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Traces of past lifestyles

Aboriginal people have lived in the area known as New South Wales for at least 45,000 years. Many sites around the state show the remains of Aboriginal occupation, or are significant to Aboriginal communities today.

These places are known as Aboriginal sites. They are important to Aboriginal people for social, spiritual, historical, and commemorative reasons. Many Aboriginal people have deep spiritual and emotional ties to Aboriginal sites.

There are over 35,000 known Aboriginal sites in NSW. They range from large shell middens on the coast, to small surface scatters of stone artefacts on the inland semi-arid plains.

Aboriginal sites are found all over the landscape, including:

  • in towns and cities
  • on popular beaches
  • along river banks and tracks
  • on open plains
  • in dense forests.

Different environments and cultural practices produce different types of sites. European development has destroyed many sites, and those that remain need to be protected.

Aboriginal sites can tell archaeologists a lot about the history of Aboriginal people in NSW.

Occupation sites

These are places that show where Aboriginal people have lived. They contain stone tools, fireplaces, and occasionally food remains such as shells, bones and plant seeds.

There are three main types of occupation sites:

Shell middens

A midden is a 'rubbish dump', made up of the remains of edible shellfish. It may also contain fish and animal bones, stone tools, and charcoal from campfires. These remains show how Aboriginal people used their environment. You'll find middens on the coast, and along the edges of rivers and lakes in both coastal and inland zones.

Rock shelters with archaeological deposits

In outcrops of rock such as sandstone or granite, overhangs may form cave-type shelters. Aboriginal people stayed in these shelters. Over the years, material would build up, including ashes from fires, sediments, food, discarded tools and material from the cave roof. Archaeologists can excavate these deposits in order to study the patterns of Aboriginal life in the past. When undisturbed, these sites have high scientific value.

Open camp sites

These sites are mostly surface scatters of stone, sometimes near fireplaces. Recent studies have shown them to have significant scientific and cultural value. If you come across an open camp site, please do not move any artefacts from the spot where they lie.

Stone tools

An artefact is anything which has been made or modified by people. The term 'stone artefact' includes both a finished product usually a stone tool and the debris which was left behind when it was made.

Stone artefacts are the most common form of archaeological evidence found in Australia. In areas where the landscape has not been drastically altered by European settlement, these artefacts can be found lying on the surface, often in quite large numbers. They can also be uncovered by erosion, road works, or ploughing.

How were stone tools made?

Two main methods were used to make stone tools: percussion flaking and grinding.

Percussion flaking
To make stone tools by percussion flaking, the Aboriginal toolmaker first had to select an appropriate raw material. They preferred fine-grained silica-based rocks, such as quartz, quartzite, silcrete, and chert. These can all be flaked relatively easily.

First, a suitable piece of rock, known as the core, was selected. It was struck by a second piece, the hammerstone. Smaller thin pieces of stone, called flakes, were chipped off. This process had one of two aims - to chip off a usable flake, or to shape the core itself into a tool.

The flaking process produces a large amount of stone material, including unused flakes, used flakes, hammerstones, used cores, and finished tools. You can recognise this material by the characteristic marks on the stone produced by the blow of the hammerstone. For example, the new surface of a flake includes a round 'bump' while the core has a hollow on its surface where the flake once was.

Archaeological evidence of stone grinding is not as common as that of flaking. Toolmakers preferred hard, volcanic stones which can hold an edge. Examples of these rocks include dolerite or basalt. The selected piece of stone was usually shaped by flaking before it was ground. Grinding was used to put the finishing touches on the shape of a tool, and sharpen its cutting edge.

Ground implements were shaped on suitable surfaces such as sandstone outcrops. In the Sydney district there are hundreds of grinding grooves. Most commonly, these were used to sharpen axes or hatchets. Narrower grooves were made by the sharpening of smaller implements, such as chisels. You'll usually find grinding grooves on flat sandstone surfaces near water.

Dishes for milling grain or ochre were also common. These were often shaped by pecking, and had ground surfaces caused by wear.

What were stone tools used for?

The only implements which early settlers described in detail when they settled at Port Jackson were edge-ground axes. These were mounted on wooden handles and seemed to be used as all-purpose tools for woodworking.

Other stone tools were also used in woodworking. Some were set into handles and used as chisels, saws, or knives. Others may have been used as spear points, food preparation utensils, or tools to make nets, baskets, and other implements.

Other sites

Ceremonial grounds

These are sites where initiation ceremonies, marriage alliance ceremonies, tribal meetings, and other important social functions were held. They are places of great significance to Aboriginal people.

Carved trees

Carved trees are becoming rarer in NSW as trees decay and fall over or are burnt. Aboriginal people used carved trees to mark burial and ceremonial sites. Usually a section of the bark of the tree was removed and a carving made on the exposed wood. These trees are still significant to particular Aboriginal groups.

Scarred trees

These are trees from which a section of the bark and wood has been removed to make canoes, shields, containers (coolamons), and other utensils and weapons. Other trees have toeholds cut in them, for hunting possums or gathering honey.

