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Antarctic conservation

225 Posts authored by: Conservators

Wear Patterns

Posted by Conservators Jul 22, 2012

Author: Susanne Grieve

Date: July 18, 2012

Temperature: -39°C

Wind Speed: 10 knots

Temp with wind chill: -85°C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset N/A


An important part of the conservation of the material culture from the historic huts is maintaining evidence of use. A lot of times, conservators use their own experience to determine how an object was used and identify wear patterns. In many ways this is similar to experimental archaeology where sites or techniques are recreated using techniques that are similar to the methods that people used in the past. A common example of this is the manufacturing of stone tools in which archaeologists try to identify how various stones were knapped by using similar knapping techniques.


In the historic huts we often see a lot of wear patterns with the tools and clothing that early explorers used  since these were utilitarian items that were used until they were worn out or broken. This week I am treating an iron feed box that was used in the stables at Cape Evans. During conservation I noticed that there were several holes in the back panel of the metal in an inconsistent pattern.

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Back panel of the exterior on the pony feed box. Credit: AHT/Susanne


These were obviously intentionally made holes, but didn’t seem consistent with any design or planned placement. During a recent open house one of the Scott Base crew was examining the box, and because of his experience with farming, he thought the holes may have been caused by a pitchfork when the box was filled with feed.


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A pony feed box in situ with a rake at Cape Evans. Credit: AHT/Susanne


Anything that humans use can have wear patterns. Sometimes it is up to the conservator to identify them to aid in the interpretation of the object. What kind of wear patters do the objects you use everyday have?


Meat and Two Veg/Lemons

Posted by Conservators Jul 17, 2012

Author: Stefan

Date: 11 July 2012

Temperature: -22C

Wind speed: 15 Knots

Temp with wind chill: -38C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



Food and drink, fascinating as a standard, becomes that much more intriguing in Antarctica. Deep into the season as we are now, when you consume something you can feel its positive or negative effect almost immediately. Vitamin C and the inclusion of ascorbic acid in the diet are ‘no-brainers’ these days, but frustratingly the battle against scurvy was still dangerously present for both Shackleton and Scott. 


As early as 1614 the East India Company’s pamphlet “The Surgeons Mate” was rightly advising the consumption of citrus fruit as a cure for scurvy. Unfortunately the trade route through the West Indies, and the mass availability of limes, saw to the reducing and boiling down of this potential cure, removing the vitamin C and just souring the taste of an already excruciating death.



Illustration from Henry Walsh Mahon ‘A Case of Scurvy Journal’


It was this confusion which meant that 300 years later the jury was still out for Scott and his men. Thankfully some focus was placed on the possible effect of eating rotten/tinned meat and the wasting effects of scurvy. Hence eat fresh (slightly raw) meat and you’ll be fine (with the raw meat containing the essential vitamins).


Modern day Scott Base is now well out of the grips of scurvy, but we do feel this pinch of cravings for food high in vitamin C. Trips to the lush wilds of McMurdo’s Hydroponics Unit give us a regular fix of green smells. My flat leaf parsley habit is getting way out of control, finger pointing to whom is snaffling the foliage can’t be far off.



Simon inspecting McMurdo Station's 2012 crop


Ice Climbing

Posted by Conservators Jul 16, 2012

Author: Susanne

Date: 4 July 2012

Temperature: -38C

Wind Speed: 10 Knots

Temp with wind chill: -83C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



You would think in the middle of winter with consistently cold temperatures that we wouldn’t go outside unless it was necessary, but everyday we venture out to either perform work duties or for recreation. With the right equipment and safety precautions we can easily spend a few hours outside in -38°C. This week my fellow Scott Base residents and I decided to venture out to try ice climbing in the crevasse simulator that the Search and Rescue team uses for training.


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Crevasse Simulator on the Ice Shelf © Simon


A crew of eight took a Hagglund on to the Ross Ice Shelf for about a 20 minute drive away from Scott Base. Several members of the Search and Rescue team accompanied us and set about rigging up the ropes and anchors. We were all rigged up and fitted with harnesses and then lowered down over the edge for some fun abseiling. Then the time came to climb back up! This was my first time climbing a wall of ice! Using two ice picks and crampons, I slowly eased my way up the wall, really getting a feel for the teeth of my feet and arms gripping in the ice.


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Scott Base crew climbing the Ice wall © AHT/Susanne


While our trip was recreational, I could not help but think of the early explorers and how this experience could have been a part of survival for them. There are a few pairs of crampons in the historic bases and I now have a true appreciation for how they were used!


