Along the east coast of Australia there is archaeological evidence for Aboriginal occupation extending back beyond 60,000 years. One of the richest provinces in Australia, the Sydney Basin is home to thousands of Aboriginal archaeological sites. This cultural legacy is incomparable and some have said this immense outdoor rock art gallery is worthy of World Heritage status. Though the specific stories associated with these sites are now not generally known, there remain thousands of identified sites in the region, as well as sites in areas yet uncatalogued.

Among other forms, Aboriginal sites include rock engravings and paintings, shelters and occupation sites, axe grinding grooves and seed grinding patches, stone or ochre quarries, shell middens, fish traps, stone arrangements, carved or scarred trees, as well as bora (ceremonial) grounds and burial sites. Large proportions of these are located on the Northern Beaches Peninsula, and abound even in populated areas. These sites are heritage places of national significance and help us learn about the traditional owners of this region. They undoubtedly deserve respect and protection.

Aboriginal sites are protected under both federal and state legislation. The two laws that provide the primary context for Aboriginal Heritage Management in New South Wales are the National Parks & Wildlife Act 1974 (NPW Act) and the Environmental Planning & Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act). The NPW Act provides statutory protection for all Aboriginal relics and places, while the EP&A Act establishes the framework for Aboriginal heritage values to be formally assessed in land use planning and development consent processes.

In our local area, David Watts is Manager of the Aboriginal Heritage Office (AHO) that serves The Northern Beaches, Willoughby, North Sydney, Ku-ring-gai, Strathfield and Lane Cove Councils. The AHO catalogues the Aboriginal sites in these Council areas, creates a management plan for their protection, and helps the Councils bring their policies and procedures relating to development and bush care into alignment with the legal protection accorded Aboriginal heritage. Part of this work is also to conduct education programs relating to the Aboriginal heritage of the area for Council staff, school and community groups, and to work with developers and utility companies whose activities invariably impacts on sites. Programs have also been established for residents and the wider community about how to recognise and respect sites.

Sites are fragile and vulnerable to damage, weather, and inadvertent (or sometimes deliberate) vandalism. It is a legal offence to knowingly damage, deface or destroy an Aboriginal site, artefact or place. When visiting sites, leave stone and shell artefacts in place, and take care to walk around engravings rather than over them. Scratching engravings or marking the outline with sand contributes to erosion, as does walking on engravings wearing shoes. To see engravings at their best, view them when the sun is low or after a rain.

We are all responsible for the protection of these irreplaceable Aboriginal sites. They deepen our history and heritage and give us all the opportunity to appreciate the richness and complexity of Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

If you have concerns or questions about an Aboriginal site in the Sydney area, contact the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service, or the NSW Heritage Office. For information or specific queries relating to sites in The Northern Beaches, Willoughby, Lane Cove, North Sydney, Ku-ring-gai and Strathfield Council areas, contact David Watts at the Aboriginal Heritage Office.