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The writing on the wall

McMurdo Station man documents historic 'graffiti' at Discovery Hut


Some people pass the long winter months of isolation at McMurdo Station trying to learn a new language or knitting enough hats to fill a storefront.

Matthew Nelson has turned a keen interest in polar history into a fulltime off-hours project to document and research the men who once scribbled their names on the wooden walls of an iconic structure that dates back more than century to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

“I just got really excited about these names. Every time I come across a name, I do as much research as I can on it,” Nelson said during a recent phone interview from McMurdo Station, where he works as a satellite communications engineer for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP).

Nelson is back in Antarctica after about a 15-year absence, when he worked on various satellite projects for NASA from 1986 to 1996.

During that winter in 1996, he would often visit Discovery hut, a wooden structure built in 1902 during Capt. Robert Falcon Scott’s first visit to the Antarctic on a spit of volcanic rock jutting out into McMurdo Sound not far from the research station.

A friend was the first to point out a couple of names during one visit to the hut, which was constructed out of Australian jarrah wood based on a design better suited to the heat of the Outback than an Antarctic winter. (Scott eschewed actually living in the drafty hut, preferring to remain aboard the expedition ship, Discovery, after which the hut is named.)

The “graffiti” that Nelson saw back in 1996 belonged to ship’s storekeeper Harry Ernest Wild and general assistant Victor George Hayward, who were not members of the Discovery adventure but the Ross Sea Party, a little-heralded expedition that arrived about a decade later in support of Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross the entire continent via the South Pole.

That was the famous Endurance expedition, when Shackleton’s ship was crushed in the sea ice, but he managed to save himself and all his men in what many consider to be one of the great and final epic adventures of the Heroic Era. The Ross Sea Party, under the command of Aeneas Lionel Acton Mackintosh, was charged with laying supply depots for the second half of Shackleton’s venture, from the South Pole to the Ross Sea.

Mackintosh had sent six men to Discovery Hut on Jan. 18, 1915, to check on the condition of the expedition base. The ship picked them up a few days later, on Jan. 21 — the day that all six men signed one of the walls in the hut.

Since mid-March, Nelson has been leading tours of the Discovery hut, rediscovering the names of Wild and Hayward, and finding the four additional names of general assistant Irvine Gaze, first officer Joseph Stenhouse, dog handler Ernest Joyce and chief scientist Alexander Stevens, along with the date and the ship’s name, Aurora.

That graffiti had been documented previously by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZAHT), a nonprofit organization that is in the process of restoring the historic huts in the Ross Sea region.

“Matt has been a fantastic resource and his interest in the work being conducted by the Trust really injects energy into the project,” said Susanne Grieve, lead conservator for NZAHT at New Zealand Antarctica’s Scott Base, located near McMurdo Station.

“I have been collating Matt’s images and reports on the signatures to provide to AHT,” added Grieve via email. “They are currently in the planning stages for the conservation work on Discovery Hut and, hopefully, when they begin the carpentry and objects conservation, Matt’s reports will be helpful.”

Said Nelson, “To me, when I find a name, even if I’m not the first to document it or find it, it’s like climbing a mountain, even if it’s been climbed before. I’m not much of a mountain climber, but I can relate to it. Once you reach the top, that’s your personal success — you don’t have to be the first to get the thrill.”

But there have been further discoveries during Nelson’s guided tours of the hut, which is protected under the Antarctic Treaty System as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), which limits the number of people who can visit the site and prohibits removing any of the 350-odd artifacts, which range from tins of baking soda to slabs of seal blubber. Tour guides receive special training in the ASPA protocols.

On April 16, during another tour of the hut, McMurdo fuels foreman Kricket Scheerer found the name “Mack” on another wall on her birthday, according to Nelson. About two weeks later, McMurdo plumber foreman Wally Walker discovered three more names about two feet from Mackintosh’s name.  

The names included dog handler William Weller, able-body seaman Jesse Handsley and petty officer 1st class Jacob Cross, PO1, RN — all from Scott’s original Discovery expedition.

“You can walk right by them. It’s by shining lights on them that you eventually pick them up,” Nelson said.

And his persistence keeps paying off.

On May 6, Nelson saw the initials “TW” carved under one board labeled “BUNKS.” He has narrowed the culprit to either Thomas Whitfield or Thomas S. Williamson, both of whom were sailors on the Discovery voyage.

The same day, McMurdo winter site manager Harry House located the name SY Nimrod, the ship used on Shackleton’s 1907-09 expedition. A week later, Nelson found yet another name, J.K. Davis, an officer on the Nimrod.

“When I came down this season I was aware of two names. Now, it’s up to about a dozen and the names of two ships,” said Nelson, 66, an Army veteran who also served as an enlisted man for eight years in the Naval Reserves.

“I can understand the enlisted side. I can relate to the sailors more than Scott,” he said.

Grieve said she does not know to what extent these other names have been documented. “It can be difficult with some of the graffiti because of the numerous reoccupations and undocumented visitation, which could have led to post-Heroic Age writings and fake signatures,” she said.

Grieve and three other Trust conservators are spending the winter at Scott Base working on artifacts from Capt. Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition hut at Cape Evans on Ross Island, from where he launched his doomed attempt to be the first to reach the geographic South Pole, known at the Terra Nova Expedition.

In fact, one of the more interesting mysteries for the team this winter involves a couple of signatures from that expedition, written with blue crayon, found on a pair of McDoddie’s dehydrated rhubarb tins. One reads “Brown” and the other “R F Scott.”

Conservator Stefan Strittmatter, writing on the NZAHT blog, said he has been researching handwriting samples and concluded that “Brown” likely refers to Frank Browning, an expedition member. The writing matches that of Henry “Birdie” Bowers, who served as the storesmen, and would have been the one most likely to ration and name supplies, according to Strittmatter.

The second signature, “R F Scott,” is differentfrom “Brown,” and it has characteristics both similar and dissimilar to Scott’s signature, Strittmatter wrote.

His conclusion:

“Life in Antarctica doesn’t make solving this conundrum easy. There are numerous reasons why you might not write as you normally would: mental fatigue, lack of hand dexterity in the cold, overcompensating in writing clearly to ensure no mistakes were made in rationing etc. I for one believe this is Scott’s handwriting. There were no other ‘Scott’s’ in any of the crews and it wouldn’t come naturally to include ‘R F’ if it was somebody else.”

Nelson has shared his discoveries outside of McMurdo. For example, he did an Internet search on Handsley and found that he was from the town of Skegness in England. It turns out that the townspeople are contemplating installing a memorial in honor of the native son’s exploits. Nelson sent a photo of Handsley’s signature to local Skegness residents Will Williams and Jill Caine.

“It’s generating interest in that town,” Nelson said. “He’s their local claim to fame for polar exploration.”

And there is also interest in the Discovery Hut graffiti from the Dundee Heritage Trust in Scotland, where the Discovery ship is now located, according to Nelson.

“This is an area where we currently don’t have a great deal of information, so it was fantastic to receive [Nelson’s] report and photographs,” said Louisa Attaheri, curatorial assistant at the Dundee Heritage Trust, which provided biographical information on some of the enlisted men and photographs.

There are still a few months left before the end of the winter. Nelson hopes to spy more names before his own adventure into the past is over.

“When you actually see the names — that’s brings a real person to it. It’s the historical aspect of it that I thoroughly enjoy,” he said.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs