Conservators working to preserve artifacts from the early days of Antarctic exploration have uncovered century-old black-and-white negatives taken during Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1917 expedition but never printed.
A box containing 22 negatives was found frozen in a block of ice in a hut used first by Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated 1910-1913 expedition and later by Shackleton’s team. Many of the negatives, found in the makeshift darkroom of expedition photographer Herbert Ponting, have been damaged by time and exposure to the harsh Antarctic conditions, according to Antarctic Heritage Trust (New Zealand), which has conserved more than 10,000 objects at the snowbound hut at Cape Evans, located about 2,500 miles due south of Wellington.
Separating the clump of negatives revealed the images from Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party, a supply operation for the expedition “which spent time living in Scott’s hut after being stranded on Ross Island when their ship blew out to sea,” according to the Trust.
When the negatives were printed, what was revealed is something akin to an Antarctic time capsule. Landmarks around the base can be seen and some members of the party appear in the snapshots.
“It’s an exciting find and we are delighted to see them exposed after a century,” says Nigel Watson, Antarctic Heritage Trust’s executive director.
While the identity of the photographer remains unknown, conservators were able to recognize landmarks around McMurdo Sound, where Cape Evans is located.
Scott’s expedition came to grief, while parts of Shackleton’s party narrowly escaped a similar fate.
Scott, who led a British team, had hoped to be the first to reach the South Pole. But when his five-man party arrived at the southernmost point on Jan. 17, 1912, it was met by unmistakable evidence that Norwegian Roald Amundsen had gotten there first — a full month earlier.
Disheartened, the men set out on the arduous trek back to Cape Evans, where other members of the expedition were holed up. But they never made it and are believed to have perished in blizzard conditions shortly after Scott’s last journal entry on March 29, 1912: “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. For God’s sake look after our people.”
Earlier, Scott had written perhaps the most famous words of the ill-fated expedition:
“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last.”
In 1916, members of Shackleton’s team made a desperate 800-nautical-mile voyage in a 20-foot lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island in the Falklands after their ship, Endurance, was caught and crushed in the ice. The successful open boat journey of the James Caird through the frigid and wind-swept Southern Ocean is considered among the most daring ever attempted.
On another side of the continent, the Ross Sea Party experienced its own misfortunes, including the loss of its vessel Aurora, which was torn from its mooring during a severe storm and drifted out to sea, leaving the expedition stranded.