Protection of Significant Archeological Sites.

The importance of history and culture in determining an archeological site's significance.

An archeological site of significance or a cultural site is of such significance because it demonstrates past human behaviours that present day people can identify, understand and engage with in order to protect, appreciate and care about the history and culture of the site (Yann, 2017).

Significant archeological sites provide an insight into how people lived at the time and at least into some of their activities. In addition, sacred natural sites are places where nature and people meet, with people’s aspirations and motivations are treated as sacred and resonate across cultures (Verschuuren et al., 2010).

Three examples from Clark (2013) are given here.

Low rock wall structures, left on coastal northern Australia by the Macassans from Sulawesi, were made to hold their cooking pots when they were boiling the aquatic animal called trepang or sea cucumber. The Macassans travelled from 1720 to 1906, using prau boats for their voyage, coming to mainly harvest trepang but also collect or trade pearl shell, beeswax and ironwood. They traded with the Australian Aboriginal people, bringing canoes and sails, fishing line and hooks, and beads and metals in exchange for help harvesting and processing the trepang. Macassans were of diverse ethnicity from the Port of Makassar, now Unjung Pandang, Sulawesi, Indonesia. They sailed to Australia with the northwest monsoon in December and returned to Makassar with the southeast Trade winds in March and April (Baker, 1986; Clark, 2013).

Second example, in New Zealand in the 1800s shellfish and seal bones were left by the Maori and found together with the pig and cow bones left by the Europeans at the whaling stations in southern NZ, reflecting their different diets and that they were working together to harvest whales (Coutts, 1976).

Thirdly, rock art left by Aboriginal people 4,000 years ago in Western Australia which show Wandjina spirits and demonstrates their beliefs in the Dreaming and spirit world and the complexity of Aboriginal cultures (Crawford, 1972).

Significant sites may also be places of food taboos, with no hunting or only limited moderate hunting in times of scarcity, in order to manage nature and maintain species population numbers (Colding, 1998).

Cultural and significant sites are sometimes also sacred sites and a useful definition is “Sacred sites may be defined as areas of special spiritual significance to peoples and communities. They may include primarily natural areas (such as forests or rivers), or primarily built or monumental areas (such as temples)” (Oviedo & Jeanrenaud, 2007, page 79).

The factors that make one site more significant or worthy of protection than another site is often the iconic nature of a site, how visible and well known a site is, for example, Uluru, a large sandstone rock in central Australia which is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu people, and Lake Titicaca in South America an important place in Inca mythology. Both examples are important in the local Indigenous people’s mythology but it is the sites’ size and their sense of presence that make them more significant. However, this does not reduce the sacredness of lesser known sites such as the Dai Holy Hills in China or the sacred lakes of the Niger delta (Verschuuren, 2010).

Different values are recorded and attributed to known places of significance and cultural heritage sites.

Three more recent examples from Birmingham (1977) are given here.

Pottery shards at the site of the Irrawang Pottery just north of Sydney show us something of the pioneering life in the first half of the 1800s, the need for good cheap earthenware, the need for a more reliable enterprise than weather dependent agriculture, and the availability of imported skilled labour, with their particular craft specialty affecting the type and style of the products produced over a period of time. The values attributed to this site are recorded in the pottery shards still present, the outline of the pottery layout itself left by the foundation stones still in place, the two kilns for firing the pots and other equipment being still on site and some surviving pieces made at the pottery (Birmingham, 1977).

Another source of information is recorded in advertisements for the pottery’s product in local newspapers. “From I835 onwards began the series of advertisements in the Sydney Morning Herald, Gazette and the Maitland Mercury which are, apart from the site itself, the chief source of information about what he made and how the pottery was run.” (Birmingham, 1977, page 307).

Another significant site is the settlement of Wybalenna on Flinders Island in the Bass Straight, again from the early 1800s but in this case demonstrating British Government policies toward a group of Australian Aboriginal people, the Tasmanians. ‘The Black War’ is a name given to the period between first settlement of Tasmania by Europeans in 1803 and the appointment of a Government Conciliator in 1827, to encourage Tasmanians to move to the islands in the Bass Straight for their own safety, to escape the murders, spearing and manhunts at the hands of the Europeans. Numbering 100 individuals both Aboriginal and European, the history of Wybalenna, has been obtained from government records in Sydney and Hobart and from personal journals, a map and newspapers kept by the commandant of the settlement, who was the original conciliator in Tasmania. The journals give accounts of daily activities and the aims and ideals of the settlement. In more recent times surveys of the site show surface indications of previous buildings and artifacts have been scattered from what would have been the doorways. Artifacts including shells such as tiny blue-and-green mariners and periwinkles that were pierced for stringing, large limpet and abalone shells and European clay pipe stems, broken ‘willow pattern’ pottery and shards of window glass, illustrate the mix of Indigenous traditional and European habits and cultures (Birmingham, 1977).

The gold mining settlement of Hill End, NSW, gives a picture of gold mining sites generally in Australia during the latter half of the 1800s. The influx of American gold mining machinery developed in California in 1849 and still often present on site at Hill End, present another source of information and values attributed to significant sites. Only the larger mining companies kept any lasting records but newspaper reports and advertisements supply information, as well as gold commissioner’s records of weights of gold extracted and surveys records of leases. A valuable and useful source of information is old photographs, while excavation and clearing of the site provides information on construction styles and materials used (Birmingham, 1977).

