Nicola, Friday, January 15th, 2010
Working on the tent associated with Shackleton’s 1914-17 Trans Antarctic Expedition last week inspired me to read accounts of the sledging trips with a particular interest in the kit that was taken. Once the tent was up the most vital pieces of equipment were the Primus stove for cooking and the Norwegian fur sleeping bags.
In the laboratory this week we have a one man sleeping bag made from sections of hide with the thick fur on the inside.
Under the microscope Paul Scofield, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at Canterbury Museum, identified the fur as reindeer, used because its hollow hairs have good insulating properties. Whilst smooth fur from the flanks was used on the inside of the bag, two outside flaps were cut from the softer more woolly belly. These would have been folded across the chest and secured with wooden toggles.
The bag is in good condition despite being well used, patched and repaired. The skin is still soft and there is only minor shedding of hairs. But it’s filled the lab with that distinct seal blubber smell of the historic huts.
The state of their sleeping bags was a frequent topic in the men’s sledging diaries. Whilst the fur could be warm and comfortable, the bags became miserable at extremely low temperatures.
Sealed in their sleeping bags at night their breath condensed and froze onto the fur lining. Ice accumulated over weeks so it became an unpleasant experience in the evening to thaw a way in. After one sledging journey the weight of the sleeping bags had increased four times from their usual 10lbs. Relief only came on sunny days when the bags could be turned inside out to rid them of ice and allow them to dry.
So perhaps it’s easy to understand why Apsley Cherry-Garrard, in his account of a winter sledging trip, talked of the ‘blissful moment of getting out of your bag…’
Fran, Monday, January 11th, 2010
Wind: 2 knots
Given we try to be as environmentally sustainable as we can when camping out in the field it does make you wonder what the early polar explorers did with their waste, as they all spent considerable periods of time resident in their respective huts, and the produce that they brought with them all had an extraordinary amount of packaging (which was very typical for the era).
Here at Sir Ernest Shackleton’s base at Cape Royds, many fragments from the original supplies and equipment have been found in the surrounding area.
But it’s very hard to make assumptions as to whether these have ended up here accidentally or whether they were deliberately thrown away. Some of the more interesting objects at the site today are things that were pulled out from Pony Lake (a small expanse of water in front of the hut) including a sea dredge and the wooden wheel from a motor vehicle.
We know from the early polar explorers’ diaries it was common practice for the explorers to put their rubbish down tide cracks (these often form where the sea ice butts up against shorelines, glaciers or icebergs) where it would be swept out in the next tide.
This would have been an acceptable practice at the time but it’s great to know that there are now strict guidelines and environmental protocols in place today.
Lucy, Tuesday, January 5th, 2010
Temperature: -2 degrees
Windspeed: 2-5 Knots
Blue skies, bright sunshine.
I have heard that Captain Scott was opposed to the idea of using dogs as the main means of transport to the South Pole. Nevertheless, his 1910-13 Terra Nova Expedition included a large team of dogs and a dog handler which came down on the ship and lived at their base at Cape Evans.
Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-17 Ross Sea support party also had a small team of dogs. 10 members of this expedition were marooned at Cape Evans when their ship, the Aurora, still containing the majority of their supplies and equipment, broke anchor and was swept away from shore. Ernest Joyce, who was the leader of the sledging party, and his sledging team relied heavily on their surviving dogs to bring their weakened scurvy-ridden bodies back home after their journey across the Ross Ice Shelf to lay depots of stores.
Last month I spent 2 days archaeologically excavating the remains of a sledge dog which is chained to the North wall, outside the stables of the Terra Nova Hut. The stables are undergoing some essential repairs after Christmas, so the skeleton had to be removed.
There are photographs of the dog from the 1950s. Back at this time the skin is dry but the body is still whole and covered in fur. Since then, the ravages of the elements and disturbance of the corpse by opportunistic Skuas (scavenger birds which live in abundance around Cape Evans) have caused almost complete disintegration and decay of the dog’s flesh and skin and scattering of the exposed bones.
We have been speculating as to the identity of this mystery dog, which expedition it belonged to, how it died and why it ended up chained to the wall. There are no signs that it was shot or intentionally killed and no surviving records which mention it either.
