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Teaching Heritage

Board of Studies NSW

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A heritage worker’s approach to studying a site’s background and undertaking a field survey

excerpts from ‘Investigating Heritage’, Curriculum Corporation in assoc. with the Australian Heritage Commission, Carlton Vic., 1998

When a heritage worker considers whether a place is worth listing in the Register of the National Estate they do a great deal of research. This includes investigating the background of the place by visiting libraries, archives and local government bodies, and by conducting a study of the site itself. Using this information, a report is completed which sets out the reasons for listing the place. The final decision for or against listing rests on how well the site meets the criteria.

Before visiting the site

Find out more about the place before your visit.

Useful information includes:

  • history books and brochures about the area
  • maps (town, survey, subdivision, parish, aerial)
  • paintings, engravings, lithographs and sketches
  • newspaper reports
  • early photographs
  • diaries of explorers, visitors and residents
  • published architectural, historical and cultural surveys
  • local government records, such as land selection deeds, building permits, property transfer and titles documents, and rate books
  • census reports
  • oral history from people who know the place well

Sources of information

Information can often be obtained from:

  • libraries
  • historical societies
  • museums
  • local councils
  • State and Territory archives
  • State and Territory heritage agencies
  • indigenous community organisations/land councils
  • the National Trust
  • the Australian Heritage Commission

Also, talk to people who know about the place, as they may remember changes and events that have occurred. Indigenous community organisations can give the correct interpretation of an indigenous site, and may even accompany visitors on their site survey.

Compare the information you have collected with what you actually see at the site.

Remember to keep records of the books you used (author, title, publication details, pages used) as well as the names and addresses of other sources of information. You may need to re-use them.

Doing a field survey

Once you have collected as much information as possible about the place you are studying, it is time to do a 'field survey'.

  1. Locate your site on a map and decide how to get there. A map showing the site's location is also a useful addition to a report.
  2. At the site, walk around the area and get a 'feel' for the place. Then decide on the boundaries of the survey area, for example, the fence line of a house yard.
  3. Draw your own map of the site on graph paper. Don't forget to record the name of the survey area, the date of the survey, the address or map reference, the scale of your map and the direction of north.
  4. On your map, record
  • groups of buildings and structures
  • objects of architectural, historical, archaeological, cultural or technical importance
  • streets and footpaths, fences and other boundaries
  • any other roads or trails, railways, stock routes, walking tracks and waterways
  • cleared and uncleared land, trees and vegetation (including orchards and gardens)
  • evidence of past land uses, like farming, mining or recreation
  • evidence of changes to the place, like extensions to buildings

Develop a key or legend of symbols used in the map.

5. Make sketches (or take photographs) of the site or important parts of the site from different perspectives; for example, a side view and a front view of a building. Sketching (or photographing) the site and taking notes will help you remember the details of the place.

If you are recording details about individual buildings and structures – such as the building materials and construction techniques used – the National Trust has useful booklets to help you identify styles, periods and building techniques.


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