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Antarctic conservation

225 Posts authored by: Conservators

Passing Through

Posted by Conservators Jul 8, 2014

Author: Stefanie White

Date: 25t June 2014

Temperature: -22.4 degrees celcius

Wind Speed: 7.7 kts 40 NE

Temp with wind chill: -31.7 degrees celcius

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A


Passing through the conservation laboratory at Scott Base is a memorable and extraordinary experience. There is continuously a spectacular display of different objects in various stages of conservation treatment.

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Working Lab

One bench displays the mid-treatment of metal food liners and boxes, another bench reveals 32 ration bags filled with cocoa powder, flour, cereals and curry powder and another bench modestly exhibits penguin skeletons.

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Sledging ration bags containing cocoa powder, cereals, flour and spices

Every day each one of us is presented with challenges and discussion in material science and the conservation of such objects. Meg is currently conserving a wooden tent frame, 2 penguin skeletons and a box of cement for a seismograph.

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Meg conserving two Penguin skeletons

Sue is carrying out the conservation treatment of an iron alloy supply box filled with sugar cubes that are largely dissolved and recrystallized into a solid mass, and I am working on the 32 ration bags, a wooden stool and lead bucket with layers of paint on its surface.

Looking around the lab today it reminds me of how fortunate object conservators are to work on such a large and varied selection of materials.

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Stefanie conserving Lead bucket and Sue conserving sugar in metal liner.


Author: Meg Absolon

Date: 02/07/2014

Temperature: -28 degrees Celcius

Windspeed: 0kts

Temperature with Wind Chill: -28 degrees Celcius

Sunrise: NA

Sunset: NA



Let there be light… and heat!

The flick of the switch is usually all it takes for us to enjoy a good read on the couch in a warm room on a cold winter evening. There may be a wood fire or central heating, an electric blanket, underfloor heating or even a lovely heated towel rack in the bathroom. A microwave is a handy way to warm the hot chocolate and the light dimmers can create some ambiance. And everything smells as good as the roast that comes out of the oven. Ahhh…

Back to reality. Lucky for me, my reality is most of the above combined with corrosion removal during the day. And I've just completed conserving a fabulous large Homelight Lamp Oil fuel can from Discovery Hut which was a provision of the British Antarctic Expedition.

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Homelight Lamp Oil can


The same brand of oil was also sent down in this beautiful wooden box.


Wooden Box.JPG

Wooden Box


I've also recently worked on small oil cans containing oil in remarkably good condition. There were many types of oils and fuels, including calcium carbide for acetylene lighting, brought down on the historic expeditions to create heat and light for the long winters, with seal blubber as the final resort.


Small Oil can.JPG

Small Oil can

At Scott Base today we have all the heat and lighting required to live an exceptionally comfortable winter existence provided mostly by diesel fuel generation with an impressive 22% of delivery by wind power. Plus a toasty gas powered 'log' fire to read Scott's Journal in front of.




Posted by Conservators Jun 25, 2014

Author: Sue Bassett

Date: 18 June 2014

Temperature: -31°C

Wind speed: 15 knots

Temperature with wind speed: -46°C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



Midwinter is upon us, for those in the southern hemisphere at least. For those of us in Antarctica, midwinter is traditionally a time of celebration and feasting. We've reached our shortest day—our darkest day—and now we move towards the return of the light and the return of the sun in a couple of months' time. Definitely a milestone to be celebrated!


But where did this 'tradition' begin, on a continent with a very short history? Certainly not with the members of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition who, in 1898, became the first expeditioners to winter in Antarctica after being trapped in the ice aboard their ship 'Belgica'. For them it was all doom and gloom, with tales of 'dreary, cheerless days', of hardship, extreme discontent, illness and tragedy. Midwinter was described as 'the darkest day of the night; a more dismal sky and a more depressing scene could not be imagined'. And, to add 'another cloud to the hell of blackness', their beloved cat, Nansen, succumbed to the long darkness at midwinter, and died.


