Museo Antártico Ushuaia Dr. José María Sobral



By Doctor Ricardo Capdevila (*)


General historical archaeology includes the search, localization, classification, conservation, restoration and maintenance of sites, artifacts, and historic buildings. The recovered elements, properly treated for their study and exhibition, become then part of the museological activity.

Historical Antarctic archaeology is the branch of this science and technique which specifically deals with the sites and historic monuments in the Antarctic continent, which can still be located and subject to suitable treatment for their future conservation despite the extreme weather conditions of that geographical area.


The aim of MUSEOANTAR program is to fulfill the commitment taken on by the Argentine Republic as a country member of the Antarctic Treaty to safeguard the heritage of the Antarctic continent within the geographical area of its influence. As a consequence, this is a task of national and international relevance, and the monuments involved in its origin are the surviving property of the South Pole Swedish Expedition (1901-1903) led by Doctor Otto Nordenskjöld, for such expedition is closely related to the beginning of the official Argentine scientific activity in that region.


On an international level, every effort was put in the restoration and maintenance of the Antarctic historic monuments, in accordance with the regulations of the Antarctic Treaty. During the Consultative Meeting in Canberra in 1961, the governments were advised to adopt measures in order to protect the buildings, tombs and objects of historical interest from damage or destruction, and to produce reports and hold conferences about their state and restoration (Recommendation I - 9, and, later, Recommendation V - 4). Subsequently, the governments made a list of historic monuments and assumed the responsibility of maintaining them. The monuments involved in MUSEOANTAR program are included on the list of Recommendation VIII - 9, which listed them in the following way:

  • Monument N° 38: Shack built on Snow Hill Island in February, 1902, by the main group of the South Pole Swedish Expedition led by Otto Nordenskjöld (Latitude 64° 24´ S; Longitude 57° W).
  • Monument N° 39: Shack made of stone in Hope Bay, built by a group belonging to the South Pole Swedish Expedition in January, 1903 (Latitude 63º 24´ S; Longitude 56º 59´ W).
  • Monument N° 41: Shack made of stone on Paulet Island, built in February, 1903, by Carl A, Larsen, the Norwegian Captain of the shipwrecked vessel ANTARCTIC, which brought the South Pole Swedish Expedition led by Otto Nordenskjöld; and a tomb of a member of the expedition (Latitude 63º 35´ S; Longitude 55º 47´ W). A cairn was added to this monument, built by the victims of the shipwreck on the highest point of the island to attract the attention of any rescue expedition. This last monument was found during a flight made by the program working team during the 1993-1994 campaign, and it was surveyed in the following summer campaign ("El cairn de piedra de la isla Paulet - Un monumento arqueológico poco conocido", Contribución I.A.A. Nº 447 - Buenos Aires, 1996).

It should be pointed out that the International Monument # 38, the shack on Snow Hill Island, was also declared Historical National Monument by the Executive Power Decree # 6058 in 1965, as it is one of the landmarks of Argentine Antarctic activity. For this reason, the National Commission of Museums, Places and Historic Monuments, an agency of the Argentine Cultural Department, was consulted when the restoration program was planned, and such department approved of the project.

The international Antarctic community placed special emphasis on the restoration and maintenance of historic buildings like the one located on Snow Hill Island. These are — the installations built by the “Cruz del Sur" Expedition led by Borchgrevink (1898-1900), located at Adare Cape; the buildings erected by the British expedition led by Scott and Shackleton (1901-1913), located on Hut Point and Royd and Evans Capes, on Ross Island, in the Ross Sea; and the one built by the Australian Expedition led by Douglas Mawson (1911-1914) at Commonwealth Bay, Adelié Land, to the west of Grav Cape.

Lastly, it should be pointed out that, during the recent meetings of the Antarctic Treaty parties, the need to safeguard the heritage was reasserted and the success of the development of MUSEOANTAR program was highlighted as an example for the community (XVI Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Bonn, April 15-19, 1991).


