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Antarctic conservation

68 Posts tagged with the artefacts tag

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!


Tooth powder (Photo by S  Grieve AHT).jpg

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


Toothache plasters after treatment.jpg

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.



AlbanyKings Pack A.jpgAlbanyKings Pack B.jpg


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.



Of What Lies Within

Posted by Conservators Apr 13, 2012

Author: Stefan
Date: 10th April 2012
Temperature: -22C
Wind Speed: 15kts
Temp with wind chill: -41C
Sunrise: 9.17am
Sunset: 4.30pm

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Stefan delving into a tin of 100 year old custard. AHT Stefan

“The constant draw of the fume cabinet whirred steadily like the idling  of a contented bees nest. Nitrile gloves had enveloped my hands without a snag or curse, and the rare sense of ease filled me with anything but. The air was dense with a dull smell, which only rumoured to the true overwhelming nature of what stench could lie within the heart of the looming rusty monolith before me.  Armed only with a spoon, I approached the vessel in a familiar routine of dining, but dear lord this mass could not be stomached. With the lid tentatively removed, the greenish yellow contents emerged like a bad moon rising…custard.”


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Tin samples (left to right) custard, salt, anchovy paste, polishing compound. AHT Stefan


Emptying  tins is a daily occurrence working with AHT. Depending upon how badly the object is corroded/stained, you get a varying clarity of what you may have to empty and dispose of. The contents are only removed when objects are found to be leaking, and could place other parts of the collection at risk. The majority of the contents are placed in biohazard bags and flown back to New Zealand to be incinerated, yet we always take a small sample to be placed in science freezers, in order that we can research or investigate this material whenever we choose. Anchovy paste (suspected) has been the smelliest sample I’ve taken so far, but my team mates assure me that, chocolate and butter are far worse.


All Aboard!

Posted by Conservators Mar 9, 2012

Author: Susanne
Date: 23/02/2012
Temperature: -12°C
Wind Speed: 15km/h
Temp with wind chill:
Sunrise: 4:49AM
Sunset 11:14PM



Believe it or not, even in Antarctica there are tourists! The curiosity and desire to discover new places and experiences is something we all share with the early explorers. We were very excited this past week to showcase our work with passengers from the Spirit of Enderby, operated by Heritage Expeditions.

The passengers were all well travelled and knowledgeable individuals from universities, museums, and non-profits. They are specifically on board to raise awareness for the environmental and cultural issues that are occurring between Stewart Island and the South Pole.

Visiting Scott Base is a large part of their experience and one of the highlights of the tour is the Antarctic Heritage Trust laboratory. Even though we are just starting our season, we still had many exciting projects to share. Stefan, being an avid chef, happened to be working on several kitchen related objects. George showcased some of the newspapers and cards the explorers used (which she has become quite partial to). Gretel displayed the pony accoutrements that have been found at the huts, such as leather straps, and I spoke about wool socks and clothing.

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Stefan and Gretel speaking to a group from the Spirit of Enderby © AHT/Susanne


One of the best parts of our job is getting to share what we do with the public. The cruise ships that pass through Antarctica are a great way to show people our work firsthand. It was fascinating to get to meet and interact with such interesting people. They also wrote several fantastic blogs about their visit: Maybe we will see you next time!


Author: Stefan Strittmatter
Date: 06/02/2012
Temperature: -11C
Wind Speed: 9kn
Temp with wind chill: -19C
Sunrise: N/A
Sunset N/A

Life in Antarctica is a very human endeavor. For Captain Scott and the men of the 1910-13 expedition, and (to a much more flimsy degree) we four conservators, food (and its preparation) becomes of upmost importance very quickly.

Scott and his team were well placed at both Cape Evans and Discovery Hut to take advantage of the abundance of Weddell seals and their blubbery bounty. Al Fastier and his summer team of conservators have done a wonderful job of conserving an epic slab of this oozing mass of fat, (still present in the Cape Evans hut stables). Indeed a slight lean of the trough means there’s a filtered cup of oil slumped to the edge, making it effortless to visualize a frost bitten face swinging round the corner to scoop up and replenish a gasping stove.