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Nansen, the 'Belgica' cat


The midwinter tradition should probably be credited to Robert Falcon Scott, who on his first expedition just four years later describes the festivities of midwinter 1902 in some detail. There were decorations 'with designs in coloured papers and festooned with chains and ropes' and 'the tables were loaded with plum puddings, mince pies, and cakes'. There were speeches, presents, sing-songs, champagne, and great revelry, with which, Scott records, 'we agreed that life in the Antarctic regions was worth living'.


As we at Scott Base hung the decorations, opened gifts and tucked into our 9-course midwinter dinner, shared with some good friends from neighbouring McMurdo Station, we couldn't have agreed more. Salute!


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Scott Base midwinter dinner 2014


Recently, a nice coincidence occurred in the lab while we were beginning conservation work on a new series of objects from the collection at Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Hut at Hut Point.

As I was documenting this French cognac bottle,

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Picture of  French cognac bottle, before treatment.

My colleague Sue, object conservator, came to me with an unidentifiable paper fragment that she found in one of the objects she was treating (a billy, repurposed from a food tin by a member of Captain Scott's party). As the paper conservator of the team, I am in charge of the conservation of every paper artefact.

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Picture of a billy, where the paper fragment was found.


But how big was my surprise when I realised that this fragment of paper was actually the missing part of the label from this bottle!

What are the chances of that happening? How incredible is it that on this particular day I actually had on my bench the bottle from which this paper fragment originated? Especially when you consider that 50 artefacts pass through the lab each week, every week! Thanks to this coincidence, we have been able to re-assemble and give back to an artefact a part of its history and identity that had been lost.

During the last 100 years, the environmental conditions within the huts have been harsh and damaging to the paper objects. Sometimes parts are lost, as the paper is very light and becomes very brittle and fragile in this environment. I felt a great sense of satisfaction in being able to re-construct the label on this bottle and keep its history and memory intact.


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Picture of a French cognac bottle, after treatment.


Author: Stefanie White

Date: 11 June 2014

Temperature: -22.4C

Wind Speed: 7.7 knots 40 NE

Temp with wind chill: -31.7C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



My grandmother, my mother and even my best friend have been heard announcing the old view that 'you can tell a man by his shoes' implying that shoes can portray a man's moral character. Today that view may be mostly obsolete, especially in the Antarctic.


In the Antarctic, where there is little room for fashionable and aesthetic footwear, our shoes and boots are practical. Designed for Extreme Cold Weather, they are big, sometimes knee high, and insulated with high soles and thick layers of fleece. With wear and tear, we repair them and with decreasing temperature and new demands, we alter them.

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Meg, Sue, Stefanie and Aline with their Extreme Cold Weather boots


This was also the case for Scott and his men. They patched, re-stitched and altered their boots often adding hobnails to increase grip for walking on ice and stuffing insulating sennegrass inside to help overcome freezing temperatures.


One may interpret that these men stayed true to their old boots, maintaining and caring for them. These men were professional and practical yet display chaotic domestic habits in the scruff and buildup of dirt on the boot soles. Perhaps, pronate distortions in the boots tell that they were sometimes stressed and exhausted with sore and cold feet.

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Above and below: Historic boots from Cape Evans with additional Sennegrass inside and hobnails in sole

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It was sometimes the case that the historic explorers wore less practical and fancier shoes. Uncovered from under Wilson's bed, in Scott's Terra Nova Hut at Cape Evans, a black patent leather pomp, with a decorative grosgrain bow, was found. This rather fancy shoe is completely unsuitable for the harsh Antarctic conditions and may perhaps lend a tale about a man's more sensitive character. The owner of this shoe was a man with grounded feet; a man with a sense of vanity, style and perhaps even artistic humour.

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Black patent pump or court shoe with decorative ribbon


Overall, we can be sure of one thing: Practical and durable boots are a necessity for surviving the harsh Antarctic conditions and equally as important is  the superficial and impractical accessory that can sometimes lift a man's moral and make him feel at home.


Author: Stefanie White

Date: 27 May 2014

Temperature: -13

Wind speed: 20 / 18 kts

Temp with windchill: -25

Sunrise: 9.30am

Sunset: 3.38pm



The Ross Sea Party of Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) is one of the most fascinating groups of explorers to stay at, and make extensive use of, Discovery Hut. Their mission was to lay depots to aid Shackleton's planned traverse of Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to Ross Island via the South Pole. After laying depots, one group waited over two months at Discovery Hut for the sea ice to harden so to be able to walk back to Cape Evans and join the rest of the team. During these months the stranded men recovered from ill health and as they were also ill-equipped, improvised games and made tools out of salvaged materials.


