The Aboriginal Archaeological Collection

A unique material record of the prehistory of the south-eastern region of Australia over the last 50,000 years.

Botany Bay Archaeological Site BB4: Trench A

Botany Bay Archaeological Site BB4: Trench A
Photographer: Vincent Megaw © Australian Museum

The long history of Indigenous Australians is documented in numerous archaeological sites throughout Australia. Archaeological sites are localities where the material evidence of past human activity is preserved. They include camping sites, quarries and ceremonial sites. The evidence, in the form of artefacts, remnants of various craftworks, bones of consumed animals, rock art and ceremonial arrangements, carved trees and fireplaces, can be found on the land surface or beneath in stratified positions. Sites with stratified materials have greater potential for revealing a chronology of past events and the sequence of cultural and environmental changes over time.

Archaeologists examine these sites, often by way of excavation, to recover material evidence and, importantly, to document the complex spatial relationships of objects to each other as well as their association with natural sediments. Materials and documentation obtained via field research can be further analysed in the laboratory to learn how Indigenous Australians lived, used resources and adapted to environmental changes in the past. Depending on the quality of documentation and research questions, archaeological material can be studied in many different ways, enriching our understanding of human life in the past.

The Australian Museum holds a large body of materials obtained from Aboriginal archaeological sites in New South Wales. They include about 2,000 collections of materials (assemblages) recovered via systematic field research. These were assembled typically with the consent of indigenous communities and permits issued by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and currently the New South Wales Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water – both of which have been responsible for protecting of Aboriginal sites in the state since 1974.

In addition, there are about 18,000 of collections, usually smaller, sometimes consisting of only a single object, obtained in various ways, often by amateur or incidental collectors. These collections are products of the pioneers of archaeology, usually untrained, curious but passionate people who attempted to understand Aboriginal prehistory and salvage material evidence of the past. The Archaeology Collection dates to the late 19th century and, indeed, the first artefact entered into the current Anthropology registration system was a stone hatchet (axe) from the Culgoa River region of inland northern New South Wales, donated to the Museum in 1886. Some of these collections are not well documented, but collectively they reflect the rich evidence of Aboriginal past as well as the pioneering effort to save and understand it.

Lodgement of Archaeological Collections

Dr Stan Florek , Collection Officer
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