Conservators restoring an Antarctic exploration hut recently made a remarkable discovery: a small box of 22 exposed but unprocessed photographic negatives, frozen in a solid block of ice for nearly one hundred years.
These negatives were meticulously processed and restored by a Wellington photography conservator. Antarctic Heritage Trust executive director Nigel Watson said of these never-before-seen images:
"It's the first example that I'm aware of, of undeveloped negatives from a century ago from the Antarctic heroic era. There's a paucity of images from that expedition."
The team from the Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZ) discovered the box in a corner of one of the many supply depots Robert Falcon Scott established for his doomed Terre Nova Expedition to the South Pole (1910-1913). Though Scott reached the Pole, he and his party died of starvation and the extreme cold on their return trip.
The hut was used next by the Ross Sea Party of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. It is believed that this party left the undeveloped negatives.
The Ross Sea Party's expedition is one of those extraordinary efforts in an era of heroic exploration that today has been all but forgotten. In January 1915, the exploration ship Aurora dropped off Shackleton's head scientist, the team's photographer and eight other men on the shore of the McMurdo Sound in the Ross Sea with provisions and equipment to set supply depots for the rest of the team.
Shackleton's would start from the opposite side of Antarctica on the shore of the Weddell Sea, venture to the South Pole then rely on supply depots set by the Ross Sea party for their trip to McMurdo sound. The Aurora would winter offshore, providing a safe haven for the both groups upon their return. Little about the trip went according to plan.
The Aurora broke free from her moorings during a blizzard and was blown out to sea, leaving the Ross Sea Party stranded on the ice.
Reverend Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith, member of the Ross Sea Party during Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
Despite incredibly harsh conditions and the loss of the Aurora, the marooned men continued to lay food and equipment stations for Shackleton's crossing. But in their isolation, they were unaware that he had been forced to abandon the crossing after the Endurance was crushed in pack ice, making their supply depots unnecessary.
It was not until January 1917 that the Aurora returned to rescue the Ross Sea Party. By then three men had died, including Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith, believed to be the party's photographer. These images bear witness to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
According to the Antarctic Heritage Trust, the identity of the photographer is not known, although the expedition’s photographer was Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith, so it’s likely they were his. Regardless of who took them, however, the discovery is still remarkable.
“It’s the first example that I’m aware of, of undeveloped negatives from a century ago from the Antarctic heroic era,” said AHT Executive Director Nigel Watson. “There’s a paucity of images from that expedition.”
The Ross Sea Party was eventually rescued, but only after three of their party (including Spencer-Smith) had died. These photographs are the legacy those men left behind, a glimpse back at a long-lost age exploration.