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Antarctic conservation

270 Posts

Cracks in the ice

Posted by Conservators Sep 28, 2012

Author: Martin

Date: 25 September 2012

Temperature: -28C

Wind Speed: 20 knots

Temp with wind chill: -45C

Sunrise: 6:06am

Sunset: 7:27pm



After many days of storms, blowing snow and very little visibility we were finally ready to leave Scott Base and to go out again on a stunningly beautiful day. No wind, clear sky, sun and spectacular views of the Trans Antarctic Mountains – we couldn’t ask for more and were keen to get to the historic hut at Cape Evans. 


Travelling to Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Hut, which he built as an expedition base for his British Antarctic Expedition (1910–1913), involves driving  over sea ice for approx. 20 km. 

Jana ice.jpg

Jana helping to drill holes into the ice sheet © AHT/Martin


Even though the ice thickness is sufficient by now, there are still some cracks which need to be profiled. It means drilling several holes in to the ice right through to the water and measuring the thickness of the ice sheet. A tape measure and string attached to a weight which hooks itself to the underside of the ice sheet is very simple but works well. With a little tug on the string the weight is released again. By measuring several holes across the crack, the shape and therefore the stability of the ice around it, can be determined. It is a time consuming task, especially if you have to do it several times on a trip, but the alternative of breaking through the ice with your vehicle is a lot less attractive.    



Cracks in an iceberg © AHT/Martin


Nailed it!

Posted by Conservators Sep 20, 2012

Author: Jana

Date: 18 September 2012

Temperature: -24C

Wind Speed: 30 knots

Temp with wind chill: -45C

Sunrise: 07:16

Sunset: 18:34



Some of my favourite artefacts at Captain Scott’s Terra Nova base at Cape Evans have always been the barrels full of nails resting in the scoria behind the base.  Over the years the barrels themselves have deteriorated to the point of having almost disappeared entirely, while the nails inside them have corroded together into an unlikely solid mass resembling some strange sort of sub-atomic particle.  Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered a similar container of nails, albeit on a much smaller scale, amongst a series of tins I have been conserving at Scott Base. 


Detail square cut nails C Evans.jpg

Detail, square cut nails © AHT/Jana


The tin in question appeared similar to dozens of others I was preparing to treat, until I picked it up and its excessive weight hinted that something was different about it.  The nails inside are fused together into a lump just like those at Cape Evans, though they are much smaller (only 2 cm long) and in worse condition, making it impossible to tell what type of nails they were, or what era they might be from.  Despite their mysterious origin, I still enjoy the aesthetics of their spiky, urchin-esque form, and look forward to once again admiring their larger cousins out at Cape Evans when we travel out there in the coming days.


Deja Vu

Posted by Conservators Sep 12, 2012

Author: Martin

Date: 12 September 2012

Temperature: -24C

Wind Speed:  30 knots

Temp with wind chill: -55C

Sunrise: 8:00am

Sunset: 5:45pm



It is only a bit more than a year ago, during last winter, that I conserved over a hundred food storage boxes from Shackleton’s Nimrod Base. So it certainly comes with a sense of déjà vu to start on very similar boxes excavated from Bowers Annex at Scott’s Terra Nova Base.

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Before treatment © AHT/Martin


For the next two months I am sharing a workshop with Jody, the carpenter in residence here at Scott Base. With stunning views of Mt. Erebus and across the Ross Ice shelf, I am sure it will be a great place to work.   While Jana, the objects conservator, is treating the contents of the boxes, my aim is to make them structurally sound. It involves gluing split boards, re-nailing corner joints and at times adding new boards where boards have been lost. 

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During treatment © AHT/Martin


All these interventions are kept to a minimum but are necessary to allow the conserved content to go back into the box and for the boxes eventually to be placed back to their original locations. Detailed records are kept documenting the work, which will make it possible for future generations of conservators to distinguish between historic and added material. 

3 After treatment.jpg

After treatment © AHT/Jana


Do you take milk in that?

Posted by Conservators Sep 5, 2012

Author: Jana

Date: 5 September 2012

Temperature: -16C

Wind Speed: 25 knots

Temp with wind chill: -28C

Sunrise: 08:56

Sunset: 16:51



Now that the short burst of springtime flights bringing fresh staff and supplies to Scott Base is over, we are once again in “isolation” mode.  With no more flights due to arrive until October, the sudden influx of fresh fruit and vegetables, worth their weight in gold to most of the winter-over staff who have done without for so many months, has sadly come to an end.  


Careful planning ensures that our supply stretches as far as possible, but some of the fresh goods, including milk, will only last for so long.  It seems a small thing, but for most of the year, it is powdered milk that staff at Scott Base add to their coffee and tea and use to pour over their cereal, and as any dairy-phile will attest, it is just not quite up to snuff!  And so while we have the real stuff, we make the most of it.


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Tin of milk powder during conservation © AHT/Jana

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Detail, Trumilk label © AHT/Jana


Funnily enough, our current glut of fresh milk comes at a time when I am treating (what else!?) historic tins of milk powder.  It seems that our enforced use of powdered milk is no different than that of the early explorers, with tins of Trumilk milk powder having been found in both Scott’s and Shackleton’s huts.  I am sure the early explorers would relate to our appreciation of fresh dairy, though it’s hard to tell what they would make of our espresso machine!