Seal blubber trough outside Cape Evans Stables © AHT/Stefan

Nowhere near as hardy, Susanne, Gretel, George and I were happy to ditch the heroic approach, and cook with soot free faces on the nifty ‘Primus’ stoves,  Scott Base has kindly supplied us with for AFT (Antarctic Field Training). A bit of a fiddle at first, but once the white gas starts to roar and the first brew is at the boil, you can’t help but feel a certain bond and romance, about the hardship and fun this wonderful place can offer.


Cooking during winter AFT (Antarctic Field Training) © AHT/Stefan



Posted by Conservators Feb 13, 2012

Author: Georgina
Date: 26/02/12
Temperature: -4.8c
Wind Speed: 8 kn
Temp with wind chill: -13c
Sunrise: N/A
Sunset N/A


So here we are in Antarctica at last!

Gretel, Stefan and I have come from the UK, while Susanne our lead conservator hails from the USA.  We shall be here at New Zealand’s Scott Base in the Ross Sea Region of Antarctica for the next 7 months during the Austral winter, and shall be conserving artefacts that have been temporarily transported here for the season from Captain Scott’s hut at Cape Evans.  It has been a long road getting here for all of us, with the last few months being taken up with medical exams, psychometric testing, packing and general preparations, as well as saying goodbye to friends and family back home.


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Waiting to depart at Christchurch Airport. L-R: Jeff (winter mechanic), Susanne, Gretel, Stefan, George


Both Susanne and I are returnees, having worked on the programme before, but for Stefan and Gretel it is their first time in the big white South!

I  was last here in 2010 and am very much looking forward to experiencing a second winter.  Every season is unique according to group dynamics and personalities on base, not to mention the artefacts themselves posing new conservation challenges.

I had initially felt a little nervous about meeting my immediate AHT colleagues and wider Scot base family (a small team of 14 people in total), given that we will be living and working together so closely for so long… but things are looking good so far, so watch this space.



AHT winter team arrive on the ice! C 17


Author: John K
Date: 15 December 2011
Temperature: 0oC
Wind Speed: 1.8 Knots
Temp with wind chill: 0oC
Sunrise: N/A
Sunset N/A

While investigating a box of miscellaneous mechanical components outside the hut I came across this interesting little object, function unknown.

It is a flat sheet metal stylised figurine, 155mmm high and 75mmm wide, one arm outstretched, with one leg only that slides vertically with about 5mm travel. Behind the top of the leg is a punched hole, 6mm diameter. The original outline of the figure appears to be exaggerated front and back, possibly for balance?


Image 1. Mystery object, front view.jpg

Mystery object, front view. © AHT / John


Image 2. Mystery object, back view.jpg

Mystery object, back view.  © AHT / John


At the bottom of the leg are two cleats, possibly to hook over or on to something.


Image 3. Mystery object, side view.jpg

Mystery object, side view. © AHT / John

The figure is rusted and no markings or paint layers remain.

What is the function of this intriguing object? I have had suggestions such as: a child’s toy; an indicator that some process is completed, or some mechanical decoration on a clock.

Any suggestions as to its identity and function will be greatly appreciated.

Author: John
Date: 13 December 2011
Temperature: -7.2°C
Wind Speed: 5 knots
Temp with wind chill: °C
Sunrise: N/A
Sunset: N/A
Part of the Antarctic Heritage Trust conservation programmme is to conserve artefacts from Scott’s Terra Nova Hut over the winter. Artefacts are carefully packed and transported back to Scott Base where a team of four conservators will work on the artefacts in a specially provided conservation laboratory for return the following summer. Where the early explorers transported their supplies man hauling sledges, we use plastic cubers on sledges towed behind Hagglunds (tracked vehicles). The trip from Cape Evans back to Scott Base  is 25 km, travelling at 10 kph to ensure safe travelling for sometimes fragile artefacts.
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Loading artefacts in cubers on sledge © AHT/John
Transporting artefacts to Scott Base.jpg
Approaching Scott Base over the Sea Ice © AHT/John

Full circle

Posted by Conservators Dec 22, 2011

Author: Lizzie Meek
Date: 1 December 2011
Temperature: -1.4 oC
Wind Speed: 3 Kts
Temp with wind chill: C
Sunrise: N/A
Sunset N/A

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Cape Evans and snow © AHT/Lizzie


During the months of January-October whilst working in the AHT offices in Christchurch, I am often emailed queries and photographs (or as I like to think of them ‘presents’) relating to artefacts the conservators are working on at Scott Base over the winter months. But I still only see a small percentage of the some 1300 artefacts the team has handled during that time.
Now, here we are at Cape Evans in December, it’s snowing outside, and all of a sudden it feels like Christmas: John and I are unwrapping hundreds of objects to return them to their hut locations.

