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Antarctic conservation

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A Few of My Favorite Things

Posted by Conservators Aug 17, 2012

Author: Susanne
Date: Wednesday 15th August 2012
Temperature: -34 deg C
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: -75 deg C
Sunrise: n/a
Sunset n/a

 

Sadly, this will be my last blog with the Antarctic Heritage Trust as our season on the ice is coming to an end. It has been an incredible journey and I will be forever changed by the experience. In this blog I pay tribute to my three favorite objects from Cape Evans that I treated this season, each with their own challenges. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

 

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Copper Alloy Candle Holder Before and After Treatment. Credit: AHT/Susanne

This copper alloy candle holder lived a hard life and was heavily used. In addition to the soot covering the surface, there are multiple layers of wax which contain unknown pigments and a match. This object was difficult to treat because I wanted to retain the wax and features that were encapsulated all the while removing the corrosion products that were forming. In the end, I was able to remove superficial corrosion and enhance the original polished brass appearance in some areas.

 

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Cooker with Four Wicks Before and After Treatment. Credit: AHT/Susanne

 

When I first discovered this object, I wasn’t sure what its purpose was. Sometimes objects can become corroded in positions that are unnatural to how they were used which can hide details of use. This is a cooker that would have been used to heat pots. There are four wicks in the center that can be raised and lowered independently operating as a sort of heat control similar to a gas stove element. The iron was badly corroding, but I enjoyed the challenge of bringing life back to an object that would have been so critical to survival in Antarctica.

 

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Pillow from Cherry-Garrard’s Bed Before and After Treatment. Credit: AHT/Susanne

 

This object was by far one of my favorite personal items that I was able to work on this season. Upon first visiting Scott’s hut at Cape Evans, I was completely humbled to see the sleeping conditions of the men. This pillow in particular is from Cherry-Garrard’s bed. It was a very intimate thing to be able to work on an object that provided some degree of relief from a hard day’s work. The wear marks were still visible from a lack of being washed for several years. This object only required a light surface clean and mold mitigation while leaving the soot in situ. 

I hope you have enjoyed the blogs as much as I have enjoyed writing them and I wish the future teams of conservators the best of luck in their seasons!

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Hoofbeats on Ice

Posted by Conservators Aug 15, 2012

Author: Susanne

Date: Wednesday 8thst August 2012

Temperature: -34 deg C

Wind Speed: 5 knots

Temp with wind chill: -75 deg C

Sunrise: n/a

Sunset n/a

 

Since the age of three, I grew up riding horses and quickly gained an appreciation for the gentle yet strong traits that these animals possess. Looking at images of the Manchurian ponies that were hand selected for the early Antarctic expeditions, reminded me of my own pony Goldie that has long passed on.

 

The first expedition to take ponies to the Ross Sea region was Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition. After choosing 10 Manchurian ponies, Shackleton and his crew set sail for New Zealand and then Antarctica, concluding a several month long journey in their stalls in stormy seas.  Scott’s Ponies on Board the Terra Nova

 

Upon arrival, the ponies were unloaded using a specially constructed box. They quickly adapted to their new home and stables were built to house them at Cape Royds. Scott also built stables at Cape Evans. Shackleton describes their diet in the “Heart of the Antarctic” as fodder, corn, and a specially purchased pemmican called Maujee rations.

 

While the ponies were an important part of the South Pole exploration stories, they weren’t as successful as Shackleton and Scott had hoped in reaching the South Pole. I am fortunate enough to be retelling their story through the conservation of several artefacts that were used to care for the ponies.

 

During the conservation treatment of several small iron horseshoes, I came across a rather large horseshoe that was different in shape and size to the others. I started to imagine why it was there and what it was used for. Perhaps they brought a variety of shoe sizes for the horses?

 

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Small and Large Horseshoes from Cape Evans. Credit: AHT/Susanne

 

Another really interesting object is this curry comb. There are several steps to grooming a horse or pony and the curry comb helped to reach dirt and debris that was trapped further down in their coat. This comb still has the pony hair and dirt trapped in the teeth. One of the challenges we face as conservators is how to retain that evidence while still preserving the artefact underneath.

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Curry Comb from Cape Evans. Credit: AHT/Susanne

 

What do you consider to be important to keep?

