Aboriginal sites, objects and ancestral remains

The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (AHA) protects all Aboriginal heritage sites in Western Australia, whether they are registered or not.

Consent is required from the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs for any activity which will negatively impact Aboriginal heritage sites.

Under the AHA, Aboriginal sites of outstanding importance may be declared Protected Areas.

The AHA provides protection for Aboriginal sites, objects and ancestral remains.

Aboriginal sites

Show more
An Aboriginal site means any place to which the Aboriginal Heritage Act applies by operation of Section 5 of the AHA.

Section 5 of the Act

According to section 5 of the Act, an Aboriginal site is:

(a) any place of importance and significance where persons of Aboriginal descent have, or appear to have, left any object, natural or artificial, used for, or made or adapted for use for, any purpose connected with the traditional cultural life of the Aboriginal people, past or present;

(b) any sacred, ritual or ceremonial site, which is of importance and special significance to persons of Aboriginal descent;

(c) any place which, in the opinion of the Committee, is or was associated with the Aboriginal people and which is of historical, anthropological, archaeological or ethnographical interest and should be preserved because of its importance and significance to the cultural heritage of the State;

(d) any place where objects to which this Act applies are traditionally stored, or to which, under the provisions of this Act, such objects have been taken or removed.

The Act specifies that the Registrar of Aboriginal Sites must maintain a Register of:

  • all protected areas
  • all Aboriginal cultural material
  • all other places and objects to which the Act applies.

You can search for information if you wish to access online or hardcopy information on Aboriginal sites and other heritage places.

If you wish to provide information about a possible Aboriginal site, you can report a site.

For more information regarding a site reassessment, contact the department.

Protected areas

Section 19 of the AHA makes provision for the declaration of Aboriginal sites that are of outstanding importance to be Protected Areas. These are gazetted areas of land with defined boundaries. Some Protected Areas contain a number of sites or are specific to one site only. Section 20 of the AHA also makes provision for the temporary (up to six months) declaration of a Protected Area.

There are currently 80 Protected Areas in Western Australia.

Aboriginal objects

Show more
There are three broad categories of Aboriginal objects related to ceremonial life, the pre-colonial era and the post-contact period.

Ceremonial objects

Like all cultures, Aboriginal people hold beliefs that gain expression through ceremonies. The holding of these ceremonies involves people who have undergone or are to undergo rites of passage leading to greater knowledge and status within the community. There are a range of objects associated with ceremonial practice including head and body decorations (e.g. armlets, anklets, belts, nose-pegs, necklaces), tools used in ceremonies (e.g. implements to create cicatrices and for circumcision, hammers for tooth evulsion, wallets/bags to hold sacred items) and sacred objects (such as incised stones, shells or wooden boards).

Some examples include:

  1. The symbol on the Torres Strait Islander flag is a stylised feather headdress. This headdress, dari, is worn by men during dancing and in some ceremonies.
  2. Some coastal Kimberley groups such as the Bardi use string or woolen crosses in dance routines.
  3. String made from natural fibres (e.g. human hair, possum fur, plant fibre) is sometimes used to hold feathers in place or used to make armlets and belts.
  4. Sticks, stripped of their bark, are often shaved to provide decorative hand implements used in dance routines.
  5. Stones or shells are knapped to produce sharp cutting edges for a range of ceremonies that involve body mutilating or marking.
  6. Animal bones are polished and used as nose-pegs after the piercing of the nasal septum.
  7. Human bones are sometimes decorated with ochre then stored on the ledges of caves as part of mortuary rites in some areas.
  8. Incised stones, pearl shells and wooden boards are passed from one group to another over vast distances as part of the ceremonial transmission for particular cults.

Pre-colonial material

The range of objects used by Aboriginal people prior to colonisation is very broad and includes ceremonial objects as well as everyday objects, such as:

  • spears
  • stone tools such as points, scrapers and adzes
  • woomeras
  • throwing sticks/clubs
  • boomerangs
  • wooden, bark or shell dishes
  • digging sticks
  • grindstones.

Most tools were portable and multi-purpose and usually made from plant or animal products. Dwellings and other structures (e.g. shelters, hunting hides, fishing weirs, burial platforms) were made from branches, bark and grasses although stone bases and dry-stone walling were also used.

Clothing and personal adornments were produced using skins, plant fibre, hair and fur and included kangaroo skin cloaks (booka), sandals, bags, necklets, armlets and belts.

In general objects made from organic materials seldom survived the rigour or use and exposure to the elements. Open scatters of stone artefacts, shell middens and stratified archaeological deposits are often the only record of pre-contact occupation and use of the land. Even in these circumstances the greatest quantity of stone artefacts at most locations is the debris or waste material from the production of a specific tool.

The production of traditional objects, such as those listed above, did not cease at the points of contact or colonisation. With the introduction of new materials and objects they became less important as everyday implements, gradually developing a new role as expressions of cultural identity.

Stone artefacts

The technology involved in the production of stone artefacts has evolved over time so, along with other dating techniques, they can be used to provide a guide to the chronology of the use of an area.

Common stone artefacts include:

  • choppers/hand axes
  • hafted/edge-ground axes
  • grind stones/hammer stones/anvil stones
  • points
  • adzes
  • blades.

Post-contact items

Aboriginal people invented new ways to use the materials that became available after colonisation to make more efficient tools just as they had done in the past. Glass, ceramics and metal objects in particular were re-worked to use as cutting, spearing, carrying and digging tools.

Initially the objects were remodelled using traditional methods. Later, with access to other technologies, modified tools were made (e.g. spears with steel points ground in the workshop at a cattle station). Some items were used unchanged from their original purpose (e.g. clay pipes for smoking) or re-worked for a different purpose (e.g. sheet metal as a scoop or yandy dish, tin cans as children's toys).