Currently, the carefully labeled remains of ‘Mummy’, so named because he/she resembles an Ancient Egyptian dog mummy, are lying on a purpose-made tray inside the hut. Once the repairs to the stables are complete Mummy will find his/her final resting place within one of the pony stalls inside the stables. The dogs of both Scott’s and the Ross Sea Party’s expeditions were allowed to roam freely around in the stables so it seems to be the most appropriate location to place the dog to prevent continued disintegration of the body.
George, Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009
One set of pastels. Well used. Check. Found at Captain Scott’s 1910 – 13 base at Cape Evans. Good condition. Check. Owner … er … oh … unknown.
Unfortunately this brilliant and evocative object can offer a tantalising insight into life on the early polar expeditions, but we have no hard and fast answers as to who might have used it, why and when.
There are of course likely suspects who might have been the owner of such artist’s materials. The first that springs to mind is Edward Wilson, affectionately known as Uncle Bill for his kindly manner and ability to mix with all ranks; he was surgeon, scientist and artist on both the 1901 Discovery expedition and the 1910 Terra Nova expedition, and produced many illustrations of the voyages, including pastels of the Antarctic landscape, the auroras at night and the wildlife.
Although the pastels were located at Cape Evans, the men often visited or used the other two expedition bases in the area so it’s not unconceivable that the pastels were associated with earlier expeditions. Perhaps they were used by Michael Barne – a member of Commander Scott’s 1901 Discovery expedition who was the in-house cartoonist and caricaturist (although he appears to have worked predominantly in ink and watercolour).
So who did the set belong too? One imagines that the officers were more likely to indulge in this sort of arty pastime over the more hardy seafaring types, but in reality they could have belonged to anyone who wanted to record their experiences. Nicola and I are looking forward to going South in February; and we’ll be sure to include paints and pencils of our own, as well as a digital camera!
Nicola, Wednesday, December 16th, 2009
This week we began treating one of the largest objects that we have in the Reserve Collection – a canvas expedition tent used on sledging trips across the ice.
The dome tent opens up like a concertina and is supported by 4 arched iron poles sewn into the canvas. The round entrance is protected by a fabric tunnel which would have been tied up on the inside to keep out wind and snow.
The tent is associated with the Ross Sea Party which supported Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 – 17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton, who had led an earlier expedition to Antarctica in 1907, planned to cross Antarctica via the South Pole. The expedition would begin in the Weddell Sea and end in the Ross Sea.
However, the expedition was abandoned when Shackleton’s ship ‘Endurance’ was crushed in ice in the Weddell Sea. Unaware of this, 10 men, who were located in the Ross Sea area, continued to lay supply depots for Shackleton along the last leg of the proposed route.
The Ross Sea Party had their own challenges - they had been stranded with few rations when their ship Aurora was blown out to sea during a storm, leaving them stranded for nearly 2 years at Cape Evans (the home of Captain Scott’s expedition base for his attempt on the South Pole). With barely any provisions, the Ross Sea Party were forced to shelter in Scott’s hut where they used the stores, clothing and equipment left behind by Scott and his men.
The tent was used on their long sledging expeditions, covering almost 2,000 miles. The inside is black with soot from the primus stove, and small holes in the canvas have been patched and hand-stitched to prevent snow leaking into the tent during the blizzards that kept them confined for days at a time.
Several of the iron poles have been repaired with lengths of bamboo and twine and this reminded me of the shocking conditions, illness, starvation and exhaustion that the men endured. Not only did they suffer from painful frost bite and snow blindness but also acute scurvy caused by lack of vitamin C in their diet.
Ernest Joyce is quoted as saying ‘Scurvy has got us, our legs are black and swollen, and if we bend them at night there is a chance they will not straighten out. So, to counteract that, we lash pieces of bamboo to the back of our knees to keep them straight.’ They also tried to alleviate the pain by massaging the affected areas with methylated spirits.
Ultimately, Reverend Spencer-Smith died of scurvy and was buried in the ice, and later Mackintosh and Hayward were also lost whilst trying to cross thin sea ice in poor weather.
The Aurora returned with Shackleton aboard in January 1917 and rescued the 7 survivors of the original shore party.
If you want to read more about the Ross Sea Party, Kelly Tyler-Lewis has written a great account in her book The Lost Men (Antarctic Heritage Trust staff pick!).