Lamps that were made out of old food tins and fueled with seal blubber offered 'a flickering glimmer of light in the dark interior'.


Discovery Hut was an important staging post for the Ross Sea Party. Stranded inexperienced men with inadequate equipment and a determination to complete their mission were forced to improvise clothing and equipment in order to survive. Some of these artefacts are currently in the lab. 


Clothing was repaired with materials and fabrics salvaged from inside the hut.


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Jacket worn and heavily repaired by a member of the Ross Sea Party


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An Improvised snow shoe made out of a plywood supply box


Snowshoes were made out of plywood from Venesta supply boxes that, in the example above, originally contained Spratt's Special Cabin Biscuits. The resourcefulness, creativity and determination of the Ross Sea Party is seen every day in the lab as we continue to conserve artefacts from Discovery Hut.



Macro Magic Moments

Posted by Conservators May 20, 2014

Author: Meg Absolon

Date: 20 May 2014

Temperature: -38.2

Wind speed: 10kts

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



As AHT conservators we're always marvelling, ooh and aaahing at objects from Discovery Hut as they pass over our work benches. In many cases we can directly identify what we're working on as the same object shown in the historic photographs. There are many iconic objects from Discovery Hut which give the viewer a strong sense of connection to the heroic expeditions, particularly objects that are complete or in surprisingly good condition.


Such objects include cooking pots, hand-made tools and clothes, shoes and long-johns and beautiful boxes of Fry's cocoa tins. Working close-up with objects gives an altogether different experience and connection with these objects. As you document, repair or prepare surfaces at close range the finer details of the materials, use or re-use becomes apparent. The beautiful patina or severe delaminating corrosion that develops on metal that has been sitting in the Hut for over 100 years;  the stitch pattern on a home-altered mitten; or the cutting and reshaping of bits and pieces to form an object for which purpose we may never be too sure. It’s this type of detail which sparks the imagination and appreciation for beauty in the macro world. To me this is just as rewarding as seeing the objects in the broader picture. Who had a hand at this object? Who lit this burnt-out match? Whose ideas transformed the object in front of me?


On the rusted metal edging of a biscuit supply box I recently worked on I happened to notice the stamped letter 'B' in the rivets securing it to the box. No more than 3mm's it seemed like a little gem among the rust.

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'B' Rivet



I'm currently working on a Nansen cooker, a type of aluminium cooking pot system designed to work with a spirit fuelled primus stove, and whilst removing corrosion realised that the scrape marks on the side of the pot were left there by the last cook. Who was the last person to cook that day? How awful was the concoction and how hungry were they?


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Scrape the pot


Then to the small and sweet. This tiny stamped markers mark, The Gutta Percha Company London, is all but 10mm across on a sweet little bottle only 12cm high. In the age of big bold logos this is a refreshing company sign.

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The Gutta Percha Company


I'll continue to look out for more magical macro moments and keep you posted.


Celebrating Easter

Posted by Conservators May 6, 2014

Author: Aline Leclercq

Date: 23/04/14

Temperature: -26 degrees

Wind speed: 11 mph

Temp with wind chill: - 38 degrees

Sunrise: 11.42am

Sunset: 2.00pm



The week before Easter in the Antarctic Heritage Trust lab, I had been working on chocolate. Not because I was excited about Easter and hoping to get the traditional magical chocolates, but because a wooden box of Fry's Cocoa tins came into the conservation lab for treatment. A large paper label remains on the side of the box, still clean and brightly coloured, an element that usually disappears because of age and weather conditions. The five tins inside were in good condition and unopened, still full of their contents.

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Box of Frys Cocoa tins (side 1)  before treatment

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Box of Frys Cocoa tins (side 2) before treatment


Captain Scott’s National Antarctic Expedition brought quite a lot of cocoa to Antarctica in 1901, as a healthy and also sweet, delicious drink. It is true that chocolate is very enjoyable, especially when you are in this climate and landscape. It seems that the explorers were consuming cocoa often, and having chocolate during Easter made me think about them, how a simple drink or meal can become a golden distraction and delicacy!