The previous crevasse training held at Scott Base became very helpful.


Author: Gretel

Date: 3 July 2012

Temperature: -31C

Wind Speed: 10 Knots

Temp with wind chill: -50C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



Conservation isn’t just about cleaning. During the course of conserving an artefact we look for information about its manufacture, history and use. Conservators have to use their skill and judgement when deciding whether to remove material or preserve it.


I was presented with this task recently when I came to conserve an enamelled iron mug. The photograph taken before treatment shows that the mug is both corroded (from the deterioration of the iron) and soiled.

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Enamel mug before conservation treatment


While carefully removing the iron corrosion, without causing damage to the flaking and fragile enamel, I determined that the soiling  inside the cup was evidence of its history of use.  It was in actual fact the ‘tidemark’ left by the last contents of the cup – much like you would get today from an unwashed mug. This evidence was left in-situ to show the use of the mug. Future analysis of the residue could even indicate what the owner of the mug enjoyed the last time this mug was used.


Enamel mug after conservation treatment


Author: Georgina

Date: 27 June 2012

Temperature: -21C

Wind Speed: 10 Knots

Temp with wind chill: -28C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



One of the books this season from Scott’s Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans is unusual amongst the ones I have worked on for having a British Antarctic Expedition bookplate. This seems to suggest that it was somehow formally acquired for the expedition, or belonged to someone in the habit of marking their books this way. Could the use of official stationary indicate that this was Scott’s own copy? It is always tempting to try and ‘place’ an artefact with a specific expedition member (and usually one of the more famous ones), but in reality comparatively few artefacts can ever be positively linked to an individual, and usually only then because it has been signed or had a name tag sewn on.


The book is ‘The Green Flag’ by Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and is a compilation of short stories about army life. Back in England, Captain Scott was a member of Sheringham Golf Club, and it just so happened that the author was a member at the same time too – so presumably they knew each other.  Interestingly, there was also a member there called Moriarty!


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Book after treatment, showing bookplate; British Antarctic Expedition, 1910 © AHT/George


And what about the initials printed in blue ink at the corner of the book plate; ‘R.J.S.’? The only luck I have had so far in finding an R.J.S. in relation to the expedition is Robert Falcon Scott’s cousin; Robert Julian Scott. Born at Plymouth, Devonshire in 1861, Julian later immigrated to New Zealand where he became professor of engineering at Canterbury College in Christchurch. It is known that Scott visited him before heading south.


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Scott's cousin, Robert Julian Scott, lived & worked in Christchurch, NZ


So, in the tradition of the great detectives, has the case of the mystery book been solved? Well, no, not really. The evidence is scant and circumstantial at best, and, for the moment at least, the investigation remains open.


Author: Stefan

Date: 27 June 2012

Temperature: -26C

Wind Speed: 5 knots

Temp with wind chill: -30C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



As a profession, conservators often have a soft spot for certain objects. Many choose the bejeweled glitzy golden things, but I’ve always been fascinated with the craft movement, and anything that combines a beauty of aesthetic and function.


I’m currently conserving a ‘range’ of stove parts from Cape Royds that don’t really typify the style, but definitely the concept of the Craft Movement. During this period, high design and crispness of detail in cast iron was common and expertly executed. It’s depressing these days that little love of artistic expression goes into the design of such utilitarian objects. It’s pretty hard to imagine buying a washing machine that would be jaw droppingly gorgeous, whilst also performing a spin cycle…… if only.

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A few stove parts, awaiting lacquering


It’s pretty sad, but as a conservator you often research incomplete objects in the vain hope that you’re going to find an example of an original, and you often leave the computer/library depressed and empty handed. By extraordinary chance, and little skill, we’ve managed to find an image of an original stove of the exact patent.


Please feast your eyes on the stunning “Model Parlor #2” manufactured by Pratt and Weeks. Made in Boston between 1840-1860, this gothic looking heat emitter, came with a heat control vent to the rear, and a foot rest……these guys really knew what people wanted out of life.

Stove 2.jpg

The original patented stove, in mint condition


In conserving our stove, the smell of golden syrup was thick in the air when removing corrosion. All visible staining has been left intact, but that faint whiff evoked warm memories of Britain and the good life. I imagine a tin or two were being warmed nearby and burst open. A doubtless scalding goof at the time, but well done boys, you made my day.


I implore you, throw out the TV and get a stove with all the trimmings.


