George, Monday, February 22nd, 2010
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: -22°C
Last week our team flew out by helicopter to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1907 hut at Cape Royd’s, and then on to Captain Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’ 1910 base at Cape Evans. Amazing! The trip allowed for an on-site handover between the summer and winter teams, and a chance to catch up with Al, Lucy, Fran and the carpenters before they jumped on a plane back to New Zealand.
After working so closely with the artefacts in the Reserve Collection at Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, it was breathtaking and inspiring to finally visit the huts themselves and see the context from which they had come. It will also help us during the winter to work out suitable conservation treatments for the artefacts so that they will fit in with the appearance and environment of the huts.
Cape Evans in particular was stunning. Although we were all naturally excited, a hush fell over the group as we entered and moved about the silent rooms. Even if we had no knowledge of the expedition stories, there would still be something truly special about the place.
There was an abundance of artefacts showing the early explorers’ day-to-day life and work, all caught in the suggestive quality of natural light and its shadows. The impression was of abandonment, of its inhabitants having only just upped and left. Only the deterioration attests to the passing of years, and also of the peculiar rigours of the environment. It has impressed on me yet further the importance of the work we are doing and the very great need to get things right.
Fran, Thursday, January 28th, 2010
Wind speed: 0-5 knots
Temp with wind chill: -2°C
Lucy and I are currently onsite at Captain Scott’s 1910 expedition base at Cape Evans where we are working alongside conservation carpenters Gord, Gene and Martin and programme manager Al.
A large part of this season’s work programme is carrying out structural repairs to the stables and latrine area which have been previously damaged due to extreme snow loading.
This has meant emptying the space of all objects to allow unrestricted access to floors, walls and roof. One of the larger objects needing temporary removal was a small stove which would have been fuelled by seal blubber and used by Captain Oates and the others to cook mash for the ponies and pemmican for the dogs.
The stove was resting on the top of a fire-pit; an area distinguished by the arrangement of house bricks into a low wall, and containing a heap of scoria (small pebbles of volcanic rock which surrounds the area), ash, stove parts and associated material. This again had to be carefully deconstructed and moved - a simple enough task until you add ice into the equation!
The stove itself was relatively straightforward to lift out, but the stove base and other parts were firmly welded into frozen scoria. With the aid of melting hoses this was thawed, and Lucy was able to excavate the buried sections.
I then had the task of conserving the parts. Both the stove and its base were in poor condition. It would seem that corrosion had already set in while the stove was still in use, meaning that each time the metal was heated, the corrosion crust got harder. Rust usually forms in layers that are relatively easy to scrape away from the surface, but the resulting deterioration in this instance was a corrosion formation more deeply penetrated, like barnacles on a rock.
As I was chipping away at some collected debris in the recessed trough at the bottom of the vessel, I noticed a distinct colour variation. I presumed I had found some droplets of metal ore, and therefore evidence of metalwork being done on the stove. I was somewhat embarrassed when I explained my ‘find’ to project manager Al, who picked up a piece of scoria from the ground and proceeded to scrub at it, producing the same gold colour! I had previously had no idea that the volcanic stones had metallic properties.
Conserving the stove base was a whole other story! The hardened corrosion and subsequent uneven surface was much the same; the problem here was blubber! Seal blubber had obviously been used as fuel and the whole lower section was caked in encrusted fat. There was even a house brick wedged between the front two legs, held fast by the built up blubber. This meant that the conservation needed to be done as quickly as possible, as the thermal hoses and summer sun were melting the external layers of blubber, turning it into a runny gooey mess with the consistency of tar, (and not the most pleasant smell either!).
Once treated the stove base proved to be a real gem. The iron legs are highly decorative with scrolled casting and claw feet that couldn’t be seen previously under the compacted blubber layers. The standard of the craftsmanship of such a utilitarian object as a stove base being yet another example of the quality of many of the items the explorers brought with them.
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…’
Lizzie, Thursday, January 7th, 2010
After over a month in the field at Cape Evans it’s about time for an update on the season.
Once we get underway and into the summer work programme time flies by very quickly and the outside world recedes somewhat, and only Fran’s Christmas advent calendar marked the passing days.
The first couple of weeks were spent at Shackleton’s 1907 expedition base at Cape Royds. Now that the conservation project there is complete we have begun an annual monitoring and maintenance programme. This year we took an extra week to audit every single artefact in the hut, checking location and description data against the database. It was 2 weeks of complete contrast – from counting artefacts inside, to Condition One storms outside, to calm sunny days filled with Emperor penguins and Lucy scanning the sea for orca fins at every break. Seen once!
After the remote and wildly beautiful environs of Cape Royds, Cape Evans by comparison seemed a most luxurious set up. Our own tents! A conservation lab with solar power! A kitchen wannigan that is not on a slope, and stays warm when the wind goes above 10 knots. And a lot more visitors – Cape Evans is within easy reach of both Scott Base and McMurdo station, and many people make the most of the opportunity to hop on a skidoo, or join a trip to see the historic huts. Many of the visitors are up this way for work reasons – drilling holes in the ice for divers, installing equipment, monitoring weather stations, counting and tagging Weddell seals.
We had a few different tasks over the 3 weeks we spent at Cape Evans. During January there will be building work on the walls and roof of the stables. Fran, Lucy and I moved a lot of very heavy provision crates out of the way of the building work and into a storage container, and also documented and packed all the artefacts in that area. Along the external wall, where a new waterproof membrane will run down the inside of the wall and into the ground, we excavated artefacts at risk of damage during the membrane installation. One of these was the iconic dog skeleton. Chained to the wall sometime in the last few decades, the skeleton has been disintegrating a little more each season as the ice forms and then melts around it. Lucy’s blog describes the dog in more detail.
Meanwhile Fran conserved the historic acetylene plant that provided gas lighting – a tricky job due to some flaky paint and a hard-to-reach back side requiring Fran’s best contortionist skills.
And of course we returned 1300 artefacts to the hut that were conserved over the last year, and collected another 1500 to be conserved over the upcoming winter season at Scott Base.
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!).