Bowers' Annex Beckons

Posted by Conservators Aug 29, 2012

Author: Jana

Date: 28 August 2012

Temperature: -29.9C

Wind Speed: 15 knots

Temp with wind chill: -45C

Sunrise: 09:59

Sunset: 15.32



Happy to have settled on the ice at last, Martin and I have wasted no time sinking our teeth into the first project of this summer’s work programme:  for the two months that we will be working from the relative comfort of Scott Base, we will be treating artefacts from one specific location at Scott’s Terra Nova hut, Bowers’ Annex.


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Boxes being excavated from Bowers' Annex.  © AHT/Jana


Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, whose distinctive nose earned him his distinctive nickname, was in charge of organising all the stores and supplies for Scott’s second Antarctic expedition.  The majority of these stores were tinned foods packaged inside wooden boxes, and by using dozens of these boxes as improvised building blocks, Bowers created a sort of lean-to addition to the south side of the hut – what we now call Bower’s Annex.  From inside this relatively protected structure he was able to sort, count and repackage the huge volume of supplies and rations needed by the sledging teams headed towards the South Pole. 


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Boxes waiting for treatment in Scott Base Carpentry shop. © AHT/Jana


While most of the supplies stored inside the annex were used up long ago, the boxes forming the walls of the annex remained in place until several years ago.  Because of their position on the south side of the hut, they were particularly vulnerable to wind and snow build-up, and it has been a priority for the Trust to excavate and treat them in order to prevent further damage.  The boxes were excavated from the annex several seasons ago and have gradually been staged to Scott Base, where they now lie in wait for Martin and I.  Martin will be treating the boxes themselves while I deal with the contents, and we look forward to showing you our progress!



Posted by Conservators Aug 22, 2012

Author: Martin

Date: 21.8.2012

Temperature:  12 degree C

Wind Speed: n/a

Wind chill: n/a

Sunrise: About 6am

Sunset About 7pm


It might sound exciting, but it really is not much fun to be on a boomerang flight. Yesterday we were all set to fly to Antarctica to replace the current team of international conservators working on  artefacts from the historic huts from the heroic era.


Five hours in a cargo plane to Antarctica, ¾ of an hour circling and unsuccessfully  trying to land and 5 hours flying back to arrive where we started from in Christchurch. Boomerang flight is indeed a very appropriate name.


Exciting views of a continent under ice – Credit: AHT/Falcon


It is also a timely reminder that it is the weather which so often dictates what we can or can't do in this remote place. Patience, flexibility and the ability to accept it are useful qualities to have when working in Antarctica.


Flying back – Credit: AHT/Falcon


Compared, however, with what the early explorers had to endure, a boomerang flight which delivers us safely back to Christchurch hardly deserves a mention. Scott and Shackleton and their men had to cope with conditions on their journeys which are incomprehensible to us today. They literally put their lives on the line in order to go where nobody had been before and they could never be sure whether they would come back at all.  


Going again

Posted by Conservators Aug 22, 2012

Author: Martin

Date: 19.8.2012

Temperature:  12 degree C

Wind Speed: n/a

Wind chill: n/a

Sunrise: About 6am

Sunset About 7pm



I am about to go 'to the ice' with the Antarctic Heritage Trust for the fifth summer in a row. The main focus will be conserving artefacts in and around the historic hut of Robert Falcon Scott at Cape Evans. While a lot of the pre-deployment briefings and preparations here in Christchurch have become a pleasant routine, the sense of privilege and excitement about being able to live and work for a while in this indescribable part of the world never changes.


Enjoying Antarctica in Christchurch – Credit: AHT/Lizzie


Often people ask what it is that makes me want to go again. The answer is threefold and usually the same every time. I get to work with a small international team of wonderful people on  a project with world heritage status and all of that in an environment which never ceases to overwhelm me. So as long as I answer like that I am happy to be involved, look forward to going again and don't mind encountering -25 degrees C  tomorrow.  


US Airforce plane ready to go – Credit:  AHT/Falcon


The last trip

Posted by Conservators Aug 20, 2012

Author: Gretel Evans

Date: 17 August

Temperature:  -35 °C

Wind Speed: 15 knots

Temp with wind chill: -50°C

Sunrise: n/a

Sunset n/a


Yesterday the Winter 2012 Antarctic Heritage Trust conservation team took a trip to Captain Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. We went to check the condition of the hut after the Antarctic winter. It was a great contrast to our visit at the beginning of the season. Back in February we flew there by helicopter – a trip of only 20 minutes; marvelled at the wildlife (penguins and seals) enjoying the open water; and basked in the 24 hour sunshine. This time we travelled by Hagglund over the sea ice, the return journey took 12 hours with not much more than an hour spent at the hut.

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Hagglund on the sea ice   Credit: Gretel /AHT


Travelling on the sea ice is not without risk and much of the journey is spent looking out for cracks in the ice and assessing whether they can be safely crossed or not. There is no wildlife to see at this time of year and the sea, which is their home, is frozen solid in to a vast white wasteland. We were lucky with the weather as despite the bitter cold it was not too windy. T`he lack of cloud meant we could enjoy what light is filtering over the horizon in advance of the first sunrise which will come in a few days. It was a fantastic trip, made all the more memorable as it will be our last as before we leave the ice in a few days time. The base hut and all its artefacts will be in good hands with the summer season conservators, Jana and Martin, who replace us to carry on the conservation work and spread the word via the blog.



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Captain Scott’s snow covered hut at Cape Evans   Credit:  Gretel/AHT


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!


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?


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.



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?”



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.


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.


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.


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)


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


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’).



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


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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