Conservation at the bottom of the earth


You may already have read of the exciting discovery of two new artefacts at Port Lockroy last season. The first is an earthenware jar with a much disintegrated wicker sleeve, which probably once contained alcoholic spirits. The second is perhaps the most exciting discovery at Port Lockroy since the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust took over its management in 1993.  It is a whalebone artefact with a pencil-drawn map of Port Lockroy dated to 1948, just four years after Operation Tabarin and the establishment of Base A. It illustrates the bay of Port Lockroy with Goudier Island at the centre, Jougla Point, and the islands of Bills, Boogie, and Woogie also shown. Goudier Island has two buildings sketched in pencil, representing Base A as it appeared in 1948. 

Pictured: UKAHT's conservation team finding the whalebone artefact at Port Lockroy

While the glaze on the earthenware jar has offered it some protection, the whalebone artefact has presented numerous conservation challenges for us. It was found within the ice and mud to the rear of Bransfield House, and came from the ground quite wet. We were concerned that if the object dried too quickly, it could potentially crack or splinter. Conservation work in Antarctica always comes with its own set of particular challenges, but especially so when you have an unexpected discovery and haven’t come prepared with specialist tools and equipment. Nevertheless, following advice from specialists and experts world over, our Port Lockroy staff diligently set to work tending to its every need for the remainder of the season – turning it every few hours, monitoring an existing crack on the reverse, and changing paper towels that were helping to wick away excess moisture.  

Pictured: Whalebone artefact 

Behind the scenes, the team were consulting as to whether to try and return the artefact to the UK for conservation by specialists. A number of factors went into our decision to leave it at Lockroy, including the inherent risks of transporting the artefact without proper protection. Following regular reports from the Port Lockroy staff, and the determination that it was drying well without further cracking, we decided to leave it carefully stored in Bransfield House. One of the first tasks for our new team arriving for the 2022-23 season will be to inspect the artefact, photograph it, measure the crack, and report back to our UK team. 

Back at UKAHT HQ, we are getting excited about the opportunity to share this evocative artefact with our supporters – both in situ at Port Lockroy, and digitally. 


Ruth Mullett 

Head of Buildings and Conservation