Heritage in the ACT

People are often surprised to learn that the ACT is rich in natural and cultural heritage. There is a perception that, as a relatively young city, we can’t have many heritage places or objects. This is far from the case.

Aboriginal occupation of the area has left a rich legacy spanning over 20,000 years. There are many signs of this occupation throughout the natural and built environment, including scarred trees, rock shelters and artefact scatters.

Built heritage in the ACT encompasses the nineteenth century pastoral history of the area, as well as many places and objects that tell our important and unique story as the nation’s capital.

Natural heritage places in the ACT are reflected in our nature reserves and parks, as well as other locations throughout the city where remnant flora or fauna species, or important landforms, might be located.

It is important that we recognise and protect these places and objects into the future, and keep the stories they tell of who we are and the past that has helped shaped us.

Details and information about the full range of places and objects registered in the ACT is available on the ACT Heritage Register.

Natural heritage

Natural heritage places in the ACT might include native flora and fauna, and geological or other significant landform features. These types of places and objects might be recognised as being uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of the ACT’s natural history, as demonstrating the evolution of natural landscapes, as a significant ecological community or habitat, or if they have an unusual richness or diversity of flora, fauna or natural landscapes.

Examples of natural heritage places recognised and protected under the Act include the Tuggeranong Parkway cutting – a good example of the evolution of the ACT’s current landscape, given its size and quality – and the Hall Cemetery as the location of the rare Tarengo Leek Orchid (Prasophyllum petilum).

Aboriginal heritage

Unlike natural and historic heritage places and objects which must be nominated, provisionally registered or registered for the Act to have effect, all Aboriginal places and objects in the ACT are protected under the Act and are recorded in a centralised database maintained by ACT Heritage.

All Aboriginal places and objects have cultural value for Aboriginal people as part of their history and heritage. Some Aboriginal places and objects have cultural and/or scientific/archaeological value which is beyond the ordinary and may also meet one or more of the heritage significance criteria under the Act to warrant entry to the ACT Heritage Register.

There are specific provisions in the Act which require a person to report the discovery of an Aboriginal place or object to the Heritage Council within five working days. There are also provisions and penalties that apply if a person damages any Aboriginal place or object in the ACT.

The Act also includes provisions for the declaration of Representative Aboriginal Organisations (RAOs). Under the Act, the Council is responsible for consulting with RAOs on a range of matters relating to Aboriginal places and objects in the ACT. There are currently four RAOs:

  • Buru Ngunawal Aboriginal Corporation
  • Little Gudgenby River Tribal Council
  • King Brown Tribal Group
  • Ngarigu Currawong Clan.

As Declared by Notifiable Instrument NI2006-298

Aboriginal communities inhabited the Canberra region during the Ice Age, otherwise known as the Pleistocene Epoch. To date, the most well known research work on Aboriginal people in the ACT is that of Josephine Flood in The moth hunters: Aboriginal prehistory of the Australian Alps (1980). Flood suggests that Aboriginal people have been visiting the ACT and surrounding tablelands for over 20,000 years. Given this antiquity, it is not surprising there is potential for Aboriginal heritage to be present, in some capacity, almost everywhere.

An important and unique food resource for Aboriginal people in the Canberra area was the Bogong Moth (Agrotis infusa). These moths spend the summer months in a torpid condition along the mountain ranges. The moths are highly nutritious, easy to collect and were in sufficient numbers to warrant large gatherings of Aboriginal people. These gatherings of different tribes were for initiation ceremonies, marriage arrangements, corroborees and trade (Flood, 1980).

The high number of Aboriginal artefacts recovered from the lowland areas of the Canberra area demonstrates how the area was used as a popular camping ground for the Ngunnawal people, who also hosted adjacent tribes including the Gundungurra, Wiradjuri, Wolgalu and Ngarigo. The area once flourished with important resources including water springs, Red Stringybark trees (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha), Ovens Wattle (Acacia pravissima), Spiny-headed Matt Rush (Lomandra longiflia), Silver Wattle (Acacia dealbata) and Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra). These resources would have been used to construct coolamons, canoes, shelter, weave baskets and rope, and also applied as insect repellent and healing ointments. In particular, natural water springs would have been a haven to trap frogs, fish, yabbies, lizards, kangaroos and turtles.

Aboriginal heritage places and objects attest to the relationship between Ngunnawal people and the ACT landscape. Lowland hills such as Black Mountain and the mountain areas surrounding the ACT, such as Tidbinbilla and Gibraltar ranges, were highly important for lore, initiation and ceremony.

The ACT has a diverse and ancient record of Aboriginal heritage. Often it can be discrete and yet abundant, not obvious to the untrained eye. Thousands of sites have been recorded across the ACT, with many entered in the ACT Heritage Register.

Isolated artefacts and artefact scatters constitute the majority of registered places. These represent activities undertaken at what are commonly referred to as open campsites. Scatters may be the remains from varied activities, and are most likely to include stone artefacts (lithics), but in some cases charcoal, animal bone, or ochre may survive.

Although artefact scatters are the most common, there are many other Aboriginal site types in the ACT, most of which appear on the Register, including:

  • scarred trees
  • rock art sites
  • burials
  • grinding groves
  • stone quarries
  • ochre quarries
  • wooden artefacts
  • sacred landscapes.

If you find what you think is an Aboriginal heritage object (or place):

  • do not move it
  • do not do anything that will impact it
  • note if it is under threat (e.g. machinery vandalism)
  • alert ACT Heritage (heritage@act.gov.au)
  • under the Heritage Act 2004, all Aboriginal heritage discoveries must be reported within five working days.

See more information on the ACT's Ngunnawal heritage here

Historic heritage

Often, a sense of history and age may contribute to the significance of a place or object.

One of the earliest remaining historic heritage places in the ACT is the Palmerville settlement in Giralang, dating from 1826. A number of substantial buildings were constructed by George Thomas Palmer and the place remained a thriving settlement until 1877. In 1841 the population of Palmerville was 68, comprising convicts and free settler families, including women and children. The site today is retained as a park reserve, with many archaeological features from the original settlement.

However, heritage need not always be old. While importance to the course of the ACT’s cultural history is one criterion under which a place or object might be recognised and registered under the Act, there are many other criteria for which a place or object might be recognised as having heritage significance. This includes social, aesthetic, archaeological and architectural importance, which might encompass places and objects which demonstrate technical or creative achievement, particular aesthetic characteristics, value by the community or a cultural group, uncommon, rare or endangered aspects, or which might have a special association with a prominent person or group.

Basically, heritage is anything from the (recent or distant) past that we want to keep for current and future generations.

The ACT’s twentieth century heritage as the nation’s capital is an important contribution to our story, and to our sense of place and identity.

Many places and objects dating from the twentieth century are recognised as having heritage significance in the ACT. Some of the youngest heritage places recognised as having heritage significance in the ACT include Callum Offices in Woden (completed in 1981), the Swinger Hill Cluster Housing Precinct (1970s) and Gus’s Cafe in Civic (1960s).

Many of the ACT’s garden city precincts dating from the 1920s are also entered in the ACT Heritage Register, recognising the social, domestic and planning aspects of our origins as the nation’s capital.