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Tins of Frys Cocoa


For Easter at Scott Base we all wrote clues for each other and Sunday was animated by people running from one side to another, hunting for their eggs. I really enjoyed this way of combining a social event with all the team down here and to remember what is happening in the "real world"! Finding our chocolate eggs at the end of the game was delightful! And it made this sweet very special.


Open Water

Posted by Conservators Apr 15, 2014

Author: Sue Bassett

Date: 09/04/2014

Temperature: -24 degrees C

Windspeed: None

Temperature with wind chill: -24 degrees C

Sunrise: 0905

Sunset: 1643


One of the highlights (so far) of this winter on the ice has been, without doubt, the opportunity to observe the effects of having open water in front of Scott Base. Usually a year-round frozen ice shelf, the open water has brought some spectacular sea mists and not just the usual populations of Weddell seals and Adelie penguins, but large numbers of killer whales and Emperor penguins (and even the occasional cruise ship!) … to literally right outside our windows. Beats television!

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Morning sea mist


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A cruise ship takes advantage of the open water to take a closer look at Scott Base



Each day we have had the pleasure of watching a group of about 50 Emperors (all adolescent males, I'm told) huddle, fish, play, squawk, dive and scoot around (belly down) on the ice edge. And occasionally they'll take a long walk across the ice to what seems like nowhere in particular, usually in single file and in a very determined fashion, only to huddle for a while before returning again by foot or from beneath the ice through an open pool or crack. But, alas, as we head into our last fortnight of daylight before the austral winter darkness sets in, the sea now looks to have frozen over and, sadly for us (and perhaps also for them, as they may have been equally fascinated by the behaviours of Scott Base residents) the last of the Emperors have walked off … to somewhere else.

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Off for a walk


Author: Meg Absolon

Date: 02/04/2014

Temperature: -34 degrees celcius

Wind speed: 0 knots

Temperature with wind chill: -34 degrees celcius

Sunrise: 0926

Sunset: 1826


Oh the frustration of losing things. It's a bit late for the owner now but it's nice to have found his second sock. Of course it couldn't have been in the washing machine, and it wasn't under the bed. It was in fact under the floorboards of Discovery hut. Why and how did it get there is anyone's guess. The magical mystery of missing things may never be understood. Interestingly though, the sock was also under the floorboards with other objects including empty ration bags, twine and cordage, a dust-brush, sardine can and safety pin.



Second sock


The objects were recovered from under the floor by the outgoing AHT summer team who were undertaking structural stabilisation work on the hut which involved lifting some of the floorboards. So how did these objects manage to find their way there? Of course we can only speculate but it's likely they were simply swept into a hole in the floor which had been created by the Ross Sea Party.

The empty ration bags are unmarked and so we can't ever know what meal they contributed to. One of the bags is still tied at the top and ripped open down the side. One appears to be covered in cocoa and white crystalline grains, perhaps sugar. Taste testing is not advised for obvious reasons. Others contain a soft waxy substance also of unknown identity. I'm curious as to what they actually contained and what the men were up to on the day they emptied those bags. The image below shows the ration bags drying after being washed to remove damaging acids and salts. All stains, soot and contents are retained as important historic information.



Ration bags drying


Another interesting part of the underfloor assemblage of objects is a beautifully retained length of twined rope with a particularly strong smell. The smell isn't altogether unpleasant but it's distinctive as you open the door to the workspace each morning. The smell is very similar to pine tar which was used to saturate hemp fibres for pre-prepared wooden ship caulking, which is likely the purpose of this rope.




It's been an interesting week contemplating the discarded or lost objects under the hut and I wonder if the loss of that sock was ever of torment to its owner.


Author: Aline Leclercq

Date: 26/03/2014

Temperature: -25 degrees celcius

Wind Speed: 20 knots

Temperature with Wind Chill: -40 degrees celcius

Sunrise: 08.21

Sunset: 19.34


A paper conservator back in Spain, I arrived in the Antarctic knowing that the artefacts I would be working on for the Antarctic Heritage Trust would be very different to the European manuscripts I am used to.