At the beginning of 1902, after navigating the western region of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Swedish Expedition led by Dr. Otto Nordenskjöld on the whaler Antarctic tried to reach, in the eastern region of the same peninsula, the same latitude as the commanding officer of the vessel, Captain C. A. Larsen, had reached at the beginning of the last decade of the previous century, during a whaling expedition. However, they could not enter the Weddell Sea to the south. So, after sailing around the southern islands belonging to the Ross archipelago, they chose Snow Hill Island to set up the wooden shack made in Sweden, which was going to house the members of the expedition during the wintering period of 1902.

The Swedish Expedition was a non-governmental private venture, and it was the result of a series of proposals made during the International Geographical Congresses held in London (1895) and Berlin (1899), which promoted the first global scientific attempt to reveal the mysteries of the southern continent. This expedition was especially significant for the Argentine Antarctic history, as it marked the beginning of the scientific activity of our country in that region. This intervention, alongside with the creation of the meteorological and magnetic observatory on Año Nuevo Island –which was part of a chain of observatories to make simultaneous observations set up in different points of that southern region of the planet– and the purchase of the observatory installations located on Laurie Island, South Orkney Islands Archipelago, from Dr. William Bruce, are part of a consistent policy as regards the Antarctic territory. This last observatory is the only one in Antarctica that has been producing scientific information on an ongoing basis for more than a hundred years. And the main reason, among others, for the relevance of the Swedish expedition for Argentina lies in the fact that Mr. José María Sobral –a young sailor and a scientist appointed to be in charge of the meteorological, magnetic and topographic studies in that far-off place– took part in the scientific tasks for almost the two years the expedition on Snow Hill Island lasted.

Once the six winter visitors had disembarked on Snow Hill Island at the beginning of February, 1902, they started to build the meteorological and magnetic shacks at once, where they took refuge temporarily until February, 23rd, when they finished building the dwelling.

At that small plateau, located on a valley where there was a glacier at that time –not there anymore–, and at a bigger plateau, they prepared themselves for the wintering period. They started regular observations and expeditions, reaching a latitude close to the Antarctic Circle (66º 33´S) for the first time in history.

On November, 7th, 1902, the vessel ANTARCTIC –on which the expedition group led by Dr. Gunnar Andersson had carried out research tasks on Malvinas Islands and San Pedro Island (South Georgias)– started to cross the Drake Passage to finish the survey of the west coast of the peninsula and then head for Snow Hill Island to pick up the members of the expedition who had overwintered at that place. The vessel arrived in Deception Island (South Shetland Islands), and then sailed on south. Once the tasks in that area were finished, it was decided to turn at the north end of the peninsula to enter the Weddell Sea. However, pack ice was encountered, and it prevented them from moving forward along the strait which is today named after him, so, Dr. Andersson, after having agreed with Captain Larsen, decided to disembark along with two of his men: Duse, a cartographer, and Grunde, a sailor, at the nearest coast (a place which they later named Hoppet vik or Hope Bay). Their aim was to walk by land and across the frozen sea towards Snow Hill Island. Once there, they would wait for some days for the vessel, which would try to reach the place rounding the D´Urville Islands. If the vessel did not arrive within a previously agreed period, the nine men would head for Hope Bay to board the ANTARCTIC again.

The groups failed in their attempts. The men at Hope Bay were not able to cross the sea stretch between the peninsula and Snow Hill Island, because it was no longer frozen. The vessel was ice bound on entering the Weddell Sea and wrecked at the southwest of Paulet Island.

The men at Hope Bay and the shipwrecked people of the vessel –who reached Paulet Island after 18 days of setting up camp on drifting ice floes using the few elements rescued from the shipwreck– adopted identical measures to survive and overcome the hardships in store for them – they built shelters made of stone to take refuge; they rationed their few provisions; they hunted the few birds and seals a mean nature offered them; they prepared themselves to winter and face an uncertain future; and both groups ignored the other group’s fate.

