Before you apply

If you are planning to carry out excavation that may harm or disturb historical archaeological relics, here are some of the requirements you will need to consider. There are also certain assessments and reporting practices you must undertake for compliance under the Heritage Act 1977 before investigating and reporting on archaeology.

If you are planning to excavate land in NSW and think that you might disturb a relic or historical archaeological site, or have advice that you are likely to do so, you will first need an Archaeological Approval under the Heritage Act 1977. This is often called an Excavation Permit. The permit is required to make sure archaeological relics are excavated under appropriate supervision and to avoid offences.

A 'relic' means any deposits, artefact, object or material evidence that:

  • relates to the settlement of the area that comprises New South Wales, not being Aboriginal settlement, and
  • is of local or state significance.

Archaeological Assessment

The first step to understanding whether the land may contain archaeological resources that could be or contain 'relics' is to prepare an Archaeological Assessment.

An Archaeological Assessment will review the historical development of the land, review how the site has been modified over time and what that may have done to any likely (potential) archaeology. The Assessment will assess the significance of the archaeology to answer meaningful questions about how the site can contribute knowledge that cannot be found through other sources. This is known as 'research potential' or scientific significance. If the archaeology cannot clearly identify research potential in this way, the site's archaeology may not be considered to contain 'relics' under the Heritage Act 1977. If there are no relics, an approval to manage the site's disturbance will not be required.

Relics have been managed by significance since 2009 in NSW which aligns with other provisions within the Heritage Act 1977. See  further guidance in Assessing Significance for Historical Archaeological Sites and Relics.

The Archaeological Assessment will also address what the impact of the proposed development will be to the relics. It should give advice consistent with the significance (local or State) of the archaeology. It should address what options have been considered to avoid disturbance in whole or in part to retain the archaeology of significance. The management advice should be consistent with existing Heritage Council of NSW policy and guidelines.  

In addition to an Archaeological Assessment, there may be other documents that indicate historical archaeological resources are likely. These can include statutory lists such as an Environmental Planning Instrument (e.g. Local Environmental Plan, State Environmental Planning Policy or listing on the State Heritage Register). These sites can also be included in non-statutory lists, e.g.  an Archaeological Management Plan, an Archaeological Zoning Plan or through the National Trust of Australia Register.

If the Assessment identifies that an archaeological excavation program is appropriate to mitigate the loss of the archaeological resource and no other option is viable, an Archaeological Research Design (ARD) including an excavation methodology and research design will be required. A suitably qualified Excavation Director will also be required to manage the archaeological program. The Archaeological Assessment, ARD and nominated Excavation Director will be required to support the Excavation Permit application.  The nominated Excavation Director should be directly involved in writing the ARD prepared for the application. 

Selecting an Excavation Director

Since 1981 the Heritage Council of NSW has provided policy and published practice guidance about how archaeological sites should be investigated and managed under Heritage Act approvals.

An essential requirement is that archaeological excavations are undertaken and managed by suitably qualified and experienced people, known as Excavation Directors (ED).

In September 2019, the Heritage Council of NSW approved an updated version of the Criteria for Excavation Directors. The revised document was prepared by an expert Working Group comprising professional industry archaeologists and government archaeologists and others such as Project Managers who use the Criteria to find suitable consultants.

Before nominating an excavation director on a Works Application or an Excavation Permit Application, refer to the Excavation Director Assessment Criteria  (2019) and make sure your nominated person would meet the criteria.

Archaeological Management Plans

Archaeological Management Plans exist for some parts of NSW. They identify areas of European/Non-Indigenous/historic occupation from the Colonial and later periods where high concentrations of potential archaeological remains are likely to be found. They provide a high level of assessment and management advice for the future development of sites that contain significant historical archaeological remains and deposits. The advice should be consistent with current legislation and policy.

Archaeological Management Plans are a tool for government authorities, property owners, developers and archaeologists to manage these non-renewable resources. In 2009 the Heritage Council of NSW published Guidelines for the Preparation of Archaeological Management Plans. 

A list of Archaeological Management Plans in NSW can be found on the Understanding historical archaeological relics webpage.

Archaeological Management and Zoning Plans also exist for other places in NSW, usually as individual sites. Some of these places are listed on the State Heritage Register. These are often within Conservation Management Plans for sites and can be found within the library.