Last week I had a very good example of the challenge that represents the conservation of a paper artefact here. Two wads of paper arrived on my bench in such bad condition that all the fragments of pages were stuck together. 




Before treatment artefacts


The challenge that I was presented with was multiple; being able to understand its structure, identity, history and devise a conservation plan appropriate to the context of Scott's Discovery Hut, where the items were found. The paper was very fragile and the shape it arrived in was the result of degradation. Moreover, I had to make the correct decision about the presentation of the artefact after treatment, for its return to Discovery Hut.



Aline treating the paper fragments


Sharing opinions and knowledge with my colleagues was very beneficial as well and together we made a decision. I discovered that the fragments were from two different newspapers, one unidentifiable and the other one from a British newspaper called 'The Review of Reviews' published in July 1893. Thanks to this information and the known history of Discovery Hut (built by Scott and his party in 1902 but where various expeditions also spent time), we decided to keep the artefact folded so as to not intervene with the shape in which it was found, but rather to access as much information contained within the pages themselves through the conservation treatment. 


After treatment artefacts


Author: Stefanie White

Date: 19th March 2013

Temperature: -14.0 degrees celcius

Wind Speed: 5/8 knts

Temp with Wind Chill: -21 degrees celcius

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A


In Discovery Hut there is a bed (or sleeping platform) that is composed of a section of tongue and groove, originally from the ceiling of the hut itself and positioned on supply boxes beside the stove area. The area surrounding the stove became a cozy den for several desperate explorers seeking security from the harsh Antarctic environment. In the words of Dick Richards of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party (Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917): The hut may have been a dark cheerless place but to us it represented security. We lived the life of troglodytes. We slept in our clothes in old sleeping bags which rested on planks raised above the floor by wooden provision cases.


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Bed platform and sleeping aea in the hut. Credit: Stefanie White.



Before returning to Scott Base this week, Meg and I completed the conservation of the supply boxes that raised the bed. After many hours working in the soot and seal blubber drenched dark room, we learned how to overcome the difficulties working in the cold and dark of the hut. We wore leather padded gloves as opposed to nitrile gloves, which freeze immediately in cold environments. We wore Extreme Cold Weather gear and head lamps as opposed to our white lab coats and magnifying bench lights. We also defrosted ice to wash our tools and hands on the stove that we light every morning in our working container nearby.


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Stefanie conserving the area under the bed platform in the sleeping area beside the stove.

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Area under bed platform mid treatment.

We devised a method to systematically map each piece of the bed platform so that upon their return after conservation our interference left minimal mark. As well as leaving minimum traces of our presence in the hut, by taking back all of our equipment and waste to Scott Base every night we also left no trace in the environment.


A Date with Google

Posted by Conservators Mar 20, 2014

Author: Sue Bassett

Date: 12 March 2013

Temperature: -25 degrees celcius

Wind speed: 20 knots

Temperature with wind chill: -41 degrees celcius

Sunrise: 06.39

Sunset:  21:21



The world has changed exponentially since I began my professional life as an archaeologist… back in the olden days when hardcopy books and journals were our main sources of information. One of the more remarkable changes is without doubt the access we now have to information on pretty much everything, via the internet. A good example occurred this week as I was treating artefacts from Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery hut, down here at Scott Base. The hut was constructed in 1902 by Scott's 1901–04 expedition, was used a number of times by Shackleton's 1907–09 expedition, used for periods by Scott's 1910–13 expedition, and again by Shackleton's depot-laying Ross Sea Party in 1915–16. The US Navy was next to visit in the late 1940s, a US research base grew alongside it from the 1950s, and a group of NZ volunteers carried out some restoration work in the early '60s, and fitted a lock to the building for the first time. So there is a long history of activity in and around the hut, which was found filled with snow and ice on several occasions, and emptied. Artefacts that remain there today could date from any of the 'heroic-era' periods of use or subsequent visits, so it's interesting to ponder how and when an artefact came to be there … and particularly satisfying to discover some evidence of its age. An object I was working on this week revealed just such information, with more than a little help from Google. It was a Primus stove made by a Swedish company, and now covered with a thick layer of black soot from Discovery hut's seal-blubber stove, suggesting it dated from one of the early expeditions. Whilst stabilising the corrosion, I discovered a small letter 'D' stamped in the base beneath the soot layer, and a quick search revealed that, from 1911, Primus stoves made by this company were stamped with a letter to indicate their year of manufacture! How convenient is that?!




