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Antarctic conservation

68 Posts tagged with the artefacts tag

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.

Image 1.JPG

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.

Image 2.JPG

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.

Image 4.JPG

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.

Homelight Lamp Oil can.JPG

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.



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: 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?


Sue (bright+contrast).jpg


Bowers' Annex

Posted by Conservators Jun 17, 2013

Author: Jamie Ward

Date: 12/06/2013

Temperature: -27.7 degrees celcius

Wind Speed: 22 knots

Temperature with wind chill: -45 degrees celcius

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A


For the members of Scott's Terra Nova expedition, the hut at Cape Evans provided a warm, secure shelter. But the fact that it had to also accommodate all their food and equipment, whilst at the same time maintaining a useable living space, meant that space was always at a premium.


Beginning the excavation of the south wall of theTerra Nova hut..jpg

Beginning the excavation of the south wall of the Terra Nova hut


Luckily, both wooden food boxes and to a lesser extent the horses' fodder bales, provided a ready supply of regular building blocks from which extensions to the hut could be created. With the addition of roofs made from surplus timbers, the remains of packing crates, and a final covering of roofing felt and canvas, stables were fabricated and Bowers' Annex was built against the southern wall of the hut to store much of the expedition food. At around 25kg each, neatly stacked Colman's flour boxes, produced excellent external walls, strong and heavy enough to resist the worst of the Antarctic weather.


The remains of Bowers' Annex.jpg

The remains of Bower's Annex


A few years ago, the remnants of the Annex were excavated from solid ice, beneath a deep snow drift and the remaining badly deteriorated boxes were carefully removed to Scott Base for conservation. After over three months' work, this task is now complete and a total of 79 boxes, most still with their original contents, will return home to Cape Evans this coming summer. 


Restored flour boxes.jpg

Conserved Colmans flour boxes - JW. New timber weathers to silvery grey over a few years.



Author: Marie

Date: 09/05/2013

Temperature: -25 degrees C

Wind Speed: 10 knots

Temp with wind chill: -30 degrees C

Sunrise: n/a

Sunset: n/a


Light is life, and so is poetry. I had this very simple thought slowly building up in my mind throughout this week.


We walk out of the night on Sundays. A few weeks ago, we were walking to see, between two nights, an inch of blue sky, we were looking at appearing light from under an ice roof; Now, we walk again, just to stare at the white hidden into the complete darkness.


An inch of blue sky, a glance into a Velasquez book by the fireplace, poems on Auroras that Jaime translated, the Aurora I saw last night, and then this morning a question: what I am going to write on? What's really meaningful here? All these precious moment merged into evidence. We're living here, as anywhere, out of light and words. There are just different lights and different words.



Blue light through the ice


Our flashes of light are made of moon rays on the ice shelf, our city's lamps are hanging from the stars in faded green auroral curtains and the sunray touching one's hand has been swapped for an electric sparkle.



Enlighten cities of ice


From all over the world, we're here sharing our songs and our slangs, we remember Italian and Greek, comment on English Latin roots and on Verlaine's lover.

Here we live and that's how we stand.


Author: Stefanie

Date: 29/05/2013

Temperature: -27 degrees C

Wind Speed: 10/13 kts

Temp with wind chill: -55 degrees C

Sunrise: n/a

Sunset: n/a



The environment in Antarctica is extremely dry. It is an average of 18% Relative Humidity in the lab at Scott Base and while the development of corrosion on metal artefacts is inhibited, the dry humidity is not so kind to organic materials. Great effort is made to prevent paper artefacts from curling during their treatments and to introduce a degree of humidity to aid the treatment of organic objects. A humidity chamber is normally constructed for this purpose:



Humidity chamber constructed by Stefan and Jam for the treatment of leather harnesses.


We also suffer the consequences of the dry environment and continuously strive to remain hydrated by drinking copious amounts of water. Our water bottles have become permanent accessories. Moisturisers and silicon barrier creams are found distributed throughout Scott Base to help combat flaking skin and cracking fingers. Some people apply sticky tape around their fingers to prevent their skin from completely splitting, some apply eye-drops daily and everyone is seen applying lip balm regularly. And so, one very memorable Sunday, we constructed our own humidity chamber. Rain was made by spraying a room down with pressure water and for a few glorious hours we basked in rain, puddles and high humidity… 


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Humidity Chamber constructed by Mike for the treatment of Scott Base staff.


