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Antarctic conservation

83 Posts tagged with the conservation tag

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.

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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.


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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.


Water and Fire

Posted by Conservators Oct 6, 2011

Author: John
Date: 5th October 2011
Temperature: -24°C
Wind Speed: 0knots
Temp with wind chill: -24°C
Sunrise: 6.01am
Sunset 9.28pm

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Liquid water! © AHT

Liquid water in Antarctica is an uncommon commodity in winter, unless it is sea water, and even then it is mostly under thick ice.

Today for the first time since I came to the Ice on the 20th August I saw liquid water in the outside environment, even at an air temperature of  -27 degrees C. With the lengthening daylight incident solar energy increases. This is absorbed by any surface facing the sun, enough to melt snow on the northern walls of Scott Base. The water ran down the wall and then immediately refroze into icicles.


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Acetylene generator (very corroded, and supported upside down for stability). © AHT

Yesterday I commenced treating an acetylene generator from Scott’s Terra Nova expedition hut at Cape Evans. This generator used water dripping onto calcium carbide to generate acetylene gas. The gas was then piped through the hut to be lit in various lamp fittings to provide illumination during the dark winter months. It was important that liquid water is available for this process to work.  So, even though the reaction generated heat, the tank needed to be insulated with Gibson quilting to prevent the water freezing. This was a layer of sea grass held between layers of hessian.


Liquid water was, and still is, very important to life in the Antarctic!


Author: Jane
Date: 22nd September 2011
Temperature: -41°C
Wind Speed: 0 knots
Temp with wind chill: -41°C
Sunrise: 06.42am
Sunset 06.54pm

I have just finished treating two boxes of ‘Tabloid Potassium Metabisulphite’. It was used in the developing of photographs, probably by Herbert Ponting, the photographer on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition.

The staples holding the boxes together were completely corroded away with just corrosion staining remaining. One of the boxes had leaflets describing the types of chemicals available and what they were used for. There was even a ‘Special Caution’ note on the risks of buying inferior products.


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One of the boxes before conservation.  © Jane/AHT

The brown glass bottle inside contained tablets of the chemical. It was sealed with wax over the cork.



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A leaflet from one of the boxes.  © Jane/AHT

The surface of the cardboard and paper was blistering due to the presence of salts so I decided to wash them. I did this in a bath of water, with the paper and card supported on a piece of spun-bonded polyester. I then allowed them to dry before humidifying them and reassembling the box.

I consolidated the wax on the cork stopper as it was flaking. I also consolidated the surface of the cardboard as it was quite friable, probably as a result of the salt damage.


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A box after conservation.  ©  Jane/AHT


With the individual elements stabilized, I was then able to put the bottles and leaflets back into the boxes.


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?


Author: John
Date: 24 August 2011
Temperature: -14oC
Wind Speed: 45 Kt gusts
Temp with wind chill: -40oC
Sunrise: 10.53am
Sunset: 3.01pm


WinFly is the first flight in to Scott Base after the Antarctic winter season. Saturday 20th August was my day of arrival at the Pegasus Airfield on the Ross Ice Shelf as a conservator working on the Ross Sea Heritage Restoration Project, and all was new to me. Disembarking from the C17 aircraft I was welcomed by Antarctica New Zealand and Antarctic Heritage Trust staff and immediately immersed into the incredible busyness of the arrival logistics.




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Busyness of Arrival


The following day I was taken for a walk out on the sea ice among the pressure ridges in front of Scott Base. The sheer size of Mt Erebus in the background somehow complemented the forces displayed in the jumbled detail of the pressure ridge zone of the sea ice. Although it was cold, and the wind was blowing, this scene was very peaceful and contrasted strongly with the activity of the previous day.


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Calm Before the Storm


The power and majesty of the Antarctic environment is overwhelming and certainly not to be taken for granted. I look forward to the privilege and challenges of working in the field on the historic explorer’s huts of Ross Island, Antarctica.


Nacreous clouds

Posted by Conservators Aug 24, 2011

Author: Julie
Date: 18/8/11
Temperature: -33 C
Wind Speed: 12
Temp with wind chill: -48 C
Sunrise: 11:52
Sunset: 14:10

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Nacreous clouds at 10 am. Julie/AHT


Yesterday was the day of spectacular nacreous clouds.  Nacreous clouds are wispy clouds that form under certain specific conditions (very cold temperatures at very high altitudes) and that can appear iridescent when the angle of the sun is very low, as it is now at Scott Base.  If you do a web search for images of nacreous clouds, many of the images you will see were taken from locations near Scott Base on Ross Island.