The lack of news from the ANTARCTIC and the fate of the Swedish Expedition was a concern for Argentinians and their government, and a campaign was organized. Perito Francisco Pascasio Moreno, who was worried about his colleague and friend, Otto Nordenskjöld, and about his men, sent a letter to the newspaper “La Nación,” which marked the beginning of the campaign. The search and rescue of the survivors, if there was any, had to be attempted. A ship suitable for polar navigation was asked to Europe, but the request was rejected. So, an old gunboat belonging to the fleet, the URUGUAY, was prepared to fulfill this humanitarian mission.

In October, 1903, after being reconditioned and equipped with new spars and a new engine, and having its hull reinforced and divided into watertight compartments, the Uruguay, led by Lieutenant Julián Irízar, set sail from the port of Buenos Aires for the south.

On November, 6th the corvette arrived in a place named Seymour Cape (today called Marambio Island) by James Clark Ross's cartography (1840-1842). On the 8th, a tent belonging to the Swedish was sighted on the southeast coast, in a place called Penguin Bay. From that moment on, events happened very quickly.

Nordenskjöld, who had left Snow Hill Island in October, 1903, heading for Paulet Island to leave a notice about his situation there and in Hope Bay, met the three men from Hope Bay on his way, who were able to cross Prince Gustav Channel. So, he abandoned his idea of reaching Paulet Island and they all returned to Snow Hill Island.

The same day the URUGUAY reached Seymour Island, Captain Larsen and three of his men, first by boat and then on foot across the frozen sea during the last stretch, arrived at the winter shack, after going through Hope Bay where they found the abandoned shack made of stone. The rescue of all the members of the expeditions was achieved thanks to these happy coincidences. The only casualty suffered during the odyssey was the death of the sailor Ole Wennesgaard, who died of a cardiac condition aggravated by scurvy on Paulet Island.

The Swedish expedition led by Dr. Otto Nordenskjöld and its rescue by corvette URUGUAY marked, as it was previously said, the beginning of the Argentine scientific activity in the Antarctic continent, the first penetrations by land in South American Antarctica and the training of Argentinians to work in the area.


The planning of a singular program because of its content and because of the environment where it was going to be implemented gathered the anthropologist Néstor E. Iribarren, the museologist and historian Santiago M. Comerci, and the author of this report at the end of the 1970s. Starting an activity which was almost unprecedented was a true challenge. Once the bibliography was consulted, we gathered the works by D. L. Harrowsfield, "Historical Archaeology in Antarctica," published in the "New Zealand Antarctic Record," Volume I, Number 3, 1978, which was the only experience known related to the subject; and the book by Dr. Nordenskjöld, “Antarctica: Or Two Years Amongst the Ice of the South Pole,” which was carefully translated into Spanish (“Viaje al Polo Sur”) and published in two volumes by the Publishing House Maucci, in Barcelona in 1904. We asked for advice and were trained by architect Ricardo Alvis, expert on historic archaeology at the University of La Plata Natural Sciences Museum. This material satisfied the demands of the project at the beginning. Mr. Alvis properly trained us in the specific techniques, such as the anastylosis, a technique for restoration by which the original parts are separated from the reconstructed ones. We had the chance to witness this technique in action during the restoration of the Roman buildings in the Gothic neighborhood of Barcelona, under the Royal Palace, where the Catholic King and Queen welcomed Christopher Columbus when he returned from his discovery voyage.

For our venture, the book by Nordenskjöld, because of the depth and the attention to detail of the report, and the large quantity and good quality of the illustrations, gave us almost all the necessary information about the appearance of the buildings whose restoration we were starting. Harrowsfield’s work provided us with a wide-raging report about the techniques he used when dealing with the bequest of the expeditions led by Scott and Shackelton, which were in similar conditions as the ones we would have to deal with in our program.

The way in which the shack in Snow Hill had been built showed us the need of a carpenter to make major repairs to the structure and the interior. For that purpose, we had Mr. Oscar Ramón Alfonzo&rsrsquo;s outstanding contribution. This man, apart from being a carpenter by trade, had an important background because of having spent almost 20 years in the Antarctic area. He helped us improve our basic knowledge about the subject (which, in my case, was acquired as a hobby when young), as that building work seemed to be very primitive, maybe because it had to be made hastily.

