Since our childhood, we are somehow attracted to magic. Nothing wrong in that, especially for a child, but the interesting part would be another. More exactly the moment when the children’s magic blends with some very objective facts.
Everything started with a restoration program, initiated by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust. During their visit to some of the cottages used in Antarctica by the first explorers, they made an incredible discovery. Frozen in a block of ice, they found a box containing 22 unprocessed photographic negatives, which were left there by the first explorers of the Antarctic almost 100 years ago.
The negatives were found in a corner of a refuge used by the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott during his unlucky expedition to the South Pole. Scott’s expedition lasted three years, from 1910 to 1913. They managed to reach the South Pole, but unfortunately, they died on their trip back home. Subsequently, the hut was used by another expedition group, the Ross Sea Party related to Sir Ernest Shackleton, which started the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition during 1914-1917.
It is believed that this last group left the negatives behind when they stationed on Ross Island after they ship Aurora went out to sea. The Ross Sea Party became an isolated group during 1915, when the Aurora ship broke three of its mooring, during a very nasty storm. Anyway, they had more luck than their predecessors, who have died of starvation and cold. Most probably, the photographer attached to the Ross Sea Party took the photographs.
The Ross Sea Party had a precise task to follow: they had to leave supplies destined to the famous explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, but their mission failed after the Aurora ship was affected by a storm. From that moment, the 10 man group has become stranded. Until their rescue in 1917, they had to endure many risks and difficulties, starting with the unfriendly weather but also with illness and a very fragile psychological state of mind.
During their period of isolation, they managed to follow their initial task, leaving and preparing supplies for Shackleton, but without knowing that their work was in vain. Shackleton renounced to his expedition when ice blocks crushed his ship, the Endurance. That was the context in which the negatives were discovered 100 years later. Almost a magical situation, in which some seemingly totally lost memories come to light and life from ice.
Even if the conditions were terrible, the group managed to survive on a diet of seal meat. At some point, two members of the group decided to risk and test the ice, in order to see if it was possible to move and travel on it. They never came back. Another member of the expedition died due to the extreme conditions and was buried in ice.
Eventually, Shackleton rescued the remaining part of the group in 1917, when he reached them of a restored Aurora ship. The specialists from the Antarctic Heritage Trust managed to separate and recover 22 images from the frozen block. Even if most of them are heavily damaged, the results can be considered incredible, if we consider their documentary value.
The photographs are considered a historic treasure, and they show a totally new and unseen record of Ross Island and McMurdo Sound. Interesting to note that the negatives are in the form of individual sheets, and not roll film. Kodak introduced this type of negative in 1913, as a substitute for the glass plates.
“It’s an exciting find and we are delighted to see them exposed after a century” (Nigel Watson, Antarctic Heritage Trust’s executive director)
The discovered negative reveals both the heroic mission of the explorers and the landscape, a landscape totally new for “the rest of the world”. This kind of expeditions had the precise role of discovering new lands and landscapes and make out of the new landmarks.
Even if damaged, the pictures are an incredible testimony of an incredible adventure, even more, incredible if we have in mind the available conditions from the beginning of the last century. Those images were part of the scientific documentation related to the expedition, but they become a latent record forgotten in the ice.
Probably, they negatives have been forgotten altogether, otherwise, we can’t imagine why they were left behind, once the surviving part of the expedition group was rescued in 1917.
This time, ice preserved something more than the burgers from our fridge. This time ice preserved a unique part of history.