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A woollen jersey returned to Cape Evans this season © AHT/Lizzie


You get a very unique and interesting perspective on life in Antarctica 100 years ago when you see about 60 different pairs of socks in a row, some hand knitted, some machine-made, most of them darned or patched. We’ve been commenting on the limited colour palette of brown, grey, khaki, black and dark blue, and get quite excited by small flashes of bright colour. I like to think they took their polka dot Sunday socks home with them on the ship.


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A Wolsey sock on Day’s bunk © AHT/Lizzie


There’s a great sense of completion as we see objects returned to their place in the hut, with form and detail more fully revealed, but without removing the signs of age and use from the heroic era. So to the winter conservators, Sarah, Martin, Julie and Jane, thank you for your skill and hard work, and for my early Christmas presents!


Author: John

Date: 13 November 2011
Temperature: -3.20C
Wind Speed: 12.5 Knots
Temp with wind chill: -6.7oC
Sunrise: None, the sun is always up in the sky in Antarctica at this time of the year.
Sunset None.



While undertaking conservation work at Shackleton’s Nimrod Hut at Cape Royds, Ross Island, Antarctica, I noticed this example of the expedition making do with whatever spare materials that were at hand. It highlighted for me the remoteness of the location, the distance from resupply sources, and the resourcefulness of the expedition members, This makeshift hoe was made from a spare mattock handle with part of a broken shoe last carefully and securely lashed to the end with rope. To tension the lashing a disused metal file was driven under the lashing. For some reason, this resourcefulness appealed to me.

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Improvised hoe © AHT/John.

JK Image 2  Detail of last and lashing method.jpg
Detail of last and lashing method © AHT/John.


Author: Paula
Date: 15 November 2011

The Antarctic Heritage Trust conservators have recently moved from the confines of their conservation lab at Scott Base, to their Antarctic field camp at Cape Royds.


John bid farewell to winter conservator Sarah and welcomed the incoming team of conservation carpenters who work over the summer months on the buildings left behind by the heroic-era explorers.


The team is currently working at Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic (Nimrod) expedition 1907-1909 at Cape Royds. Communication is patchy when the team is out in the field. Although there is a satellite (sat) phone, the team relies on visitors who do literally ‘just drop in’ by helicopter with supplies and mail and who in turn relay information (including blogs) to Scott Base and New Zealand.


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Ernest Shackleton's base at Cape Royds.  Credit:  G Rowe


The conservation team are completing a few tasks at Cape Royds, including relocating the Arrol Johnston wheel and Mawson’s Dredge which were conserved over winter 2011, before they move on to their main work programme this summer season conserving Captain Scott’s British Antarctic Terra Nova Expedition 1910- 1913 base at Cape Evans.


1981.110 Canterbury Museum.jpg

Each summer the team returns the artefacts that have been conserved during winter at the conservation laboratory at Scott Base back to the historic bases before packing up another 1,000 or so objects destined for conservation over the following winter. This continuous cycle of removal-conservation-return has led to over 5,400 artefacts from Cape Evans alone being conserved.


Antarctic Field Training

Posted by Conservators Oct 12, 2011

Author: John

Date: 12th  October 2011
Temperature: -19°C
Wind Speed: 8knots
Temp with wind chill: -29°C
Sunrise: 5.00am
Sunset 10.27pm

Image 1  Camp set up.jpg

Camp set up © AHT/John

All staff at Scott Base are required to undertake Antarctic Field Training. This includes conservators working on the Ross Sea Heritage Restoration Project, who often are required to work on-site at the historic huts. Training includes setting up an overnight camp, cold weather survival techniques and familiarisation with the environment.

Training is scheduled in advance, and the weather is the luck of the draw.

Our set up weather was benign, with -22oC temperatures and light wind conditions, but preparations need to be made for changes. Tents were erected, guyed and snow shovelled over the tent skirt to keep the wind out. A foot trench was dug inside the tent, a tarpaulin laid out on the snow and sleeping gear set up on either side of the trench. These tents have not changed much in design over the years, and are good at withstanding strong winds.

