Antarctica: A History in 100 Objects

This stunning book takes a fascinating approach to the history of Antarctica and would make a superb Christmas gift. We take a look at some of our favourite objects.

Antarctica: A History in 100 Objects

This stunning book takes a fascinating approach to the history of Antarctica and would make a superb Christmas gift. We take a look at some of our favourite objects.

Antarctica: A History in 100 Objects

30/11/2023

This stunning book takes a fascinating approach to the history of Antarctica and would make a superb Christmas gift. We take a look at some of our favourite objects.

Retracing the history of Antarctica through 100 varied and fascinating objects drawn from collections across the world, this beautiful and absorbing book by Dr Jean de Pomereu and Dr Daniella McCahey was published to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the first crossing into the Antarctic Circle by James Cook aboard Resolution, on 17th January 1773. 

Routinely listed among the best books about Antarctica, it presents a gloriously visual history of Antarctica, from Terra Incognita to the legendary expeditions of Shackleton and Scott and would make a superb Christmas gift. As such, we’re showcasing a selection of our favourite objects.

Buy Antarctica: A History in 100 Objects 

No. 01. World map

From as early as the 5th century BC, a southern landmass was believed to exist to counterbalance the known lands of the north. This theory was retained throughout the ages in the maps of Aristotle, Ptolemy and Mercator. In 1602, Matteo Ricci along with Chinese collaborators imagined Antarctica in his world map, Kunyu Wanguo Quantu.

 

The Kunyu Wanguo Quantu places China near the centre of the world and features Mercator's Terra Australis with the inscription: “Few have reached these southern regions. So the things are not explored yet.”

Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (Map of the Myriad Countries of the World), 1608 (Credit: Public Domain)

A 1608 hand-drawn version shows Terra Australis with both real and imaginary creatures including elephants, crocodiles, rhinoceros, lions, ostriches and dragons, as well as sea creatures and ships along its coastline.

No. 03. Chronometer

In 1772, James Cook's mission was to circumnavigate the globe and venture as far south as possible in search of a great land mass at the South Pole. The British Admiralty provided Cook with two vessels, HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure, over 200 officers and men and a marine chronometer to help calculate longitude.

K1 chronometer used on James Cook's second voyage, 1772-75 (Credit: © National Maritime Museum)

Accurate timepieces like this chronometer were of the utmost importance to Antarctic exploration. Until the introduction of GPS in the 1970s, explorers in Antarctica – where there is generally a lack of fixed land points, as well as little distinction between night and day – continued to use chronometers not only for determining the time but also for determining their whereabouts and navigating their way to safety.

No. 12. Hut

We had a natural affinity towards this one! One of Antarctica's defining characteristics is the absence of indigenous human populations. It was not until 1899 that the first buildings were erected on the continent – the earliest predecessor to the 80 or so functioning research stations in Antarctica today.

Borchgrevink's Hut (Credit: © Antarctic Heritage Trust, NZ)

The first two Antarctic huts were constructed as a wintering base by Anglo-Norwegian explorer Carsten Borchgrevink's Southern Cross Expedition, 1898-1900. They are located in the middle of the world's largest Adélie penguin rookery at Cape Adare, where the Ross Sea connects with the wider Southern Ocean – one of the most inhospitable places on

No. 22. Skis

The importance of skis in the early history of Antarctic exploration is hard to overstate. In the words of Roald Amundsen, leader of the first expedition to reach the South Pole: “Every day we had occasion to bless our skis.” He claimed that his team’s skis were “possibly the most important” part of his journey to the South Pole in 1912.

 

Skis were essential in days gone by (Credit: BAS Archives)

Even with the advent of the mechanical age, skis continued to be used in Antarctica. In 1946. American explorer Finn Ronne, whose father Martin Ronne had accompanied Amundsen to Antarctica, charted more than 5,700km (3,542mi) on ski and sledge, more than any explorer in history. Today, skis are mostly employed by adventure tourists and participants in re-enactments of Heroic Age expeditions.

