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Cooking on blubber

Fran, Thursday 28 January 2010

Temperature: -1°C
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.

Captain Scott's 1910 base at Cape Evans.  The stables and latrine area are in the foreground. © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Captain Scott’s 1910 base at Cape Evans. The stables and latrine area are in the foreground. © Antarctic Heritage Trust

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 in use in the stables around 1911 © Scott Polar Research Institute

The stove in use in the stables around 1911 © Scott Polar Research Institute

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.

Fran looking glam in her conservation gear © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Fran looking glam in her conservation gear © Antarctic Heritage Trust

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.

Up close and personal - Fran working on the stove © Antarctic Heritage Trust

Up close and personal - Fran working on the stove © Antarctic Heritage Trust

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.

One Response to “Cooking on blubber”

  1. Cat Rushmore says:

    I didn’t know volcanic stones had metallic properties either. It sounds like a lovely stove, without the old blubber. The British Library have put a new virtual book online, extracts from the 1911 Antarctice expedition.

    http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/virtualbooks/index.html#

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