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The world is your oyster

Posted by Conservators Aug 13, 2012

Author: Stefan

Date: August 8th  2012

Temperature: -37.5 deg C

Wind Speed: 5 knots

Temp with wind chill: -45 deg C

Sunrise: n/a

Sunset n/a

 

It was extremely difficult for me to get my head around just exactly how the transition of the seasons work down in Antarctica, but I guess the best way you could describe it is:

 

• 24hr constant sunlight

• 3-4 weeks of ambient light (without seeing the sun) getting shorter everyday

• 24hr constant darkness, with some illumination from the moon, when clear

• 3-4 weeks of ambient light (without seeing the sun) getting longer every day, and with a great deal of illumination from the moon.

 

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First sun of the season on the Hut, 26th August, 1911

 

Now, learn’d folk reading this, will be saying “yeah! obvious…derrrr”, but until you experience that mixture of tiredness, confusion, and firsts, trust me, the events of everyday, come as a bit of a shock. Just the other day, four of us watched a huge fiery golden globe rising over the horizon, although we knew it was the moon, it didn’t stop us asking each other over and over “it’s definitely not the sun, right?”

 

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Nacreous Clouds forming over Mt Erebus

 

Equal to the aurora’s, nacreous clouds unfurl in the sky like smudges of diesel, making you feel like you’re inside a huge opalescent mussel shell, (indeed the word is derived from ‘nacre’ or mother of pearl).

 

I’ve never really had any time for solstice events but the joy of seeing the light on the snow here does place you in tune with all of your thoughts, and a real sense of time passing, life changing. Looking over Mt Erebus and seeing the light emission of the swirling pinks and violets, there is a desperation to be naive to all you’ve learned of science and to see it as a cauldron of magic, that will soon spill over and bring only good.

 

It’s nice to think that the explorers would have begun their long hauling seasons with this fever of positivity in their veins.

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Author: Gretel Evans

Date: Wednesday 1st August 2012

Temperature: -26 deg C

Wind Speed: 12 knots

Temp with wind chill: -45 deg C

Sunrise: n/a

Sunset n/a

 

Among the utilitarian objects that we conserve there are also many weird and wonderful items. Objects from the expeditions have often been adapted or re-used in another form during their lifetime.  I have come across a pair of boot liners with a strange addition. The liners are made of cotton but have pieces of caribou fur sewn on to the heel. This gives them a particularly warm and comfortable look, but I’m not sure about the effectiveness or even purpose of this addition.

Boot liners before conservation.jpg

Boot liners before conservation  Credit: AHT

 

Boot liners after conservation.jpg

Boot liners after conservation Credit: AHT

 

I can only think this would have made them uncomfortable to wear inside a boot - although as a colleague pointed out, they may have prevented rubbing and blisters forming on the heel. The boot liners prompted a story about Thomas Griffith Taylor, Senior Geologist with Scott’s Terra Nova expedition who apparently sewed canvas heel tips to his socks and called them Taylor’s Patent Heel Tips. I wonder what the purpose of the fur heels was and what they may have been called at the time. Answers on a postcard to Antarctica.

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Women on the Walls

Posted by Conservators Jul 31, 2012

Author: Georgina
Date: 25/07/12
Temperature: -25c
Wind Speed: 36 kts
Temp with wind chill: -39c
Sunrise: N/A
Sunset N/A  

       
This season, some of the paper items from Scott’s hut at Cape Evans provide personal insights into the lives of the expeditioners, showing some of the things they liked and what they did with their spare time.


In addition to a range of adventure stories and military novels, there are a surprising number of paperback romances which, judging by the degree of wear and sooty fingerprints, were rather well read! The stories seem to reflect the sensibilities of the era, and are of variable quality – although almost all seem to feature prolonged bouts of blushing between the chief protagonists. One of the best (or worst) involves a hero called Dr Love who finds he has feelings for an impoverished actress and resolves to free her from the profession. The end pages are unfortunately missing, so we can only hope that it ends like a proper romance should.

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Romance novels; popular in a harsh continent (Credit: AHT/Georgina)


Many of the magazines too, manage to combine stories of popular interest with the frivolous and banal (not to mention articles on fashion for the ladies). To Scott’s men, who often had to survive gruelling conditions, such throwaway reading matter was likely valued as a diversion.

