Museo Antártico Ushuaia Dr. José María Sobral


Archaeological and Museological Expedition to the South Orkneys

This research was the first step of a museological proposal to preserve and revalue both buildings (Lic. Verónica Aldazabal and Lic. Pablo Pereyra).

A project to protect the heritage of the Orkney Base, located on Laurie Island, South Orkneys Archipelago, was carried out between 2000 and 2004. The base is located on the isthmus comprised by the Uruguay bay to the north, named after the first Argentine ship that anchored in its waters (corvette Uruguay, 1904), and the Scotia bay to the south, named after the ship crewed by the Scottish expedition (1903) led by Dr. Bruce (Aldazabal and Pereyra, 2001-2004).

Our objective was rescuing what was left of the shelter “Omond House,” built as a support for the measurements on earth by the Scottish expedition led by Dr. Bruce in 1903, and used as lodgings and lab by the Primera Comisión en Islas (First Commission on Islands), dependent on Argentina in 1904; and of the Moneta House, a wooden hut transported from Buenos Aires by the corvette Uruguay in 1905. It was used as a dwelling and as an observatory, and lodged the subsequent expeditions until 1945. It is named after one member who wintered there four times, in 1923, 1925, 1927, and 1929. Despite the passing of time, its multiple purposes and the changes it underwent, the shack keeps its original features as regards building patterns and layout.

A preservation and revaluation proposal was developed for both buildings, which are a testimony of a hundred years of uninterrupted scientific research by Argentina in the area.

The preservation of heritage in Antarctica is regulated by the Antarctic Treaty and contemplated on a list of historic sites and monuments drawn up during the Consultative Meeting of Wellington, New Zealand, in 1972.

The Archaeological Recovery

Omond House” is located 30 meters away from the shore, at the foothills. It was a structure made of wood and canvas and its exterior was protected with 1.5-meter thick stones. The main door faced southwest. When lifting a curtain made of canvas, a small hallway was reached where there was a door which led to the only and small room the house-laboratory had. A window facing north and a similar one facing southeast allowed the light to come into the house. Opposite the house, there was a storehouse for supplies. A storeroom to keep containers and tools used for the collection of natural history items was also there. The house, built in March 1903, and used as a temporary shelter by the Scottish expedition members to carry out specific tasks inland, was later reused by the first Argentine group, because the sale of the facilities and consequent relief of personnel was decided with great haste.

According to Luciano Valette’s writings (1906), the shelter was reinforced with one-inch wooden boards when he arrived and a new shed made of wood to store supplies was also built. But a heavy swell brought about the collapse of part of it – the roof fell down, several boxes with supplies were lost and part of the dwelling flooded. As a consequence, they had to sacrifice one of the sleighs to obtain struts and long nails to be able to rebuild it. Few images of the shelter are available, so it is difficult to reconstruct its original appearance faithfully.

The building, abandoned in 1905, was sometimes used as a garbage dump o for burning some years later, and its materials were then used for other buildings; for example, in 1927, the foundations of the radiotelegraphic installations opened during that period were built with such materials, according to Moneta (1948).

Only parts of the wall of different heights of that quadrangular construction made of stones are left. Inside the house, the floor is still preserved. It is made of wooden panels, and the posts on which the canvas of the walls was hammered can still be seen at the sides.

Next to this building, on the north side, there is a semi-rectangular area delimited by a small wall made of stones, which is no more than 0.60 meters high. Dark sediment of anthropic origin and wood remains were found there, where the archaeological excavation was made.

Once the snow was taken away, a concentration of coal covering an area of 2 x 5 meters was found against the northwest wall of the dwelling.

Planimetric Record

The survey made and the materials recovered, not only on the surface but also in the excavation areas, allowed us to: delimit the place used as coal bunker; find some boxes for supplies and some biological samples collected by Valette; determine which were their everyday activities and the conditions in which they were done, not only by the members of the Scottish expedition but also by the members of the first Argentine wintering group.
Among the objects found near the boxes, some food supplies were found, such as cans, packets and some cardboard boxes and packs labeled with the name of their contents: dry vegetables, condensed milk without sugar, peas and local supplies, especially penguin eggs and meat.

Boxes with labels made of wood, bottles, penguin remains with skin and plumage, birds and eggs with embryo, surely part of the collection that had been gathered, were also found.

Among the daily-used objects, we found glass, shards of wine bottles, decanters or demijohns and flat and curved bottles; cork or wooden tops; pieces of clay from beer or gin containers and a bottom, probably part of a bottle of whiskey.
Among the fabric found, part of the canvas that covered the dwelling and the storehouse were recovered as well as pieces of packing bags and curtains. We also found pieces of ropes and strings made of vegetal fibers, double or triple and twisted in different ways, a great variety of ores and the end of a canvas hammock joined to the iron rings by means of twisted ropes.

A new dwelling made of wood “built to be a shelter against cold, which has double walls covered with ruberoid and filled with sawdust” was sent along with the relief expedition in January, 1905. “It has comfortable furnished rooms for each of the members of the Commission, a dining room to be used also as a working room and a large kitchen with a larder and a storeroom.” (Davis, 1914) This building was then called “Moneta House.” Wooden buildings for storing the magnetic variometers and the absolute determinations of the magnetic elements were also sent.

Preservation of the Remains

Based on the museological idea to be developed, it was decided to excavate the whole area, but leaving some objects, such as boxes, bags and the coal deposits in their original place. Some cultural elements in certain excavations areas were left in the place where they were found in order to show the processes of formation of the area and the function of each place, which was deduced from the objects left there – room, storehouse for supplies, coal bunker. For that purpose, pictures of them were taken and they were registered on a scale drawing, and they were then covered with the same sediment removed from the area to guarantee their preservation.

Some of the extracted elements were exhibited in one of the rooms of the Moneta House and others were classified and arranged in a storeroom in order to preserve them and not to substantially modify the environmental conditions surrounding them.

A metal footbridge was planned to prevent tourists from walking all over the place. The following can be seen from the footbridge – the rooms; the original wooden floor made with parts of the holds from the Scotia; the storeroom for supplies, only place in the base where there is sediment of anthropic origin and where some cultural objects were intentionally left in situ; and the bags of coal in the coal bunker.

As a guide, exhibition panels made with painted galvanized metal sheets, following the pattern used in the whole base, were installed to explain the function of each room, to show a plan of the house and a diagrammatic view of the place.

Suggested Readings:

Acuña, Hugo, 1982 [1904], Diario del estafeta. Pionero de la soberanía argentina en la antártica. Centro de Documentación Patagónica. Departamento de Humanidades. UNS.
Davis,G., 1914. Historia y Organización del Servicio Meteorológico Argentino. Ministerio de Agricultura, Servicio Meteorológico Argentino.
Valette, Luciano, 1906, Viaje a las Orcadas Australes. Boletín del Ministerio de Agricultura, Argentina.
Moneta, José, 1948. Cuatro años en Orcadas. Editorial Peuser.
Vairo, Carlos Pedro; Capdevila, Ricardo; Aldazaba,l Verónica; Pereyra, Pablo. Antártida, Patrimonio Cultural de la Argentina. Museos, sitios y refugios históricos de la Argentina