The stone buildings on Paulet Island and Hope Bay were another aspect to be considered. At the beginning, we thought about hiring a pirquero, a character which is not longer common in our mountains, whose trade used to be building low stone walls –with rocks found in the area and following ancient traditional techniques– to delimit the space where cattle should be kept. This possibility was ruled out, because the men who built those shacks must not have been trained as pirqueros. They were ordinary people, just like us, without any previous training in the building of shacks made of stone. They just made them to the best of their knowledge, just as the urgent circumstances showed them to do so.

To preserve the symbolic value of the remains, it was necessary not to alter the original model, a principle on which the methodology of conservation is based, taking into account that the materials and buildings had to face the severe conditions and the erosion produced by Antarctic weather at all times.

Considering these premises, we started our task. We did not need experienced experts, but men who had some experience and, mainly, who were clearly identified with the aims of the program.


On February 4th, 1980, the program working group disembarked on Snow Hill Island and set up camp near the old building, which was still standing. This building is located on a small plateau 13 meters above sea level, which stretches between the slope of a higher plateau about 200 meters high, and a glacier that came down toward the sea from an enormous ice dome after which the island was named. This glacier, as it was said from the beginning of our work until now, retreated towards the dome and disappeared from the area where the monument is located.

The Swedish shack has two stories (in fact, the first floor and then a spacious loft or attic as a result of the high saddle roof). It has a surface area of 23.67 m2. The outer walls are double. They were originally covered with tarred paper and felt on the interior and with tarred paper on the exterior. The floor was once covered with linoleum and, probably, with some kind of carpet. The shack had double folding windows. A small hall with an area of 1 x 2 meters was the entrance to the house and connected the exterior with the parlor or dining room. The intermediate access was equipped with a double door. The second of these doors was not placed, as well as the ones belonging to the rooms, because they took up too much room and the space was rather limited. The parlor has an area of 2 meters wide by 4 meters long. Four rooms converged on the parlor, three of which were used as rooms and were equipped with double bunk beds, and the other one was the kitchen. The second floor, loft or attic, was used to store supplies and equipment.

The windows were not there anymore due to the action of wind and ice during 80 years of abandonment. A commission of sailors that visited the place around 1956 blocked off the openings using wooden boards.

When the commission led by Mr. Comerci arrived, they found the building invaded by solid ice which reached 1.80 meters high in some areas, as the snow had entered the house through the openings. Some remains of the wall coverings and of the linoleum could be seen through the ice. At the center of the parlor on the right, there was a salamander stove, which was rather damaged by rust and its shaft was incomplete. The Husqvarna Nº6 firewood or charcoal range was found in the same conditions. It was broken in several pieces, probably because of ice action.

However, the accumulation of ice was positive in two different ways – a) It helped the building structure remain standing, despite the breaking of the guy ropes used as an outer support; and b) it protected many elements and materials used by the Swedish expedition and left behind during the withdrawal, which were subject to the depredation of accidental visitors.
The first task was to clear the access, which was blocked by a 1.20-meter high mound of ice, which prevented the main door from being opened. This task demanded time and patience. Thanks to the gap left by the door, which was slightly ajar, the obstacle was removed by means of a hammer and a pick. As it was previously said, the house was completely invaded by the ice, specially the south end where it reached the highest point. The bunk beds in the rooms were destroyed and tightly caught by blocks of solid ice through which some objects could be slightly seen. The upper bunk beds and the furniture had disappeared and some scattered remains could be seen.

The second step consisted in continuing removing ice from the interior. The use of the pick was unavoidable, as the building and the materials were highly combustible and direct heat could not be used. As a consequence, the pick damaged the linoleum, which was already in a rather bad state, as well as the carpet. Some pieces of carpet were kept in order to find similar materials for the future restoration.

The permanent blizzard and winds blowing over 100 km per hour, and the low temperature of around - 20º C, apart from the fact that the materials were inflammable, prevented us from using heat to recover some objects when it would have been possible.