The archaeological record for this era is difficult to interpret unless oral historical records are also available.

Fringe camps were often located near urban refuse dumps where useful items could be scavenged and recycled. Some camps were seasonal (e.g. based on potato harvesting or grape picking) where casual labour and food could be obtained as well as recyclable materials for dwellings (e.g. corrugated iron, packing cases) and other purposes. Consultation with the current occupants or those who occupied the locations in the past provides the most reliable way to identify such objects.

Ancestral remains

Show more
Ancestral remains are of great significance to Aboriginal people, who feel strongly about the removal of remains from grave sites, so it is important to know how to manage them appropriately if found.

Aboriginal remains may be uncovered by natural forces or when sand or soil is being moved during a development, for example, industrial and residential development, road-works, mineral or petroleum exploration and practices associated with agriculture, pastoralism and tourism.

Reporting and identification

If you discover Aboriginal remains, please do not interfere with the burial area. Instead immediately notify the Registrar of Aboriginal Sites and the Western Australia Police (opens in a new window).

Photographs of the general area should be taken. It is important to mark the location of the remains with care so that directions can be provided to the police and/or the Registrar to relocate the site.

Only a qualified archaeologist or forensic specialist can disturb the remains for the purpose of identification and relevant Aboriginal people should be involved if any disturbance is necessary. Ideally, a team comprising relevant Aboriginal people, police, a staff member of the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage and a physical anthropologist and/or trained archaeologist should undertake the process of identification.

Procedures for dealing with a burial site

After discovering a burial site or Aboriginal remains, the following action should be taken:

  1. Immediately contact the police and the Registrar.
  2. If development or other ground disturbing activities are carried out, these activities must cease immediately.
  3. The police will investigate the remains as soon as possible. The Registrar will liaise with police to ensure that the minimum amount of disturbance takes place before identification of whether the remains are of Aboriginal origin and not a matter for further police involvement.
  4. Upon notification that the remains are of Aboriginal origin and not a matter for further police involvement, the Registrar will seek the immediate involvement of relevant Aboriginal people.
  5. The landowner will develop an appropriate action plan for the management of the remains, in consultation with relevant Aboriginal people and the Registrar.
  6. The Registrar will ensure that the burial place is recorded and placed on the Register of Aboriginal Sites.
  7. The Registrar will ensure that the burial place is reported to the Commonwealth Minister for Indigenous Affairs, in accordance with the legal requirements under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protection Act 1984 (opens in a new window).
  8. If the landowner wishes to carry out further development activities on the location the Registrar will provide advice on how to lodge an application to use the land.

Managing Aboriginal remains

The most effective way to prevent site disturbance is to know of the existence of Aboriginal sites beforehand.

If you undertake ground-disturbing activities, you should consult with relevant Aboriginal people, particularly in areas such as coastal dunes (commonly found to be the location of burials) and areas which have sandy soils. Consultation should take place before starting ground disturbing activities. In many cases, local Aboriginal people know whether burial sites are likely to exist.

Prior consultation with Aboriginal people means you will know who to contact for further advice about future management of the remains, if Aboriginal remains should be discovered. You may also have a protocol already in place to manage any remains that may be located.

When Aboriginal communities and the Registrar become aware of the discovery, the options for dealing with the remains depend on:

  • the views of relevant Aboriginal people
  • the circumstances at each place
  • the nature of any development which is occurring.

Aboriginal people may want to learn more about the remains, for example:

  • the gender
  • how old was the person
  • how old are the remains (length of interment)
  • whether there are grave goods
  • what mortuary rites were practiced, (staged burial, cremation, seated or flexed burial, decoration of the bones).

To activate such studies the consent of the relevant Aboriginal people and the Registrar is required in accordance with Section 16 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 and must be undertaken by a qualified archaeologist or appropriate specialist.

Options for managing Aboriginal remains:

Leave remains in situ

Where remains have not been disturbed, or disturbance has been minimal, it is best to leave the remains in situ. To reduce the chances of inadvertent interference with the site it may be appropriate to stabilise the surrounds and consider placing a sign or other marker to notify the existence of an Aboriginal burial location.

Rebury in the same place

If the burial site has been only partially disturbed (that is, not actually removed), and the activity at the site can be halted permanently the remains should be reburied at the same site, if that is the preference of the local Aboriginal community. When this is done the area should be stabilised and the placing of a sign or other marker to notify the existence of an Aboriginal burial location should be considered.

Rebury in gazetted cemetery or keeping place (ossuary)

If development in the whole area is unavoidable, or if it is the choice of the local Aboriginal community, the remains may need to be removed from the site entirely. This should only be done under the supervision of local Aboriginal leaders. The fate of the material is then at their discretion. Their aim may be to find a satisfactory reburial site somewhere in the vicinity of the original find. Some communities may request remains be reburied within a gazetted cemetery or a keeping place (ossuary) that has already been purpose built. Such an ossuary has already been constructed at Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth. Construction of ossuaries is being considered for other regional places. 

Rebury as close as possible

In some cases, skeletal remains are not discovered until development is well under way. In these cases it may not be possible to rebury the remains in exactly the location they were discovered. In this case, the preferred option is to rebury them as near as practicable (that is, where the risk of future disturbance is minimised) to the original place of discovery. This should involve the local Aboriginal community and the placing of a sign or other marker should be considered at the reburial site to reduce the likelihood of inadvertent interference.

Landowners and the discovery of Aboriginal remains

The discovery of remains does not pose a threat to a landowner's right to freehold title, but it does require that approval for development on the burial area is sought.

If a developer already has consent from the Minister to develop the land and Aboriginal remains are discovered during development work, the landowner should follow the steps set out above under procedures for dealing with the discovery of Aboriginal remains.

Page reviewed 3 June 2021