Antarctic and sub-Antarctic cultural heritage
Dr Estelle Lazer
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
Douglas Mawson led two expeditions to Cape Denison. The first was the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911–14), which aimed to undertake science and exploration. The second involved a brief visit by the British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expeditions in 1931 to claim formal possession of King George V land.
The site is now commonly known as Mawson’s Huts (67°00' 30" South, 142°39' 40" East), and most of the material on it relates to the 1911–14 expedition. There are five buildings and the entire rocky promontory is littered with artefacts, including glass and metal containers, the remains of boots and other clothing, and cached seals and penguins (reflecting the expedition), with major scatters around the Main Hut. Numerous artefacts can also be found inside the Main Hut. There are also the remains of the wooden cross that was erected in the memory of two expeditioners—Mertz and Ninnis—who died on traverse, and the radio masts that were associated with the first use of radio on the continent. The British Australian New Zealand Research Expeditions visit is represented by a replica of the plaque that was erected in 1931. (Godden et al. 2001, pp. 4, 89–92; Hayman et al. 1999, pp. 22–25; Lazer 1985, pp. 1–2).
Mawson’s Huts has been inscribed on the National and Commonwealth Heritage Lists. It is also listed under the Antarctic Treaty System as Historic Site and Monument No. 77. It is protected under the Antarctic Treaty as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA No. 162) and an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA No. 3). It is administered by the Australian Antarctic Division under a management plan.
The Mawson’s Huts site is unique amongst those associated with early exploration on the Antarctic continent, because the majority of the portable artefacts outside the huts are still in essentially the same locations they were in when Mawson left the site in 1914 (Mawson 1915, p. 115),whereas other comparable sites were ‘cleaned up’ from the 1960s (Lazer 1985, p. 9). The Main Hut, which comprises two adjacent buildings—the living hut and workshop and the magnetograph hut —are in relatively good condition, although they need continual maintenance and repair (Godden et al. 2001, p. 90). The absolute magnetic hut and the transit hut are standing ruins (Godden et al. 2001, p. 90). Materials conservation issues include corrosion, corrasion, fungal growth, wind and snow loads, exposure to ultraviolet radiation and the freeze-thaw cycle. The high relative humidity inside Mawson’s Hut is problematic both for the structure and the portable artefacts that are housed within it. Many of the portable artefacts are slowly deteriorating and have only a limited lifespan. (Hayman et al. 1999, pp. 33–47, 113–118; Daniel and Ashley 2002; Godfrey 2002; Godden et al. 2001, pp. 113–119, 126–129, 139–142). A number of private and government expeditions have been undertaken since the late 1970s to assess the condition of the huts, stabilise and conserve them. This work has mostly been focused on the Main Hut buildings, although a number of the expeditions have also included documentation and conservation assessment of the portable artefacts across the site (Godden et al. 2001, pp. 75–87; Hayman et al. 1999, pp. 11–30).
Mawson station (67°36'09.7” South, 62°53'25.7” East) was established in 1954 as the first Australian research station on the Antarctic mainland. It is the oldest, continuously occupied scientific station on the Antarctic continent and the first permanent station south of the Antarctic Circle. Mawson Station was listed on the Register of the National Estate in 2001 and the Commonwealth Heritage List in 2004.
Mawson station heritage assessments have been prepared (Clark and Wishart 1993; Rando 1995).
The first structures that were used for accommodation were barge caravans and post-tension buildings. Later, several buildings were relocated from Heard Island, including the seismology hut and meteorological hut (1950), the balloon hut (1951), the absolute magnetic hut (1951) and the magnetic variometer hut (constructed 1951) (Rando 1995, p. 6; Vincent and Grinbergs 2002, pp. 53, 56).
The condition of buildings and structures at Mawson Station varies from ‘no longer exists/demolished’ to poor condition, sound condition and very good condition. The most significant problems for the survival of buildings are isolation and the extreme climate. Transfer of use from old to new buildings and budget constraints have resulted in priority being given to the maintenance of new buildings. Buildings that have been listed as significant are in variable condition but are salvageable if they continue to be used and maintained (Rando 1995, pp. 82, 119). It has been suggested that the older buildings provide a village character to the station (Rando 1995, pp. 112, 117). Several of the older structures have been removed since the late 1990s (Bruce Hull pers. comm.). There are also other artefacts on the site, including the remains of vehicles (Rando 1995, p. 117). Without conservation, these will deteriorate over time.
Davis station (68°34'35.8" South, 77°58'02.6" East) was established on the continent in 1957. It was inscribed as on the Register of the National Estate in 1999 and has been included on the Commonwealth Heritage List as an indicative place. Thirty-seven station buildings are included in the assessment. Other sites and buildings in the region are also listed, including Platcha Hut, Brookes and Watts Huts, the Mikkelsen Cairn, Walkabout Rocks, and Law Cairn. A cultural heritage study has been prepared for the station and its environs (Rando and Davies 1996).
The condition of buildings and structures at Davis Station varies from ‘no longer exists/demolished’ to poor condition, sound condition and very good condition. Extreme weather places great pressure on structures and continual maintenance is required for their preservation. The rebuilding programme of the second half of the 1970s meant that fewer resources were available for the maintenance of the old station buildings. By the 1990s, there was a minimal maintenance programme for old structures that were still functioning, and none for buildings that were no longer in use (Rando and Davies 1996, p. 33). The rebuilding programme had a major impact on the integrity of the original Davis station. A number of old buildings were demolished when new structures, which replaced their function, were constructed. Nonetheless, the main building line of the old station is essentially still intact (Rando and Davies 1996, pp. 28–30).
Wilkes station on Clark Peninsula (66°15'25.6" South, 110°31'32.2" East) was built by the United States in 1957 and Australia took custody of the station in 1959. As Wilkes was threatened with burial by snowdrifts, a replacement station, eventually named Casey (66°16'54.5" South, 110°31'39.4" East), was constructed nearby from 1964.
Wilkes station, while still the property of the United States of America, has been identified as an indicative place on the Register of the National Estate. A draft cultural heritage management plan for the site has been prepared (Vincent 2002).
Surviving structures at Wilkes include a central building complex, mostly including Clements buildings, and the remains of four semi-cylindrical canvas Jameseway huts, which were ultimately used as stores. A number of storage and rubbish dumps also survive (Clark and Wishart 1988–9, 69–11; Vincent 2002, pp. 13–16, 24–26).
Wilkes Station is remarkable as it is one of the few surviving Antarctic stations that specifically reflects construction for the International Geophysical Year (Clark and Wishart 1988–89, p. 175). It is largely intact, with many portable artefacts and fittings still in situ. The condition of the buildings at Wilkes has deteriorated since the site was abandoned in 1969 and repairs are now necessary for the survival of the structures (Clark and Wishart 1988–89, p. 175; Vincent 2002, p. 61). This station is largely frozen in ice, although it is partially revealed during the summer melt and can become accessible when there is a major thaw in the summer months (Vincent 2002, p. 59; Australian Antarctic Division website). Strong winds, snow and blowing ice have been identified as the major threats to the site (Vincent 2002, pp. 61–62).
The nearby, old Casey station was dismantled in 1992 after recording; it was in an advanced state of deterioration and needed to be replaced by a new station (Clark and Wishart 1989–90). It is listed as destroyed on the Register of the National Estate.