A Stitch in Time

Posted by Conservators Jun 6, 2013

Author: Stefan

Date: 29/05/2013

Temperature: -27 degrees C

Windspeed: 10kts

Temp with wind chill: -39 degrees C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A


It's been a particular pleasure this season to see some iconic pieces of the expeditioner's clothing pass through the conservation lab at Scott Base. It was noticeable last season that many of the gents clothing companies who had originally supplied the Terra Nova crew, were dedicating there AW2012 season to the heroic age. And a 100yrs of their own heritage.


Although companies such as Wolsey, Burberry, and Jaeger ran with collections that were heavily themed with clothes of the expeditions, one designer took it a step further and produced a limited edition range which celebrated individual garments attributed to shore party members. i.e. P O Evans's Jacket, and Charles Wright's Balaclava etc.



Nigel Cabourn's 'Henry Bowers Deck Jacket' Credit: Nigel Cabourn


Nigel Cabourn (the designer wrote this about his work) "As a designer whose collections are inspired by history and real vintage clothing, my visit to the Polar Institute inspired me to base my AW12 collection on Scott and his team as a dedication to their fantastic feat. The wealth of information I found at the Institute spurred on my inspiration to create 12 individual garments that represent the achievements of Scott and his team on their last expedition"



Nigel Cabourn's 'P.O. Evans Expedition Smok' Credit: Nigel Cabourn


Additonal item photos available here:


The collection is a very beautiful tribute to the men, and even though single garments run into the thousands of pounds, I think I may be treating myself to a winter coat when I return home if there are any still available. Happy shopping.


Pony Snowshoes

Posted by Conservators May 28, 2013

Author: Sue

Date: 22 May 2013

Temperature: -26 degrees C

Wind Speed: 25 knots

Temp with wind chill: -44 degrees C

Sunrise: n/a

Sunset: n/a


When it comes to working with historical material that is only 100 years old, most things we recognise at least by function, if not from our own lives and times, then perhaps from those of our grandparents.


When reading Captain RF Scott's journals from his last expedition (1910 until his untimely death in 1912), he makes a number of references to the Norwegian snowshoes they took along for their ponies. The ponies hauled the heavy loads as he and his team erected their hut at Cape Evans and laid food and fuel depots southwards towards the Pole. Click here to see a photo of Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard with their ponies, 1911.  http://


When they first trialled a pair of the snowshoes, on a pony they named Weary Willy, Scott wrote: 'The effect was magical. He strolled around as though walking on hard ground in places where he floundered woefully without them'. Scott offers nothing by way of a description but records that many a discussion was had over the snowshoes' efficacy and design.


Not being a person with much horse or snow experience, I imagined these snowshoes to be quite basic and to look something like a plate or a tennis racquet. My first glimpse of one was during my visit to Scott's hut where a couple hang on the wall of the stables and others fill some nearby boxes. (A quick search of our project database reveals there are 44 pony snowshoes at the Cape Evans hut.)


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Pony showshoes on the wall of the stables, Cape Evans (SB)


A stash of pony snowshoes in a stall of the stables, Cape Evans (SB)


And then we were fortunate to have six come through the lab recently for conservation treatment, allowing closer examination. They truly are expertly crafted with a base of coiled cane, bound neatly with copper wire, around a framework of iron links. A leather-wrapped fibre upper fits around the hoof and a buckled strap or woven tie attaches around the ankle ... probably not the most comfortable of winter attire, but splendidly made nonetheless!

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Norwegian pony snowshoe from Cape Evans (Marie-Amande) Photo credit H Ponting, SPRI.#


Boots and Grass

Posted by Conservators May 22, 2013

Author: Stefanie

Date: 15/05/2013

Temperature: -31 degrees celcius

Wind Speed: 350/1 kts

Temperature with wind chill: -39 degrees celcius

Sunrise: n/a

Sunset: n/a


Sometimes we encounter the most unexpected surprises during a conservation treatment and expose a piece of history that is really quite special. Recently, two dry, stiff and distorted pieces of Reindeer fur that were labelled "mitten" and "fragment" arrived in the lab as two separate objects.


Before treatment of fragment.jpg

   Before Treatment of fragment   

Before treatment of Mitten.jpg                                                  

  Before Treatment of Mitten


The treatment of the objects involved the slow humidification of the fur and the even slower and more cautious reshaping of each object until their original shape was revealed. It slowly became apparent that first impressions (as well as labels) were misleading and the objects were neither a mitten nor a fragment, but a complete pair of fur boots. The matching fur boots present a fine example of Finnesko (a thermal boot made of tanned reindeer skin with the outside fur).


After Treatment of Finnesko.JPG

  After Treatment of Finnesko


Inside the boots sennegrass was also revealed. Sennegrass, a sedge (carex vesicaria) from Northern Europe, was used to insulate boots by carefully arranging the grass around ones feet and toes. By the time Scott and his men set about their expedition, the use of sennegrass to insulate footwear was already a long standing tradition. Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink tells us:


"if you get wet feet while wearing the grass in the 'komager" (Finnesko) you will be warmer than ever, as the fresh grass will, by the moisture and the heat of your feet, in a way start to burn or produce its own heat by spontaneous combustion. The great thing seems to be to arrange the grass properly in the boots..."


And so with what first appeared to be a fur mitten and fragment we discovered a very fine example of a pair of Finnesko with sennegrass contents.


Lord of the Flies/Ski's

Posted by Conservators May 16, 2013

Author: Stefan

Date: 08/05/2013

Temperature: -40 degrees C

Wind speed: 5 knots

Temp with wind chill: -51 degrees C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A


One of the most fascinating personnel choices for the Cape Evans shore party was one Tryggve "Trigger" Gran. In reading Gran's diary and that of the other members of the expedition, it became very obgious that a great frustration is held between him, and a number of the officers: "I have offered my assistance, but tey merely look at each other and laugh." - Gran on Oates and Dr Wilson. 


"A lazy posing fellow." R F Scott on Gran.


To some degree it is a palpable feeling when arriving in Antarctica today. You arrive and rub shoulders with many impressive specialists/characters, and there is often a very natural and interesting social jostling to work out where you will find yourself in this strata. Gran was often painted by others in diary accounts to be a lazy, somewhat adolescent figure. Gran was recommended to Scott by Fridtjof Nansen during the testing of the much-ill fated motor tractors, to teach the party to ski, something he was doubtlessly a master of. Please click here for an image of Lieut. Gran skiing on broken ice, October 1911. Credit - Herbert Ponting.


It is easy to see why there may have been a natural tendency to try and discredit Gran. He was a living, breathing representation of Norwegian skill, and Amundsen, the black cloud that hung on Scott's shoulder. Much like the use of dogs, using skis in combination with hauling was weighed up in pros and cons over and over again by the expedition and comments would swing full circle.


Gran's allegiances were complex. He wished in his diary that Amundsen would be victorious against Scott, but also in a very touching tribute (taking part in the search party for Scott's tent) wore Scott's skis, adamant that they would finish the distance back to Cape Evans.

Set of Skis.jpg

A pair of ski's I conserved last year. Credit: AHT Stefan


Gran went on to play football for Norway! He was the first pilot to cross the North Sea, and if that wasn't enough, was attibuted with shooting down flying ace Hermann Göring in WW1.  In an odd turn of fate Gran later headed a search party to find polar explorer Roald Amundsen, lost flying while trying to discover the fate of Umberto Nobile's North Pole expedition in 1928.


Author: Sue

Date: 7 May 2013

Temperature: -41 degrees C

Wind Speed: 10 knots

Temp with wind chill: -55 degrees C

Sunrise: n/a
Sunset: n/a



In our conservation work on the artefacts from the explorers' huts here in Antarctica we often get little surprises. As we inspect each artefact very closely in the pre-treatment process of documenting its materials, construction and condition, we come across little details that may not have been immediately obvious to those AHT conservators who, in the summer months, catalogued and packed up the artefacts in the huts and transported them here to us in the lab at Scott Base.

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Physics lab in Scott's Hut


I had one such delightful little surprise recently. I un-wrapped an artefact that bore the description "wood slat, approx. one metre long", which had been located under the physics bench in Captain Scott's Terra Nova hut, from the 1910-13 British Antarctic Expedition. As I inspected it I noted that it was, in fact, exactly one metre long, was made of oak, and was covered on one side and one edge with a heavy layer of black soot. Part of our approach to conserving the artefacts is to preserve all evidence of use, and this includes preserving those soot layers that tell of the items' long history around the blubber-and-coal fuelled stoves inside the huts. But occasionally the soot is also hiding information, so we investigate a little further and may find a good reason to remove or at least reduce it. Such was the case with the "slat" as, when I did, I revealed a very neat metric (one-metre) rule, or scale, with hand-written pencil numbers "10" through "90" at ten-centimetre intervals. Nice!

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Detail, 30cm - 50m

And quite interesting, too, as Britain (and, for that matter, Canada, from where the Terra Nova physicist 'Silas' Wright hailed) was still using the imperial system of measurement until much much more recently... although scientists are always well ahead of their times!


One-metre oak rule, after treatment.jpg

One-metre oak rule, after treatment

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