So this one was made in 1914 … after Scott but in the same year that Shackleton's Ross Sea Party was stocking the refitted SY Aurora in Australia in preparation for laying supply depots for Shackleton's unsuccessful Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in Endurance. Aurora took on supplies in Sydney and then more in Hobart before heading south in late December of 1914. So this Primus, brand spanking new at that time, almost certainly made its way from Sweden to Australia to be procured by the expedition in either Sydney or Hobart, travelled to Antarctica on Aurora, and was used in the hut by the Ross Sea Party. Cool! And that was revealed in just a few short minutes from the comfort of Scott Base, on the ice, via satellite. Whatever did we do before Google … or modern technology, for that matter?


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Dog biscuits

Posted by Conservators Mar 6, 2014

Auhtor: Megan Absolon

Date: 07/03/14



I’ve been very fortunate since arriving on the Ice to be working in the on-site conservation laboratory at Hut Point, which is situated directly behind Scott’s Discovery Hut (1901-04). Stefanie and I have been conserving food boxes from an internal wall made from stacked supply boxes. This wall was built during Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition (1907-09) when they used Discovery Hut as a staging point for depot laying. The Hut is described by various expeditioners as a dark and cold place to spend time and Shackleton’s men wished to enclose a cosy space around the stove to make the quarters more habitable. The supply boxes used were predominately Special Cabin Biscuits and Special Dog Biscuits made by Spratts Patent Limited of London, who also supplied the army and navy.

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Meg documenting the supply box wall


Every time we walk into the Hut we get the chance to imagine the many stories and desperate situations the men who passed through Discovery Hut experienced.  It’s incredibly exciting conserving the boxes that make up the internal wall in the Hut as we discover new and different details every day.

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Special Dog Biscuit Box


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Box with paw print


Dogs are also part of the amazing history of the Hut, with Scott taking 23 dogs for hauling sledges on his National Antarctic Expedition. In 1908, during Shackleton’s Expedition, three puppies ended up at Hut Point. It was decided to leave the puppies in the Hut for nearly a month while depots were laid for Shackleton’s push to the Pole. Dr Eric Marshal recorded that 24lbs of mutton was chopped up for the puppies as well as dog biscuits and snow left for their survival. The men returned to find the puppies had eaten all the mutton but not the biscuits.


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Tom Crean, with a litter of sledge dog puppies


The highlight of my week was discovering two puppy paw prints inside one of the boxes. The prints were made from seal blubber which was throughout the Hut at the time as it was used as fuel for cooking and warmth. Dogs are no longer allowed in Antarctica but we’d still love to have one to play with.


Top memories

Posted by Conservators Feb 27, 2014

Author: Aline Leclercq

Date: 28/02/14


This is my first time in Antarctica, and since I have been here, each day is more surprising than the day before. After two weeks of getting to know the new lifestyle and the objectives of the paper conservation work, I went last week for an evening walk. Two friends from Scott Base working for Antarctica New Zealand came with me. We were enjoying the sun and the weather, still warm at the end of the summer (already -15 ⁰C). Walking here means being well covered especially because of the wind and the temperature, but the landscape and the silence around are very special.

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The cross at the top of Observation Hill last Friday


We went up Observation Hill, between Scott Base and McMurdo Station, where a cross was erected in 1913 in memory of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his party who died on their return from the South Pole the previous year. Because of the difficulty of the path to the top, and the surrounding landscape, reaching the top and arriving at the cross was a very moving experience for me … I realised the danger and the exceptional lives of these men, who came to Antarctica more than a century ago.


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My bench at work with artefacts in conservation treatment


After having spent my first week on the conservation of artefacts that represent their quotidian life in the Antarctic in Scott's Discovery Hut—their food, their tools, their clothes, etc.—and getting to the cross, I had a completely different feeling about these artefacts and realised in a very concrete manner the exceptional qualities of these men. Top view, top memories …

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