No. 33. James Caird

In 1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton and five companions sailed the lifeboat James Caird 1,300km (800 mi) from Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands through the Southern Ocean to South Georgia. The journey has gone down in history as the greatest small-boat journey ever completed.

A replica of James Caird inPunta Arenas, Chile (Credit: Adwo/Shutterstock)

In 2016, with the Scott Polar Research Institute and the James Caird Society, UKAHT organised a commemoration for Sir Ernest Shackleton at Westminister Abbey on the centenary of the Endurance expedition.

No. 36. Post office safe

Charles F Anderson ran the first US post office in Antarctica. It was established on October 6 1933 at the Little America base on the Ross Ice Shelf. Anderson worked in the science hall of the base camp of Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s Second Antarctic Expedition with five other men. 

The Little America Post Office safe (Credit: © Smithsonian National Postal Museum)

He had with him a 21x16x18-inch safe to secure money orders, stamps, cancellation die and other valuables. The combination safe, now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, was marked conspicuously with the site of its use: “US Post Office Little America, South Pole.” 

No. 46. Soviet statue

Bleached by the circling sun, facing north in the direction of Moscow, the plastic bust of Lenin at the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility is one of the oddest sights in Antarctica. 

At the height of the Cold War, the United States declared its plans to build a station at the Geographic South Pole. The Soviet Union’s response was to bag a double consolation prize consisting of the Geomagnetic Pole and the Pole of Inaccessibility.

Lenin's bust at the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility (Credit: Stein Tronstad/Norwegian Polar Institute)

Located at the furthest point from any coastline, the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility was significantly colder and more hostile than the Geographic South Pole. However, the Soviets were keen to demonstrate that their explorers could operate in harsher environments than those occupied by the Americans. Once in situ, the Soviets established a small hut.

During a short ceremony that included the firing of rockets and the raising of the Soviet flag, the men erected a bust of Lenin on the chimney rising from the now-abandoned station. It still stands today.

No. 73. Sledge

Sledges have a long history in Antarctica. They may have changed somewhat since Nansen first crossed Greenland 130 years ago but sledges are still used by adventurers in the polar regions today. Dog sledge teams were used widely at British bases in Antarctica until 1994. A ban on dogs was introduced because of concern they might introduce diseases to or harm native wildlife.

The sledges at Port Lockroy (Credit: gpils27/Shutterstock)

There are three sledges at Port Lockroy, which are all accessioned into the UKAHT collection. The sledges are stored in the Boatshed over winter and are taken out at the beginning of each season and displayed as part of the museum.

No. 89. Weather balloon

Weather balloons were first deployed and tested in the Antarctic by French, British and German expeditions during the first two decades of the 20th century. They are used to carry instrument packages, called payloads, into the atmosphere. 

A weather balloon being launched at Base F, Argentine Islands (Credit: Pete Kennett/BAS Archives)

Meteorologists can measure wind speed by tracking the horizontal movement of the balloon as it rises. The payload can measure things such as temperature, pressure and humidity. The data is then transmitted back to the ground. The balloons can reach a height of 33km and are used to research the middle atmosphere, as well as for weather forecasting and studying the Antarctic ozone.

Weather balloons were used widely during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) from 1957 to 1958. Several UKAHT bases, including Port Lockroy, Horseshoe and Detaille, were key monitoring sites during the IGY. Port Lockroy acted as the communications centre for the 11 British bases during the IGY as well as undertaking atmospheric research.

Detaille Island was one of only two British bases that contributed meteorological data to the geophysical programmes of the IGY (the other being Port Lockroy). The remaining British bases mostly contributed to topographical surveying and geology.

No. 97. Shipwreck

In 2022, the Endurance22 Expedition successfully located the wreck of Endurance, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship which had not been seen since it was crushed by the ice and sank in the Weddell Sea in 1915.

The wreck of Endurance (Credit: © Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust/National Geographic)

The venture, mounted by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust using the South African icebreaker, Agulhas II, and equipped with remotely operated submersibles, faced constantly shifting sea ice and temperatures as low as -18°C. Shortly afterwards, The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office appointed UKAHT to lead the Conservation Management Plan for Shackleton’s shipwreck Endurance.

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