Bernard Otto Holtermann with the world’s largest “nugget” of gold, North Sydney, 1874–1876, albumen print from composite photographic negative, Charles Bayliss & Beaufoy Merlin (attributed), State Library of New South Wales P1/766.

The information recorded in these examples is significantly different in its emphasis and varies from built rock walls and other structures, to tools and equipment left at sites, to recorded images on rock faces and recorded words in printed matter.

The type of investigation consists of interviews with descendants of the original people at the sites, on site searches and excavations, to library searches for old relevant documents. Interviews with people give a more expansive connection with the site and time being investigated and the opportunity to ask questions, while caution should be used as to people’s cultural sensitivity and consideration taken that people’s memory may not be accurate or change with the passing down through generations. Excavating physical remains give a solid display of what may have happened on site but can be limited to only a few broken pieces and hence not giving a complete picture. Library records of publications at the time may give the most complete and accurate record if they have been kept but are limited to the last few centuries when written recording became more common (Birmingham, 1977).

Legislative protection of significant sites in Australia include four different levels of heritage listing, world, national, state/territory and local (Environment, 2009).

An example of a world heritage list site is the Great Barrier Reef being of significance to people worldwide, with the list kept by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris (UNESCO, 2019).

Indigenous heritage sites are protected by specific State/Territory legislation, see below, providing protection for Indigenous heritage sites even if they have not been formally identified.

The Australian, state/territory, and local heritage systems in Australia distinguish between the heritage list levels for legal and practical reasons. The criteria for inclusion on a heritage list include a place’s importance in natural or cultural history, having a high level of artistic or technical development for the period or a place that has a special association with people within the natural or cultural history (Environment, 2009).

The Australian Government protection and registration of heritage and significant sites is administered by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts who is responsible for the National Heritage List (Environment, 2009) providing an overall protection for heritage sites under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation EPBC Act 1999 (Legislation, n.d.).

At the state level, in South Australia for example, the State Heritage Unit of the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, and the South Australian Heritage Council oversee and protect built heritage and non-Aboriginal sites of cultural significance (Environment, 2017). The South Australian Heritage Council administers the South Australian Heritage Register. Anyone can nominate a place as being within the criteria for heritage listing.

The Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Division of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet is the South Australian Government’s agency that manages Aboriginal heritage in South Australia under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 (Department of the Premier and Cabinet, 2019). Section 20 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 states that any discovery of Aboriginal sites, objects or remains must be brought, as soon as practicable, to the attention of the premier of the state and any work that may damage a site must stop.

At the local level may be a building of historical interest or a nature reserve, with a local list kept by Municipal Councils, an example is Mount Barker Summit Conservation Park, a significant site for Aboriginal people as a meeting and trading place, within the Mount Barker District Council area, South Australia (Mount Barker District Council, n.d.)

Multiple levels of heritage listing and legislative protection apply in Australia for legal and practical reasons, with the EPBC Act giving all sites and especially Aboriginal sites general protection (Legislation, n.d.).

In conclusion our history and culture are important in determining a sites significance as this serves as a means to preserve, remember and learn from our past (Yann, 2017). The significance and worthiness of protection varies between sites and while all are important and worthy, often the more physically obvious sites attract more notice and protection (Verschuuren, 2010).


Baker, R. (1986). Macassan site survey: report to the NT Museum, Darwin and the Australian Heritage Commission, Canberra. Unpublished report.

Birmingham, J. (1976). The archaeological contribution to nineteenth‐century history: some Australian case studies. World Archaeology, 7(3), 306–317.

Clark, M. (2013). 10. Tangible heritage of the Macassan–Aboriginal encounter in contemporary South Sulawesi. Macassan history and heritage: journeys, encounters and influences/Marshall Clark, 159.

Colding, J. (1998). Analysis of hunting options by the use of general food taboos. Ecological Modelling, 110(1), 5–17.

Crawford, I. M. (1972). Function and change in Aboriginal rock art, Western Australia. World Archaeology, 3(3), 301–312.

Coutts, P. J. (1976). An approach to the investigation of colonial settlement patterns: whaling in southern New Zealand. World Archaeology, 7(3), 291–305.

Department of the Premier and Cabinet. (2019). The Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Division. Retrieved from

Environment. (2017). Heritage. Retrieved from

Environment. (2009). Australian Heritage Council Guidelines. Retrieved from

Legislation. (2017). Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988. Retrieved from

Legislation. (n.d.). Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Retrieved from

Mount Barker District Council (n.d.) Mount Barker Summit Conservation Park. Retrieved from

Jug from James King’s Irrawang Pottery (2020), Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 7 November 2020,

Oviedo, G., & Jeanrenaud, S. (2007). Protecting sacred natural sites of indigenous and traditional peoples. Protected areas and spirituality, 77–99.

Phillips, J. (2006). ‘Whaling — Shore-based whaling’, Te Ara — the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 November 2020)

UNESCO. (2019) World Heritage List. Retrieved from

Verschuuren, Bas & Wild, Robert & McNeeley, Jeffrey & Oviedo, Gonzalo. (2010). Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture.

Yann, J. (2017). What makes an archaeological site significant? Cultural Heritage Informatics. Retrieved from

Peter Miles B.Env.Sc. 45 years in Environmental Science, specializing in Wildlife and Conservation Biology. Writes about Animals, Revegetation & Climate Change.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store