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Archaeology is the study of the past through discovery, analysis and interpretation of surviving material evidence of human activity.

It records and analyses the objects people used and the places where they lived and worked. Archaeology tells us how people lived their daily lives, and the way they made the tools, furniture, buildings and other objects that they used.

It can also provide insights into the broader landscape and linkages between sites.

Archaeology is often specialized, focusing on segments of a community or specific historical periods. Some examples include:

Historical archaeology

Historical archaeology in South Australia is the archaeological study of exploration, colonisation and settlement by Europeans and other non-Aboriginal cultural groups in the state.

Historical archaeology uses a combination of physical evidence and historical sources, such as settler’s journals and letters, maps and charts, newspapers and other documents, to investigate past occupations and activities.

Historical archaeological sites

Historical archaeological sites have enormous potential to inform us about our history, often giving us information that is not available from other sources.

Archaeological sites are an important aspect of our heritage and the study of these sites is often the only means of finding out how past societies lived.

Sites may be located on land, in water, or along the margins of our coasts and waterways.

Historical archaeological sites in South Australia include the material remains that humans leave behind. These can be:

  • artefacts
  • features
  • remnant structures or ruins
  • organic compounds
  • ephemeral traces.

Intact sites still exist in the context of their original locations, and could be found on the ground surface or buried beneath.

Historical archaeologists study many types of physical evidence, including:

  • Buildings (both ruined and standing) – such as homesteads and outbuildings, shearing sheds, shepherd’s huts, or other occupation structures, in both rural and township settings
  • Structures such as wells, cesspits, underground tanks, and the buried foundations of buildings
  • Industrial and commercial facilities such as factories, breweries, entertainment venues, hotels, shipbuilding yards, mines and mine shafts
  • Infrastructure such as roads, railways and bridges
  • Household goods such as crockery, cutlery, bottles and containers
  • Personal effects such as clothing, toys, grooming tools, etc.
  • Remains of cultivation areas and gardens – such as walls (dry stone, mortared or stone mounds), fencing, artificially levelled terraces, artificial landfill, drainage and irrigation
  • Machinery, tools and hardware.

For more information:

Protection of historical archaeological sites

Archaeological sites are a fragile and finite resource – once they are impacted or destroyed, they are gone forever.

That is why effective statutory protection is so important.

The Heritage Places Act 1993 (the Act) regulates protection and management of historical archaeology in South Australia.

Significant archaeological sites are protected under the Act, even though it does not refer directly to them. Instead, it provides protection to significant archaeological objects, which includes material remains (artefacts, features, ruins) of past land use deemed to be of heritage significance.

If significant objects are likely to be impacted, it is important they are investigated and recorded first so that the information they contain is captured and preserved.

For more information:

Historical archaeology and development

The Act allows for the designation of State Heritage Places as places of archaeological, geological, palaeontological or speleological significance.

The Act places restrictions on land excavation in a designated place, and restricts disturbance, damage and disposal of archaeological artefacts and geological, palaeontological or speleological specimens.

Where approval for a development in a State Heritage Place is required, the development application is referred to Heritage SA for assessment of potential impacts, including to significant archaeological deposits.

Without a permit it is unlawful under the Act to excavate or disturb a State Heritage Place which has been designated as a place of archaeological, geological, palaeontological or speleological significance.

Significant archaeological sites may occur anywhere in the landscape, not just within State Heritage Places, and their location may not be known, so a project may not be automatically referred to DEW for assessment.

However, permits are also needed to excavate or disturb any other land with the intention of searching for or recovering archaeological artefacts of heritage significance, or to excavate and disturb any land where potentially significant archaeological deposits will be impacted.

A permit is also needed to alter or dispose of an object, such as archaeological artefacts.

For more information:

For further information on the archaeological process and development, conducting an archaeological assessment or investigation of a property, and obtaining a permit, visit the South Australian Heritage Council and read the Archaeological Provisions Guideline.