Natural Remedies

Posted by Conservators Jun 29, 2012

Author: Susanne

Date: 22 June 2012

Temperature: -28.2C

Wind Speed: 2 knots

Temp with wind chill: -65C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



This week I am conserving some textiles from Cape Evans. Textiles are one of my favourite items to treat because they are familiar and tend to be related to clothing or utilitarian purposes. Therefore, I was completely surprised to find a small playing card shaped textile that was related to medicinal purposes.


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Mustard Plaster © AHT/Susanne


When someone experienced a cut or infection, mustard plasters were used to stimulate healing. They generally consisted of mustard powder (blended with other natural powders such as flour or egg whites) which was packed between two pieces of fabric. This plaster states “Application. Immerse the Sinapism in water for one second only and apply it directly, covering it with a cloth or napkin.” 


This plaster doesn’t appear to have been used, but it is an interesting reflection of some of the early medicinal cures they used. Have you ever used one?


Author: Gretel

Date: 20 June 2012

Temperture: -28C

Wind Speed: 20 knots

Temp with wind chill: -55C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



With only one day to go until the mid-winter solstice, Antarctica is a whirlwind of fun and festivities.


24-hour darkness has been upon us since 20 April when we watched the sun disappear below the horizon, not to be seen again until 19 August. The solstice on 20 June marks the half-way point in our winter so it is widely celebrated by many of the crews at international bases throughout Antarctica.


One of the main ways of celebrating is with a feast of food. Scott Base had an amazing 7 course dinner featuring scallops, venison and chocolate mousse cake to mention but a few.



Scott Base Mid-Winter dinner menu


Another tradition is the polar plunge. A crazy custom whereby participants take the opportunity to jump into the sea through a hole cut through the sea-ice in temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius.


Polar Plunger.jpg

Polar plunger reclines in the freezing waters


We know that these activities go on throughout the Antarctic continent (and are not just confined to crazy Kiwis) as the many international bases send mid-winter greeting e-cards boasting of the delights of their base and mid-winter feast, usually extending an open invitation to all to attend. This irony isn’t lost on those who appreciate that travel to Antarctica is out of the question during the mid-winter (unless it is a question of life or death) so to travel thousands of miles across it is a wistful idea for the sake of attending a mid-winter dinner party.


Drink or Die

Posted by Conservators Jun 18, 2012

Author: Stefan

Date: 7 June 2012

Temperature: -34C

Wind Speed: 17 knots

Temp with wind chill: -55C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



Water melting can be a frustrating chore when out in the field. It seems to be required almost constantly. As our primus stoves are designed to be light weight and small, the water melting pots in turn have a limited capacity. As you might expect Scott and his team at Cape Evans hut had a great many more important things to be filling their time with so a giant water melter was fitted to the central stove, allowing them probably two days grace, before having to shovel in a fresh batch of snow.


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Conservation of Cape Evans snow melter © AHT/ Stefan


In visiting the hut you realise the ribbed cast iron stove is like the heart of the building, and the re-installation of the water melter is going to give a great deal of interpretational focus back to the hut.


Unfortunately the melter had been left outside Cape Evan’s hut for decades and has been badly corroded in the freeze thaw cycles. Although we try to ensure no modern materials are visible in the conservation of these works, it’s necessary to incorporate a mount for the melter (ensuring that the corroded base doesn’t take the weight of the main structure). I’ve currently treated the corrosion, and have fitted a reversible support to the base. The next step will be the creation of a Perspex mount which will slot into the rebate of the base, and allow the sturdy edge of the metal to support the weight. When finished the melter will be re-installed at Cape Evans, and the supports will not be visible.


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Meares at the Pianola, the melter to his left, wired to the stove  © SPRI


Stormy Greetings

Posted by Conservators Jun 15, 2012

Author: Georgina

Date: 6 June 2012

Temperature: -32C

Wind speed: 26 knots

Temp with wind chill: -49C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A


Amongst this season’s artefacts from Scott’s Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans are some commercially produced Christmas cards. Unfortunately, most of these are unused, so it seems they were brought along on the expedition but were never signed and given out.

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Two Christmas cards before and after treatment © AHT/Georgina


Two of the cards, as seen here in the photos, were in very poor condition, with heavy wrinkling and ingrained surface dirt. When the cards were separated and opened, it turned out that one contains handwriting, and had been inscribed from ‘Your Mother, Xmas 1910’.