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Nacreous clouds at 2 pm: not photoshopped, I swear. Julie/AHT


For the last week or so, as the sun has come closer to rising, we have been in prime nacreous cloud viewing conditions.  Nearly every day Sarah or Jane says, “go look out the window at the clouds,” and I run over to a window to see what we’re getting.  However, yesterday topped everything we have seen so far, and in fact topped everything most people at Scott Base have ever seen.  Pretty much as soon as a strip of light appeared at the horizon (at a respectable 9:13 a.m.), the Scott Base staff started making cloud announcements over the base-wide p.a. system.  I remember Jana saying at about 10 a.m., “Scott Base, Scott Base, look at the clouds above,” and Steve, at about noon, saying, “Scott Base, Scott Base, if you’re not looking at Erebus right now, you probably should be.”  At around 2 p.m., Sarah, who was supposedly in a meeting at that point, made the announcement: “Scott Base, Scott Base, the clouds are green.”  Before darkness hit at 4:39 p.m., I personally had taken 93 photographs of clouds.


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Nacreous clouds at 3 pm. Sarah/AHT


WINFLY approacheth

Posted by Conservators Aug 18, 2011

Author: Jane
Date: 17th August 2011
Temperature: -33°C
Wind Speed: 15 knots
Temp with wind chill: -48°C
Sunrise: Friday!


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The view from the summer lab looking out over the Ross Ice Shelf to the daylight behind Mount Terror. Jane/AHT

It is just three days until the first flight of the WINFLY season (the pre-main season flights to exchange cargo and personnel ahead of the main season that starts in October). We are expecting a few new faces at Scott Base and about 350 at McMurdo. It will disrupt the everyday routine we have all become used to and will most certainly lead to a few faces that look like an animal caught in the headlights.

It is wonderful to see daylight creep ever further into the sky behind Mount Erebus and there is a noticeable difference in the number of people who sign out at lunch time to go for walks to absorb some Vitamin D! Just the idea of daylight seems to have given people a new energy that has been lacking for some time now.

We are all looking forward to the mail and fresh fruit and vegetables that will come down. Unfortunately, it is the end of the winter season for Antarctic Heritage Trust and we are working hard to get some last minute work completed before our new conservator, John, arrives on Saturday. We celebrated the end of our winter together with a special dinner followed by a performance in the bar by the Scott Base band- sadly, their last performance together as guitarist Julie leaves next week with Sarah and Martin.


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The summer lab beside the hangar with this year’s new pressure ridges just visible. Jane/AHT


Change,  What Change?

Posted by Conservators Aug 10, 2011

Author: Martin

Date: 9/8/2011
Temperature: -27 degree C
Wind Speed: 7 knots
Temp with wind chill: -47 degree C
Sunrise: n/a
Sunset n/a

Earlier today Troy, our Base Manager and field support person here at Scott Base in Antarctica, did a stock take and de-cluttered a space nobody seems to have looked at for quite a while.  Out came a box full of extreme weather gloves accumulated probably since the early days of Scott Base in the late1950s.  A glove history reaching back a few decades.  Looking at them in detail, I was struck by the fact that what we are currently wearing has hardly changed over the years.


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Gloves through the decades © AHT/Martin


Colour and style may have adapted to fashion sense, but the principle of inner and outer shells, long sleeves with two tie strings and the all important nose wiper(the fluffy bit),  has not changed at all.


Going back further it is obvious that the gloves of the early explorers are a bit more rugged, but I am sure that there is at least one feature that has not changed at all even since then: the impossibility to do any meaningful task with them apart from just holding on to something.


To view historic gloves click here.


Wool the Wonder Fibre

Posted by Conservators Jul 21, 2011

Author: Sarah

Date: 20 July 2011
Temperature: -14
Wind Speed: 20 knots
Temp with wind chill: -36
Sunrise: NA
Sunset NA



The use of wool as a textile and clothing fibre dates back many millennia. So it is not surprising to find wool being the predominant fibre of choice for the Antarctic explorer during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s and Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expeditions in the Heroic period (1895-1915).

Many of the thermal clothing items that the explorers wore were commercially made and supplied by brands such as Wolsey and Jaeger.  The Wolsey thermal top (pictured) is from Scott’s Terra Nova Hut, and is grubby from use and patched, most probably by  a member of the Ross Sea Party.

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Wolsey brand wool thermal top © AHT/ Sarah


When I was growing up in the 1970s seventies synthetic fibres were seen as the new miracle fibre for all manner of applications.  In the 1980s synthetic fibres such as Polypro were used extensively for thermal underwear, despite the horrid smell they often attained after wearing when exercising and their slightly harsh nature.