Once the floor was defrosted and moving around the interior was easier, the third task was started – the recovery of objects of museological value, a task achieved with patience, especially the ones found in the rooms facing northwest and southwest. In the room facing northeast, a bottle with a message left by a commission of sailors who visited the place in 1971 was found. The procedure was put off due to the extreme weather conditions around mid February, and it was resumed during the following campaigns.

The technique described by Harrowsfield to recover the objects inserted in ice was applied. The ice was removed by means of the pick until the object was almost reached. Once solid ice was removed as much as it was possible, small gas stoves were used to melt the ice in specific sectors, to avoid damaging the objects as much as possible. Because the solid ice was embedded in the objects tightly, any mechanical method to remove it was ruled out and, instead, solar radiation was used. This had been foreseen when the materials were gathered in Buenos Aires. That is why we had two reels of polyethylene films: one was black and the other one was transparent, both of them 100 microns thick. The ice blocks containing objects were wrapped in this material and then were exposed to solar radiation. The black polyethylene film absorbed the solar radiation in a more effective way, and the refraction between this film and the transparent one which was inside helped carry out the process, speeding up the fusion and the completion of the melting process without the need of using any other mechanical methods. This step was completed after having written down the place where each object was found.

During the following campaign in December 1981, the cleaning of the kitchen and the removal of ice from the interior of the shack was completed. A good number of objects was recovered – English china; English cutlery; three Primus heaters, one of which had its full fuel load. A wooden chest containing tools, polar shoes, some fossils, and perforated and empty penguin eggs was found in the southeast room, adjacent to the kitchen. Outside, next to the shack, a tent was set up with a black polyethylene film measuring 1.50 meters by 3 meters that covered all the artifacts, which were wrapped, individually or in groups, also with polyethylene film. While the sun finished the melting process by means of the plastic film, the search for the materials located in the attic was conducted. The narrow opening to access the roof had to be cleared, as it was blocked with ice, tarred paper, and pieces of canvas, burlap, and leather left by expeditionaries.

After the tasks conducted during the two first campaigns, the shack was ready to start the restoration process.


The Wintering Shack

Year after year, the inner partitions were repaired; the bunk beds, desks, windows, a folding table and the loft were reconstructed; the building was secured with a steal wiring joined to four outer corner guy ropes, held up by concrete foundations; a buttress made of concrete was built underground to support the monument; and, lastly, the outer tarred cardboard coverings were replaced. The small plateau where the building stands gradually becomes smaller due to the rise in temperature which reduces permafrost (soil at or below the freezing point of water). That is why a permanent process of filling and containing of its base is needed.

In February 2004, the Swedish shack was officially opened as a site museum. The inner and outer restoration process is virtually finished. In the interior, different objects used by the members of the expedition are exhibited in the state in which they were found during the campaign, as well as a collection of photos that shows the history of the Swedish expedition. The place is maintained during the summer season and is visited by increasing numbers of tourists.

Dr. Andersson's Shack

The shack made of stone located in Hope Bay, where Dr. Andersson, Lieutenant Duse and Mr. Grunden, a sailor, were forced to overwinter, was rebuilt following existing documentary information. The tasks started in 1992. Only the remains of the shack were found, a pile of stones left after the collapse of the building due to the passing of time. Using the original materials, the four walls and the access porch were rebuilt. The entrance was not there anymore because it had been made with boxes which were then used to carry geological material gathered by Dr. Andersson and taken to corvette URUGUAY during the rescue expedition. So, this entrance was restored with old wooden boards found in the surroundings, which were the remains of an English base which caught fire in the 1950s. A perimeter fence made with chains protects the access and allows visitors a better sight of the building.