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Detail showing handwritten inscription © AHT/Georgina


The Terra Nova expedition had set sail from Cardiff, Wales on 15 June 1910; so one imagines that one of the men’s mothers had written them the card before departure, probably with instructions not to open until Christmas day. In the event, a rather uncomfortable Christmas that year was spent on the ship. Still suffering damage from a serious storm at the beginning of the month, the SS Terra Nova had met and been halted by the southern pack ice on 10 December and was unable to break clear for the next 20 days. The delay, which Scott attributed to "sheer bad luck", had consumed 61 tons of coal, whilst the storm had lost 2 ponies, a dog and numerous stores.

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The SS Terra Nova halted by pack ice, photograhed in December 1910 by Herbert Ponting


After cleaning and separating the cards, they were washed in water, and an alkaline buffer imparted to neutralise the natural acids occurring in the paper.  After drying, the paper was humidified and the creases gently eased out before pressing.  Afterwards, the paper and card layers were lined from behind with thin Japanese tissue, whilst all lacunae (holes) were filled in with acid-free paper repair patches toned with acrylic paint to closely match surrounding areas.


Erebus – son of Chaos

Posted by Conservators Jun 13, 2012

Author: Gretel

Date: 30 May 2012

Temperature: -18C

Wind Speed: 20 knots

Temp with wind chill: -40C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A


Scott Base stands in the shadow of Mount Erebus, Antarctica’s southernmost active volcano.  Mount Erebus was discovered on January 27, 1841 (and observed to be in eruption) by polar explorer Sir James Clark Ross who named it after one of his ships. In Greek mythology Erebus was a primordial god of darkness and the son of Chaos – perhaps Sir Ross had this in mind when he named the volcano.


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Erebus Discovered  © State Library of South Australia.

The first ascent of Mount Erebus was made in 1908 during Shackleton’s British Antarctic (Nimrod) Expedition of 1907-1909. On reaching the summit, the party measured the altitude with a hypsometer - a small cylinder in which distilled water is boiled and the temperature measured (as the temperature at which water boils drops with altitude). Meteorological experiments were carried out and rock samples taken. The ascent took 5 days and on return the 6 men were said to be ‘nearly dead’. This was the first ascent of any peak on Antarctica and was made with improvised equipment such as crampons fashioned out of leather and nails.

Today, Mount Erebus is still a feature of attraction for scientists as the most active volcano in Antarctica. The summit has a permanent magma-filled lake, one of only a few in the world. The volcano produces Erebus crystals, which grow in the magma and are ejected during eruptions. So rare are these crystals they are only found in one other place in the world, a long long way away on Mount Kenya.


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Mount Erebus © AHT/Gretel


Crevasse Training

Posted by Conservators Jun 7, 2012

Author:  Susanne Grieve

Date: 29/05/12

Temperature: -16c

Wind Speed: 20 knots

Temp with wind chill: -43c

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A  


Last week, I finished reading the journals of Dr. Edward Wilson and Lt. Birdie Bowers (members of Captain Scott's 1911 expedition). These primary resources can be important for conservators as they describe how certain objects were used and the importance they had to the men. One of the most striking descriptions is when the men fell down crevasses. In one example during the Worst Journey in the World sledging trip, Birdie fell through the ice into a crevasse below and Wilson calmly threw down a rope.


Nowadays, we use numerous safety precautions to ensure that when we are travelling across icy terrain or exploring the landscape that we don’t fall or get injured. Part of training for this environment is to learn how to abseil and climb safely in or out of a crevasse. Among our Scott Base team are several members of the Search and Rescue team, one of which, Jeff, taught us the basics of abseiling.


The Hilary Field Center at Scott Base is the main building that houses field support services and provides a great platform in which to train. After getting safely rigged up, I was ready to make an attempt.


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   Jeff rigging me up safely. © AHT/Susanne


After gently stepping up to the edge (and making sure that Jeff had a good grip on the belay), I turned and leaned back. This is a very strange experience if you have never tried it! Eventually I was able to find a rhythm and the confidence to lower myself down into the open space below.


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Making my way into the void below! © AHT/Susanne


With no where to place my feet, my heart beat was racing! Once I reached the bottom I was thankful that I didn’t have to have my first abseiling experience in a real crevasse like Birdie!


Sleuthing signatures

Posted by Conservators May 28, 2012

Author: Stefan

Date: 24/05/12

Temperature: -12c

Wind Speed: 15  kts

Temp with wind chill: -28c

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset N/A


It’s pretty rare when conserving the objects from Cape Evans to find something that has a personal touch you can pin to one of the shore party with full confidence. Nearly everything has evidence of human interaction but, (as Scott did with Shackleton’s hut) subsequent explorers have moved a great deal of the objects around, making it difficult to have full confidence an item has providence to a particular individual.


