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Black and white photo combined with color photography.
Photo Credit: Scott Polar Research Institute (left) and Clive Oppenheimer
The discovery of a historic campsite in December 2012 on Erebus volcano led to its official listing on the Antarctic Treaty's Historic Sites and Monuments list.

Historic moment

New sites and monuments added to Antarctic Treaty heritage list

A pair of campsites located high on the flanks of an active volcano in Antarctica – once used by British explorers a little more than a century ago – officially became part of history.

The 50 nations that manage most activities on the continent through the Antarctic Treaty System External Non-U.S. government site formally recognized the two sites at their annual meeting last year in Brussels, Belgium, along with two other historic sites. The camps had been occupied by a team of British explorers and scientists in December 1912 as part of Robert Falcon Scott’s so-called Terra Nova expedition External Non-U.S. government site.

Last year, volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer External Non-U.S. government site, a co-principal investigator for the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory External Non-U.S. government site, located the two camps on the 100-year anniversary of the expedition. He used historical photos and journals from the men who had ventured up the 3,794-meter-tall volcano to collect geological specimens and to conduct other scientific work and surveys of the region. [See previous article — Repeating history: Scientist discovers century-old campsites on volcano, reenacts historic climb.]

Person stands on snow in front of rocky ridge.
Photo Courtesy: Clive Oppenheimer
Volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer stands at the site of Highest Camp, used by British explorers on Mount Erebus a century ago.

The two-week British expedition up Mount Erebus had been led by Raymond Priestley. The adventurers had set out on Dec. 4 from Cape Royds, where the famous explorer Ernest Shackleton had built an expedition base in 1908. Priestley’s notes describe at least two camps on Erebus.

Oppenheimer located what has been dubbed Upper Summit Camp by matching rock formations to a photograph of one camp. A semicircle of rocks that appeared to be assembled by hand was the final piece of evidence. A volcanologist at the University of Cambridge External Non-U.S. government site, Oppenheimer recreated Priestley’s summit bid on the 100-year anniversary on Dec. 12, 2012, a few days after first discovering the site.

He located a second camp, called Lower Camp E, with the same bit of photographic sleuthing, using images in the collection maintained by the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) External Non-U.S. government site, which Priestley and fellow Terra Nova geologist Frank Debenham founded in 1920. Again, the only sign of the camp was the rearrangement of rocks, which may have been used to weight the tent valences, and a slightly elevated area of gravel.

It was on the Terra Nova expedition that Scott led his famously doomed expedition to reach the geographic South Pole from his base camp at Camp Evans on Ross Island. He and his four men all perished on the return journey after losing the race to Norwegian Roald Amundsen. While history has sometimes judged Scott harshly for some of his decisions, the Briton has more recently been recognized for the ground-breaking research his team conducted.

Smoke emerges from cone of volcano.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek/Antarctic Photo Library
Smoke erupts from the cone of Mount Erebus.

“While their simple campsites obviously lack the spectacle of a structure like the hut at Cape Evans, they nevertheless are a testament to an expedition that gathered valuable cartographic and geologic data,” Oppenheimer said. “Their pioneering work provided foundations for the research we carry out today on Erebus volcano.”

Principal investigator Phil Kyle at New Mexico Tech External Non-U.S. government site, Oppenheimer and their colleagues use Erebus and its rare lava lake to study various volcanic properties and processes. This year the volcano has offered additional excitement, with some of the most powerful eruptions on record since 1984. [See previous article — Erebus erupts: Antarctica's famous volcano shows signs of life not seen in nearly 30 years.]

Growing list

In 1972, the Antarctic Treaty nations established an official list of Historic Sites and Monuments Link to PDF file, which today includes nearly 90 various shrines to the brief human history of Antarctica.

Bust of a person stands on a pedestal.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
A bronze bust of polar explorer Adm. Richard E. Byrd was erected at McMurdo Station in 1965.

There are only a few U.S. monuments, including a bronze bust of America’s most famous polar explorer – Adm. Richard E. Byrd – that was erected at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site in 1965. A plaque commemorating McMurdo’s PM-3A nuclear power plant, the first and only ever built in Antarctica, was dedicated at McMurdo during the 2009-10 summer season. [See previous article — Powerful reminder: Plaque dedicated to former McMurdo nuclear plant marks significant moment in Antarctic history.]

The only extant U.S. structures designated as an historic site are off the Antarctic Peninsula on Stonington Island. East Base was erected and used during two U.S. wintering expeditions: the Antarctic Service Expedition (1939-1941) and the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (1947-1948).

Scott’s first expedition base, built in 1902 for the British Antarctic Expedition of 1901-04 at a site known at Hut Point, is also an historic site that was later incorporated into an Antarctic Specially Protected Area External Non-U.S. government site, which offers specific guidelines under the Antarctic Treaty System to protect its integrity. While officially maintained by New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the hut is located close to McMurdo Station.

In 1964, the New Zealand Antarctic Society, with assistance from the United States, partially restored the hut. The New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust External Non-U.S. government site is currently undertaking a major conservation effort of the building and its 400 to 500 artifacts.

Construction site near small town.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Conservation work at historic Discovery Hut began during the 2013-14 austral summer.

The two other historic designations approved at the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting included a commemorative plaque for the first permanently occupied German Antarctic research station “Georg Forster” that opened in April 1976, and a Russian drilling complex building that was constructed in the summer season of 1983-84. The latter was used to collect ancient ice core samples at Vostok Station.

No additional investigations have been conducted at the Erebus camps to locate any possible artifacts that may have been left behind by the explorers. However, the designation now preserves the sites for future study.

The joint proposal from the United Kingdom, New Zealand and United States to designate the camps as historic sites notes: “The locations of the camps are of significant interest to Antarctic historians, and uncontrolled access to the sites, which might disturb any additional historic remains would be of concern.”

Said Oppenheimer by e-mail, “I am glad to know these sites have been formally recognized. So much of the attention on the ‘heroic era’ has focused on the epic treks, but what Raymond Priestley's team achieved on Erebus was also pretty extraordinary.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs