or having reasonable cause to suspect that the disturbance or excavation will or is likely to result in a relic being discovered, exposed, moved, damaged or destroyed unless the disturbance or excavation is carried out in accordance with an excavation permit.
  2. A person must not disturb or excavate any land on which the person has discovered or exposed a relic except in accordance with an excavation permit.
  3. This section does not apply to a relic that is subject to an interim heritage order made by the Minister or a listing on the State Heritage Register.
  4. The Heritage Council may by order published in the Gazette create exceptions to this section, either unconditionally or subject to conditions, in respect of any of the following:
    (a) any relic of a specified kind or description,
    (b) any disturbance or excavation of a specified kind or description,
    (c) any disturbance or excavation of land in a specified location or having specified features or attributes,
    (d) any disturbance or excavation of land in respect of which an archaeological assessment approved by the Heritage Council indicates that there is little likelihood of there being any relics in the land.

A 'relic' is an item of 'environmental heritage' defined by the Heritage Act 1977 (amended) as: those places, buildings, works, relics, moveable objects, and precincts of State or local heritage significance.

A relic as further defined by the Act as: ...any deposit, artefact, object or material evidence that:
  (a) relates to the settlement of the area that comprises New South Wales, not being Aboriginal settlement; and
  (b) is of State or local heritage significance.

An excavation permit is required prior to any proposed impact on archaeological remains. An excavation permit forms an approval from the Heritage Council for permission to 'disturb' a relic.

An application for an excavation permit must be made to the Heritage Council of NSW (Section 140) and it will take approximately six weeks to be processed. The application for a permit must nominate a qualified archaeologist to manage the disturbance of the relics. There is a processing fee of $100 attached to each excavation permit application.

The full text of the NSW Heritage Act is available on-line.


Historical Archaeology
Historical Archaeology (in NSW) is the study of the physical remains of the past, in association with historical documents, since the European occupation of NSW in 1788. As well as identifying these remains the study of this material can help elucidate the processes, historical and otherwise, which have created our present surroundings. It includes an examination of how the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century arrivals lived and coped with a new and alien environment, what they ate, where and how they lived, the consumer items they used and their trade relations, and how gender and cultural groups interacted. The material remains studied include:
  • Archaeological Sites:
      - below ground: these contains relics which include building foundations, occupation deposits, rubbish pits, cesspits, wells, other features, and artefacts.
      - above ground: buildings, works, industrial structures and relics that are intact or ruined.
  • Cultural Landscapes
  • Maritime Sites:
      - shipwrecks
      - structures associated with maritime activities
Archaeological Potential
Archaeological potential is a site's potential to contain archaeological relics which fall under the provisions of the NSW Heritage Act 1977 (amended). This potential is identified through historical research and by judging whether current building or other activities have removed all evidence of known previous land use.

Excavation Permit
A permit to disturb or excavate a relic issued by the Heritage Council of New South Wales under Section 60 or Section 140 of the NSW Heritage Act 1977.

Research Design
A set of questions which can be investigated using archaeological evidence and appropriate excavation methodology for addressing them. A research design is intended to ensure that archaeological investigations focus on genuine research needs. It is an important tool that ensures that when archaeological resources are destroyed by excavation, their information content can be preserved and can contribute to current and relevant knowledge.

Research Potential
The ability of a site or feature to yield information through archaeological investigation. The significance of archaeological sites is assessed according to their ability to contribute information to substantive research questions.

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