In a crate of McDoddie’s dehydrated rhubarb tins, it was immediately obvious that two had been signed with blue crayons (a few of which still lie on Scott’s table). Reading “R F Scott” on one and “Brown” on the other, I got busy rooting through handwriting samples from the expeditions and quickly concluded Bowers signature accurately matched the tin marked “Brown” (thought to refer to Browning, in the northern party). This would make sense as in being the storesmen Bowers would have been most likely to ration and name supplies.But what of the other tin? It’s obviously different handwriting, and does have characteristics both similar and dissimilar to Scott’s signature.


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Tins of dehydrated rhubarb with ‘R F Scott’ and ‘Brown’ written on the label with blue crayon. © AHT/Stefan




Signatures from the Cape Evans shore party


Life in Antarctica doesn’t make solving this conundrum easy. There are numerous reasons why you might not write as you normally would, mental fatigue, lack of hand dexterity in the cold, over compensating in writing clearly to ensure no mistakes were made in rationing etc. I for one believe this is Scott’s handwriting. There were no other ‘Scott’s’ in any of the crews and in wouldn’t come naturally to include ‘R F’ if it was somebody else.


Toothache Plasters

Posted by Conservators May 24, 2012

Author: Georgina

Date: 23/05/12

Temperature: -22c

Wind Speed: 56  kts

Temp with wind chill: -35c

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset N/A


Everyone who comes to Antarctica has to undergo medical testing which includes a full dental assessment so that any necessary work can be carried out before arrival. We have a dentist here during the summer at McMurdo station, but in the winter months there isn’t one, and so toothache is something best avoided!


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Tooth powder. © AHT/Susanne


This season we have had various items from Scott’s Terra Nova hut relating to dental hygiene, including a broken toothbrush (stored in a broken pipe), tooth powder (like tooth paste) and toothache plasters. The plasters are little rubber caps (concave ovals) in a paper/card packet. Their instructions prescribe: 'Place a plaster in position (hollow side toward the gum) directly over the roots of the aching tooth. With a slight pressure of the finger expel the air from under the plaster and it will remain in position. Remove plaster when tooth stops aching.’  


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Packet of Toothache Plasters before conservation. © AHT/Georgina


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After conservation. © AHT/Georgina


Some of the plasters are missing, and it is not clear whether they were used by the British Antarctic Expedition or simply lost. We are also not sure how much relief they could have practically afforded a raging tooth, although by temporarily sealing a cavity from the air, perhaps some. Interestingly, we know that during Shackleton’s aborted attempt on the pole in 1908, the metereologist Jameson Adams was unable to sleep for days from toothache so allowed it to be extracted in the field without equipment or anaesthetic.


As for myself, after experiencing the discomfort of a fractured wisdom tooth during my 2010 season here, I’ll definitely be looking after the pearlies I have left, and so hopefully avoid any more association with either plasters or pliers.



Toothbrush. © AHT/Stefan


Author: Susanne
Date: May 16, 2012
Temperature: -13.4°C
Wind Speed: 9knots
Temp with wind chill: -36°C
Sunrise: N/A
Sunset N/A

Some of the best moments in the lab are when we discover a hidden message or drawing on an object. This week, on what I thought may have been just another tobacco tin, was an advertisement for Albany Cigarettes printed on the back of a cigarette case.

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Albany cigarette advertisement on the back of a tin. Credit: AHT/Susanne


I was curious to know the history of the cigarette company and the details behind the design of the advertisement. The “Albany Cigarette” was made by F.L. Smith Ltd. in London at No. 5 Burlington Gardens. According to this New Zealand cigarette pack below, the Albany Cigarette was first made by hand in the building that is shown above, perhaps by the very dapper gentlemen pictured in front.



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Packaging from the predecessor company to F.L. Smith in New Zealand with the Albany storefront shown. Credit:


A brief search also revealed this letter written by British Captain Edward Hulse in World War I to his mother asking her to obtain the handmade cigarettes: “Please ask F. L. Smith, 12 Burlington Gardens (Albany Cigarette people) to send me twice a week a box of 25 of the cigarettes which they supply me with generally.” Source:

It is often these small connections that are provided by material culture that reflect the greater stories of heroism from the exploration of Antarctica to the battlefields of World War I.


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