I  was greatly relieved, when I first started coming to Antarctica, when a friend told me to invest in a set of ‘new’ woollen thermals that were starting to appear in the New Zealand market in the late 1990s.   Ahhh, the joys of a natural soft fibre that can be worn for many days when camping without getting smelly.

Now, in 2011, you can’t enter an outdoor gear supplier without finding merino wool thermal underwear adorning the shelves.  It goes to prove that animals have adapted very well to their environments and natural fibres are still far superior to their synthetic counterparts when it comes to thermal insulation. The Heroic explorers were probably as comfortable as we are today in their thermal underwear.


Author: Jane
Date: 07/06/11
Temperature: -32°C
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: -42°C


We have a radio station at Scott Base. 97FM keeps us entertained at work and in the bar in the evenings. We do not really have any TV stations, which is quite nice, although we do get the TVNZ news every evening so we can keep in touch with what is happening around the world.


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Johnny 5 giving us the run down of daily events on 97FM Scott Base radio.© Aht/Jane

Our communication engineer, Anthony, also known as Johnny 5, is our resident DJ. We all create playlists, which he changes regularly, but not often enough sometimes. Every now and then we will ring him with requests to play, or stop playing a particular song.

We even have promos on the radio which have been recorded by past residents of the Base, including one by Sir Ed Hillary.

Every morning, Johnny 5 gives us the weather and a run down of the daily events on Ross Island in his usual witty way. This often involves a prelude to what Lance has prepared for morning tea and every now and then a secret recording of someone having a rant about world politics and the proliferation of zombies in the area.

97FM may have an audience of only 14, but we think it has broken some world record for more plays of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ than any other radio station in the world.


Fire Alarm

Posted by Conservators Jul 5, 2011

Author: Martin

Date: 29.6.2011
Temperature: -30 degree C
Wind Speed: 15 knots
Temp with wind chill: -55 degree C
Sunrise: n/a
Sunset n/a

The siren is ear piercing and the continuous voice coming out of the PA system calm but firm: Evacuate the building. Go to the nearest fire exit. Evacuate the … And I am, as Murphy’s law dictates, in the middle of a particular tricky gluing process on historic food boxes. Frustrated at first, but a little pulse of adrenalin helps me drop everything and get on the way to the assembly point. You never know.


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Fire fighting gear — ready to go © AHT/Martin

Fire is by far the biggest risk to Scott Base and the people living here. Main reasons are the extremely dry atmosphere inside and outside, as well as a number of workshops, power generators, boiler rooms etc. all close together under one roof. Sophisticated systems are installed to protect the buildings, raise alarms and fight, if necessary, fires anywhere on the base.

In addition to that, all Scott Base staff have gone through a very intensive fire fighting training. Our group of 14 is divided into two fire crews, each of them on duty every second week. If the alarm goes off the duty group locates the source and attends to the fire. Within the group allocated roles include crew chief, auxiliary, hose runner and BA (Breathing Apparatus) carriers.

Luckily it was yet another drill and since I was not on duty I was soon back rescuing the unfinished gluing process.        


The Bare Essentials

Posted by Conservators Jun 16, 2011

Author: Sarah


Date: 15 June 2011
Temperature: -13 Deg C
Wind Speed: 35 knots
Temp with wind chill: - 27
Sunrise: N/A
Sunset N/A

In 1914 a group of men known as the “Ross Sea Party” landed at Cape Evans on Ross Island.  The Ross Sea Party’s mission was to lay vital food and equipment depots for Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition which was planning to cross Antarctica.

A small science party was to remain ashore.  Apart from some stores, very little equipment and no clothing was taken ashore.  On 6 May 1914 the ship the Aurora was blown out to sea and could not return. The ten men ashore feared the worst, thinking all hands had been lost.

The men decided that their second planned trip to cache supplies for Shackleton must be completed despite their setbacks and lack of supplies. They had no way of knowing that the Endurance was also in terrible trouble, and the depots they would lay, which took a deadly toll, would never be used.
Lacking the appropriate clothing, the Ross Sea Party improvised sledging clothing from fabric and tents left behind by Scott’s 1910 expedition.  Below is an image of a handmade jacket sewn from canvas material, that is also found in the hut as curtains, insulation and bags.  Although sewn with a heavy hand, the jacket with its wooded toggle buttons is very well crafted.   The wind proof trousers are made from green canvas, which is also found as tents, tarpaulins and bags inside the hut at Cape Evans.




Ross Sea Party hand-made jacket © AHT



The grimy, sooty nature of both articles of clothing tells the tale of the hardship that the Ross Sea Party went through.  The men saved precious fuel for depot laying and burned seal blubber for heating and cooking, the greasy soot infiltrating all aspects of life in the hut.

Ross sea part hand-made trousers © AHT

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