Dr Estelle Lazer
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006
The Territory of Heard Island (53°01' South, 73°23' East) and the McDonald Islands was declared a World Heritage Area in 1997 for its outstanding natural values. It is administered by the Australian Antarctic Division under a management plan. Cultural heritage assets of Heard Island were listed in the Register of the National Estate in 1983. The Territory of Heard Island has been included in the National Heritage List and Commonwealth Heritage List as an indicative place.
Heard Island’s cultural heritage is conserved through a process of managed decay. This is a pragmatic management option, which acknowledges the practical impossibility of conserving all elements of the cultural environment in a remote area where access is limited. A draft cultural heritage management plan of the Atlas Cove Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions Station has been prepared (Vincent and Grinbergs 2002). There is no cultural heritage management plan for the heritage sites outside Atlas Cove. The preparation of such a plan has been identified as a priority due to the threat to sites as a result of natural processes (Australian Antarctic Division and Director of Parks 2005, p. 64).
The first reported sealing expedition to Heard Island was in 1855 and sealing continued until 1877. By the 1880s, seal stocks were so low that sealing operations were no longer economically viable. There was an attempt to renew sealing in the early twentieth century by the Kerguelen Whaling and Sealing Company of Cape Town, but this operation ceased by the early 1930s. Numerous sites associated with the sealing industry have been identified around the island, especially in the area around Spit Bay. At least fourteen ships were wrecked or lost at Heard Island (Lazer and McGowan 1990, pp. 31–36). Several headboards associated with the graves of sealers have been identified on the island (Bruce Hull pers. comm.; Max Downes pers. comm.; Eric Woehler pers. comm.).
Mawson visited Heard Island with the British Australian New Zealand Research Expedition in 1929 and stayed in the Admiralty Hut for seven days.
The first Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions base was established at Atlas Cove in 1947. This station was closed in 1955, after the establishment of Mawson Station on the Antarctic continent. Five types of prefabricated buildings and a number of traditional, framed buildings were used. Six of the prefabricated buildings were dismantled and relocated to Mawson Station and one was subsequently relocated to Davis (Lazer and McGowan 1987a; Lazer and McGowan 1990, p. 13; Vincent and Grinbergs 2002, p. 56).
Across Heard Island, the majority of sites that relate to the sealing industry are coastal and are at risk from the effects of the extreme weather, climate change and a dynamic coastline. A significant amount of cultural heritage material has been or lost or has had to be relocated since recording began in the mid-1980s (see section on ‘Risks’). The maritime climate exacerbates corrosion. Many of the portable artefacts are slowly deteriorating and only have a limited lifespan (Lazer and McGowan 1987b; Hughes and Lazer, 2000, pp. 74–75; Hughes and Lazer 1998: 24-25; Australian Antarctic Division and Director of Parks 2005, p. 64).
All but one of the buildings of Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions station at Atlas Cove have been substantially demolished. Building foundations survive, as do floors in some cases, as well as some artefacts. This provides a footprint of the original station. A considerable amount of disintegrated material that has been deemed to be of minimal cultural significance has been removed from the site over several seasons to enable the rehabilitation of the environment (Vincent and Grinbergs 2002, pp. 38–69; Hughes and Lazer 2000, pp. 74–75, 122–134).
In 1997 Macquarie Island (54°31’ South, 158°56’East) was declared a World Heritage Area for its geological and natural attributes.
Macquarie Island was occupied for sealing activities from 1810. King and royal penguins were exploited for oil from 1870. Domestic and industrial remains associated with this industry are scattered along the coastline of the island. There is also evidence of shipwrecks and sealers’ graves (Cumpston 1968; Townrow 1989, 138–139; 1992b, 5–20, Nash 2000, 15–42; Carmichael 2004, 13–25).
The island was visited by scientific expeditions in 1820, 1840, 1898, 1901 and 1909.
Mawson’s 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition used Macquarie Island as a relay post for the first radio link between Australia and Antarctica. A wireless repeater station was established on Wireless Hill and a hut was constructed on the isthmus. Mawson revisited the island in 1929 with his British Australian New Zealand Research Expedition (Clark 2003, pp. 3–4).
The research station at Buckles Bay has been continuously occupied since 1948. Archaeological and cultural heritage management plans have been prepared for Macquarie Island (Nash 2000; Parks and Wildlife Service 2003) and a draft cultural heritage management plan for the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions station area at Buckles Bay has been prepared (Vincent 2004). An audit was made of cultural heritage sites on the island in 2004 (Carmichael 2004). To date, cultural heritage management has been a joint undertaking by the Australian Antarctic Division and the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service.
The sites associated with the sealing industry at Macquarie Island are threatened by the extreme environment, wildlife, human interference and encroachment by vegetation. The majority of sites that have been recorded across the island are, at least, partially buried. Shipwreck material, structural elements and portable artefacts are slowly deteriorating. (Clark 2003, pp. 2–4; Carmichael 2004, pp. 6–9).
Out-of-context collection of artefacts associated with shipwrecks and the sealing industry are stored at the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions base. These were collected by expeditioners from sites across the island before there was an appreciation of the value of leaving artefacts in their original context. The movement of seals across artefacts can cause considerable damage. Fences erected to keep out seals in the 1980s have proved to be successful. A conservation strategy has been prepared for the Australian Antarctic Division (Clark 2003).
Ruins of the mast and huts erected by the 1911–14 Australasian Antarctic Expedition still survive but are deteriorating (Townrow 1989, p. 137; Carmichael 2004, pp. 9–10).
The majority of buildings associated with the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions at Buckles Bay are essentially intact and in good condition. The only exception is the Nissen Huts, which are seriously corroded (Vincent 2004, p. 105). Some remedial work has been done on these buildings (Bruce Hull pers. comm.). Seismic activity poses a threat, although most structures were built to withstand tremors. Asbestos cement sheeting needs to be removed from the site. Archaeological deposits also survive (Vincent 2004, pp. 108–9, 113).
The maritime climate promotes corrosion of metal artefacts. Wooden items tend to be abraded by windborne sand and salt particles. Disturbance by wildlife and land slippage are issues that may influence the preservation of all sites on the island (Clark 2003, pp. 2–4, Vincent 2004, pp. 108–9).
Condition varies within and between sites, ranging from the largely dismantled Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions station at Atlas Cove on Heard Island, to relatively well-preserved elements of the site associated with Mawson’s Huts, and to the structures that are maintained as part of permanently occupied research stations, like Mawson. Nonetheless, the factors that cause deterioration are shared. The key issues are deterioration due to isolation and lack of maintenance, especially in view of the harsh environment. The most important issue is that all buildings need constant monitoring and repair.
Many of the portable artefacts associated with these sites are slowly deteriorating and have a limited lifespan. It would be too costly to conserve the majority of these objects and their significance would be diminished if they were returned to Australia as much of their significance is related to context. This is why managed decay has generally been chosen as a management option for this class of artefacts. This management approach should be monitored to ensure that loss of cultural significance over time is minimised.
The Australian Antarctic Division is obliged to manage sites in accordance with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). This means that it must produce and implement written plans to protect and manage the heritage values of Commonwealth heritage places owned or controlled within a specified period of time.