Culture and heritage


Historical archaeology

About archaeology

Historical archaeology is the study of the past using physical evidence in conjunction with historical sources. It focuses on the objects used by people in the past and the places where they lived and worked. It can tell us about the way things were made and used and how people lived their daily lives.

In Australia historical archaeologists investigate sites and relics such as those left by early Asian fishing fleets and Dutch explorers, as well as the settlements of Europeans, Chinese and other cultural groups.

What are historical archaeological sites?

Archaeologists study many types of physical evidence, including:

  • buildings (both ruined and standing);
  • structures such as wells, mine shafts and bridges;
  • objects of household use such as crockery, bottles;
  • personal effects and toys;
  • machinery and tools;
  • pollen as evidence of past environments;
  • parasites as evidence of human diet and disease.
Archaeology is not just about objects and remains, it is also about landscapes and links between sites.
Cunningham Street, Haymarket

Cunningham Street, Haymarket

Clay pipe, Parramatta Children's Court

Clay pipe, Parramatta Children's Court

Quadrant site, Ultimo

Quadrant site, Ultimo

Why are archaeological sites important?

Archaeological resources are irreplaceable. They have enormous potential to contribute to our knowledge of our history, providing information that is unavailable from other sources. It is important that archaeological resources are adequately investigated and recorded if they are to be disturbed.

Some sites are important for the knowledge we can gain from them. That is why we excavate and learn from them.

Some sites that are very significant to the community are kept in the ground and interpreted because they can supply evidence that we can see and touch.

Who are historical archaeologists?

Historical archaeologists are people who have completed tertiary training in archaeology, prehistory or a related field and who have specialist training and experience in historical archaeology. Historical archaeologists carry out archaeological assessments, do archival research and undertake survey recording and archaeological excavations.

There are also many dedicated non-professionals who are interested in historical archaeology and have contributed to our understanding of the past. They have developed their skills from researching and recording historical sites and from working on excavations under professional supervision.

Cunningham Street dig

Archaeologist at work at Cunningham Street, Haymarket

Heritage Branch volunteer Sarah Halpin at the Parramatta Children's Court site.

Heritage Branch volunteer Sarah Halpin at the Parramatta Children's Court site.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012