The archaeological task carried out in the interior allowed us to rescue the most important elements used by the accidental winter visitors in 1903. Some of these objects are exhibited at the wing named after José María Sobral in the Maritime Museum and Prison in Ushuaia, as a reconstruction the life those visitors led in that place.
The Shack on Paulet Island

The victims the ANTARCTIC shipwreck, after sailing on ice floes for several days, disembarked on Paulet Island. With the basalt slabs found in the area, they built a precarious shack, roofed with sails and seal skin, where twenty men –scientists and crew– took refuge until the corvette URUGUAY rescued them. The building is located in the middle of a huge penguin colony. Its restoration has been planned and a metal fence was placed to protect it and prevent penguins from nesting inside. Penguin guano also has to be removed from the shack, as it has damaged the objects left inside, which have an unquestionable museological and historical value. The detritus has completely destroyed a supply depot left by corvette URUGUAY when the shipwreck survivors were picked up. So, the planned tasks will be the solution to the preservation of this important heritage.


Solitary figures placed in those marine and glacier landscapes, the shelters built by the South Pole Swedish Expedition led by Dr. Otto Nordenskjöld are not just listed places in the registers of the Antarctic Treaty. Despite the rustic nature of the buildings, the spirit is overwhelmed by some sort of mysticism produced by those great human feats. In such buildings, twenty-nine men with an uncertain future lived at the beginning of the 20th century, lost at the bottom of the world and without giving up to hopelessness. They put every effort and all their vitality to gather a vast body of knowledge on geography, geology, paleontology, geophysics, botany, meteorology, magnetism, and zoology which, even today, after such a long time, is an invaluable source of Antarctic knowledge and a necessary material for modern works. But they did much more than that – they stated their intentions, dealt with their shortage and gave the world amazing results even today, taking into account the means at their disposal.

The heritage the MUSEOANTAR program deals with is a living testimony of men’s faith, hope and will, modeled by their inventiveness to grow and learn more.

Our country was lucky to actively take part in the South Polar Swedish Expedition, by giving material and logistical support when they set sail from Buenos Aires harbor in December, 1901; by giving scientific help thanks to the presence of the then sublieutenant, José María Sobral, who was a member of the group that overwintered on Snow Hill Island; and, lastly, by rescuing the members of the expedition and bringing them safe and sound back to the inhabited world on corvette URUGUAY, today anchored in the port of Buenos Aires and turned into a museum that exhibits her own glories and is a living testimony of a heroic stage in the Antarctic history.


The Antarctic historic heritage rescued by Argentine teams is on exhibit at different sites in Antarctica and further north.
The southernmost exhibit is the one at Matienzo Station, east of the Antarctic Peninsula as an homage paid to Oscar Ramón Alfonso, an expert guide (baquiano) of the polar area who lived for over 20 years there and traveled around over 12,000 kilometers on sledges drawn by dogs. Different elements used for crossings and for wintering are shown at the main hall of the station.

At the entrance of the main house of Marambio Station, there is an exhibit about the history of the air base that put an end to the winter isolation of the White Continent in 1969. In addition, there is an exhibit on scientific research conducted on the eastern part of the Antarctic Peninsula as from the 1960’s including the major paleontological findings and historical events which have enriched mankind’s knowledge.

Further north, Esperanza Base lodges the Gustavo Giró Museum, named after the Argentinian that headed one of the most important land crossings over this continent. There is material on the first expedition to reach the South Pole, as well as historic photographs and elements used during the first years of the continent conquest, and a taxidermic exhibit of fauna which is the most important of its kind on the White Continent.

In Ushuaia, the Maritime and Prison Museum enshrines the richest heritage of historic and biological Antarctic materials preserved at the wing named after José María Sobral.

Other related exhibits, as well as exhibits in museums further north, are true shelters preserving the historic-scientific heritage, which is at the researchers’ disposal, that open up to travelers and the museums’ communities.


Works quoted in the text and:

Comerci, S. M; “Los trabajos de la República Argentina en la isla Cerro Nevado durante las campañas antárticas 1979-1980 y 1980-1981”, Contribución N° 291 DNA, Buenos Aires 1983.

Goldberg F; Wiklander L.; Capdevila R. “The Swedish Hut in Antarctica”. Mohlin and Reppen Editors, Stockholm, 2001.
(*) Curator of the Antarctic Museum, National Antarctic Directorate, Argentine Antarctic Institute (Dirección Nacional del Antártico, Instituto Antártico Argentino).