Stone arrangements

Stone arrangements range from simple mounds to complex ceremony sites. Some of these may have a practical use, as hunting hides or fish traps. Others may have a ceremonial role, for initiation or other religious purposes. We do not know the purpose of many stone arrangements, but some are still important and significant to Aboriginal groups.

Protecting Aboriginal objects and places What are Aboriginal objects and places?

Aboriginal objects
Aboriginal objects are physical evidence of the use of an area by Aboriginal people. They can also be referred to as 'Aboriginal sites', 'relics' or 'cultural material'.

Aboriginal objects include:

  • physical objects, such as stone tools, Aboriginal-built fences and stockyards, scarred trees and the remains of fringe camps
  • material deposited on the land, such as middens
  • the ancestral remains of Aboriginal people.

Handicrafts made by Aboriginal people for sale are not 'Aboriginal objects' under the NPW Act.

Aboriginal places
The NPW Act can also protect areas of land that have no Aboriginal objects no physical evidence of Aboriginal occupation or use. These areas can be declared 'Aboriginal places'.

The Minister for the Environment can declare an area to be an 'Aboriginal place' if the minister believes that the place is or was of special significance to Aboriginal culture. An area can have spiritual, natural resource usage, historical, social, educational or other types of significance.

How are Aboriginal objects and places protected?

The NPW Act protects all Aboriginal objects and Aboriginal places in NSW. It is an offence to do any of the following things without the permission of the Department of Environment and Conservation (penalties can apply):

  • disturb or move an Aboriginal object
  • excavate land for the purpose of discovering an Aboriginal object
  • knowingly destroy, damage or deface an Aboriginal object or Aboriginal place
  • knowingly cause or permit the destruction, damage or defacement of, an Aboriginal object or Aboriginal place.

How can you find out if there are Aboriginal objects or places on your land?

The Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) keeps a register of all Aboriginal objects and Aboriginal places in NSW. The register is called the Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System (AHIMS). It was previously known as the Aboriginal Site Register.

You can search AHIMS to discover if an Aboriginal object has been recorded, or an Aboriginal place declared, on a parcel of land.

Please note that surveys for Aboriginal objects have not been done in many parts of NSW. Aboriginal objects may exist on a parcel of land even though they have not been recorded in AHIMS.

If you discover something that you think should be registered as an Aboriginal object, you should contact the AHIMS Registrar.

What should you do if you plan to do something that may disturb or excavate an Aboriginal object?

If you are going to disturb or excavate land to discover an Aboriginal object, or disturb or move an Aboriginal object, you will need to apply for a permit under section 87 of the NPW Act.

In considering whether to issue a section 87 permit, DEC will take into account:

  • the views of the Aboriginal community about the proposed activity - see interim guidelines for community consultation
  • the objectives and justification for the proposed activity
  • the appropriateness of the methodology to achieve the objectives of the proposed activity.

The cost of making a Section 87 permit application is as follows:

  • Permits relating to owner-occupied dwelling: $25
  • All other permits: $100


What should you do if you are doing something that may destroy or damage an Aboriginal object or Aboriginal place?

If you plan to do something that is likely to destroy, damage or deface an Aboriginal object or Aboriginal place, you will need to apply for consent under section 90 of the NPW Act.

In considering whether to issue a section 90 consent, DEC will take into account:

  • the significance of the Aboriginal object(s) or Aboriginal place(s) to be impacted
  • the effect of the proposed impact and the mitigation measures proposed
  • the justification of the proposed impacts
  • the outcomes of the Aboriginal community consultation regarding the proposed impact and conservation outcomes - see interim guidelines for community consultation.

The cost of making a section 90 consent application is as follows:

  • Work to a owner-occupied dwelling costing up to $100,000: $60
  • Other work costing up to $100,000: $100
  • Work between $100,000 - $250,000: $150
  • Work between $250,000 - $500,000: $250
  • Work between $500,000 - $1 million: $400
  • Work between $1 million - $2 million: $750
  • Work between $2 million - $5 million: $1000
  • Work over $5 million: $2000.


Can Aboriginal objects be transferred to Aboriginal communities?

Many Aboriginal communities wish to have care of Aboriginal objects which have been excavated, disturbed or moved by development activities, erosion or other processes.

The NPW Act allows the transfer of Aboriginal objects to an Aboriginal person or Aboriginal organisation for safekeeping. The person or organisation must enter into a care agreement with DEC.

A care agreement is a document that sets out the obligations of DEC and the Aborigional person or Aboriginal organisation for the safekeeping of the transferred Aboriginal object(s). The Aboriginal person or organisation does not become the owner of the Aboriginal objects.

You can apply for a care agreement using the application form below. There is no cost to do this.

Aboriginal cultural heritage: standards and guidelines kit

The standards and guidelines in this kit help promote predictability, transparency, and best practice in Aboriginal heritage management. While written for heritage practitioners, it is hoped this kit will also prove useful to development proponents who wish to know the standard of work that consultants are expected to produce.

Information obtained through http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/npws.nsf/Content/Home


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