Our comfortable night’s sleep was awoken around 4.00am by a 20Kt wind blowing snow against the tent, with very white conditions outside.

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The morning after © AHT/ John

Breakfast was held inside the ‘kitchen’ shelter prepared the previous day, and we were grateful for the protection from the wind.
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The Kitchen © AHT/John


This was a very valuable experience in being prepared for, and respecting, the Antarctic environment.


Author: John  Date: 12 September 2011
Temperature: -19.4oC
Wind Speed: 22Kts
Temp with wind chill: -320C
Sunrise: 7.50am
Sunset 5.52pm

Sometimes when an artefact eludes description or exact function we just need the right expert at the right time. This item from Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Hut at Cape Royds was initially described as an ‘Urn and Lid’. Last week, while this artefact was being treated in the Conservation Lab at Scott Base, Jane invited our Base chef, Lance, down for a look over what we were doing. He walked into the lab looked at the ‘Urn and Lid’ on the bench and immediately said ‘That’s a stockpot, they have not changed much over the years have they?” and proceeded to describe how one was used!


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Urn and lid aka Stockpot © AHT


Pieces of meat were put into the pot and boiled down to make stock for soups and such. The fat floated to the top and could be separated off as required while the juicy stock could be tapped off via the brass tap at the bottom. A woven wire filter gauze behind the tap strained out any unwanted solid pieces.  The pot could be kept simmering continually on the stove, stock drawn off as necessary, and the pot topped up with more meat pieces or bones and water as required.

There are still food particles remaining inside the pot, and soot and fat all over the outside showing that this stockpot was well used – seal or penguin meat perhaps? Heated by burning blubber, hence the soot? All this evidence was kept intact on the pot.

Lance also made the comment that the chef’s working space in the hut was very cramped. 
So, many thanks to Lance, for being ‘the right expert at the right time’!




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Author: John
Date: 7th September 2011
Temperature: -29.3oC
Wind Speed: 20 Kts
Temp with wind chill: -52oC
Sunrise: 8.38am
Sunset: 5.08pm



No nice before and after treatment images this time to show what we do here at Scott Base conserving the objects for Scott’s Terra Nova expedition hut at Cape Evans. Even though the wood fibres are separating from being exposed to the extremes of Antarctic weather, this one only needed the ropes tied off with thread to keep them from unravelling further.


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Mystery wooden object


It is an image of a puzzle – what is this object and what was its function way back in 1910-14?


Three identical, carefully shaped and chamfered pieces of wood, possibly oak, joined by two different diameters of very weathered rope. Two small remnants of dark dyed cotton thread wrapped around the thinner rope.


Across the centre of all three pieces is what appears to be a rough brush streak of tar, applied on one side only of two of the pieces and on both sides of the remaining piece.

An intriguing relic of the expedition.

Any suggestions?


Sun, and Base Duties

Posted by Conservators Aug 30, 2011

Author: John

Date: 27 August 2011

Temperature: -11.2oC

Wind Speed: 22kts

Temp with wind chill: -19.7oC

Sunrise: 10.18am

Sunset: 3.35pm



The sun is getting closer to being visible at Scott Base.  It is actually above the horizon but still behind the hills and peaks of Ross Island.  There are some beautiful light effects and delicate colours to be seen in the sky.  Today there was a narrow, horizontal band of the palest pink in the South, across White and Black Islands, as the sun shone under the clouds in the North.


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The Sun Getting Closer!  John/AHT


While keeping a good look out for these beautiful effects, work and life at Scott Base must still go on.  Every Saturday at an All Staff Base Meeting, duties necessary for the smooth running of the Base are apportioned to all staff.


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Base Duties.  John/AHT


One such duty is the removal of snow and sea ice build up around Reverse Osmosis (RO) Intake/Outlet gantry at the ice transition.  Our team spent nearly two hours shovelling snow, cutting the sea ice with a chainsaw and removing these heavy blocks of ice.


The RO plant supplies all fresh water for the running of the base and provides two degrees of purity, RO1 for general use and a more pure RO2 for drinking, scientific projects, and work such as conservation of the Ross Island historic artefacts.

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