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Scrapbook-style wall decoration (Credit: AHT/Georgina)

 

Along the same lines, there is a montage that looks like a page torn from a scrapbook.  This appears to have been found tacked to the end wall of Birdie Bower's bunk bed.  It is a wonderful selection of images – all cut from magazines - mainly of women in hats and big hair, but also of Australian Aboriginals and a large cartoon cat. In the bottom left corner is a small illustration of a rather exotic-looking half-naked lady with a snake (Cleopatra?), which in its very charming way manages to be about the most risqué artefact I have seen from the huts to date!  My favourite personalised item however, also found by the officers’ tenements, is a hand-made collection of cut-out pictures of dogs - presumably by someone very fond of man’s best friend, or else missing his dog back home.

 

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Dogtastic! The modified wooden lid of a venesta case. On the reverse is printed: 'B.A.E. MARGARINE LYTTELTON’. (Credit: AHT/Georgina)

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Author: Stefan

Date: 25July 2012
Temperature: -23 deg C
Wind Speed: 22 knots
Temp with wind chill: -54 deg C
Sunrise: n/a
Sunset n/a


Marston.jpg

Oil painting by George Marston (1882-1940) entitled Aurora Australis

 

Now then, one of the obvious draws of experiencing an Antarctic winter is witnessing the Aurora Australis. My father is a wonderful photographer, and provided me with a great deal of information on how to capture this phenomenon, but I must confess that once the right conditions (or a sighting) are announced over the tannoy, all preparations fall out the window, and everyone is allowed to pile out of the base into the freezing temperatures to try their hand, quite literally ( ‘at -50C hands and fingers become clumsy from cold in a matter of minutes’).

 

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Aurora Australis  taken a few weeks ago AHT Stefan


The majesty of this vision is hard to encompass in words. You’re desperate to focus and chart the swirling radiating lines, but no sooner do you capture a fragment of the formation in your stare than it instantly shifts and dissipates Much like a magic eye, you have to train your eye on  the middle-distance, and then the show begins.


100yrs after the heroic era, more scientific findings have allowed us the understanding that the auroras are charged particles from the solar winds colliding with atoms in the high atmosphere, but in the early 20th century the scientists of the expeditions like Simpson were still mulling it over. Earlier in the Discovery expedition, one of the men was thoroughly spooked by the vision, and used to leave cigarettes as an offering to gods, to try and make the aurora go away.


Here’s an exerpt from Scott’s journals that indicates why some might have found the aurora supernatural
“There is argument on the confession of Ponting’s inability to obtain photographs of the Aurora” “It is all very puzzling”  R.F.Scott

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Balaclava borrowing

Posted by Conservators Jul 24, 2012

Author: Gretel Evans

Date: 24 July 2012

Temperature: -22 °C

Wind Speed: 30 knots

Temp with wind chill: -50 °C

Sunrise: n/a

Sunset n/a

 

Currently we are working on the conservation of artefacts from Cape Evans, the base hut built by Captain Scott for the Terra Nova Expedition (1910-13). I recently had the pleasure of conserving a balaclava, which came from the vicinity of Nelson’s bunk, (Nelson was the biologist with the expedition). The balaclava is knitted from dark blue wool, with a black trim around the face aperture, and has a piece of cotton sewn into the inside around the forehead/crown area. This particular item has been identified from its pattern as dating from 1907-1909 and originating from Cape Royds – the base hut built by Sir Ernest Shackleton for the Nimrod Expedition. It is not known who brought the balaclava to Cape Evans, unfortunately there is no name tag within as with some of the other items of clothing left in the huts. With the in-built neck gaiter preventing heat loss from the chest and neck area, and the extra insulation the sewn-in cotton piece provided by protecting the forehead from the biting Antarctic winds, it was no doubt a useful and treasured item.

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Balaclava before conservation Credit:AHT/Gretel

 

Balaclava after conservation.jpg

Balaclava after conservation Credit: AHT/Gretel

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Simon inspecting McMurdo Station's 2012 crop

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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.

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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.

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Enamel mug after conservation treatment

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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