Did Scott brew beer in Antarctica?


Fairfax reporter DEIDRE MUSSEN spent this summer in Antarctica. Head conservator Lizzie Meek tells her about some of the more unusual discoveries she's found on the ice.

Lizzie Meek lives and breathes the world's heroic Antarctic explorers.

"You walk in here and you smell blubber, old straw from the stables, a host of old sort of woody smells and it's a lovely space," the 40-year-old Christchurch-based woman says as she steps into her workplace.

This summer, she is spending three months working with two fellow conservators at Cape Evans in Robert Falcon Scott's Terra Nova hut, where he launched his ill-fated South Pole expedition in 1911.

"I think my favourite thing about the hut is the first moment when you step in through the door, every single time. There's something about it, it sort of lifts the hair on the back of your neck. I can't describe it any other way."

It is Meek's sixth season in Antarctica. As Antarctic Heritage Trust's programme manager for artefacts, she leads teams of conservators to protect objects found at all three of Ross Island's historic huts.

Each summer, two or three conservators are based in the field and collect about 1200 artefacts, which are packed into fish crates and sent to Scott Base for conservation by the trust's winter team, before being returned to the huts the following summer.

"The big balancing act for us is to stabilise the object by treating it without making it too clean and shiny or without taking away the character."

To date, about 15,000 artefacts have been conserved, including 10,000 from Terra Nova hut.

The most famous was the 2010 discovery of a stash of whisky buried in ice under Nimrod hut's floorboards, where Ernest Shackleton was based for his failed 1907-09 South Pole expedition.

But Meek most enjoys items that offer insight into what life was like back then.

A few years ago, a textile conservator at Scott Base discovered pubic hairs in a pair of long johns. "It gave the winter team a bit of a giggle."

The hair is stored in a freezer at Scott Base on the off-chance someone decides to DNA test them.

One of Meek's favourites is Herbert Ponting's film changing bag, which hangs on the door of his processing lab in Terra Nova hut.

"It's such a neat little object but it tells a story of how they developed ways of dealing with the Antarctica environment. So you're out in the middle of nowhere, you need to change a film, you don't have a darkroom so you take a portable cloth darkroom with you and you do it like that, you put a little mask on, put your hands in the bag and change your film."

This year, conservation of a clump of old negatives found in Ponting's dark room unveiled never-been-seen photographs taken by the Ross Sea party.

Tins of hops have also ignited imaginations over whether Scott home-brewed beer. Unfortunately, the hops are mouldy so it is unlikely Scott's brew can be re-created and no beer brewing kit has ever been found in the hut.

Instead, Meek suspects the hops were used to make yeast for bread or tonic.

She will return home this month and will manage the trust's winter team and work on hut projects until she returns to Antarctica next summer to complete Terra Nova hut.

"It will be an extraordinary moment, I think, when I can step back from this, from these 10,000 objects and say we've conserved everything in this building."

Her background is as a book conservator, previously working with the National Library in Wellington and the British Library in London.

"I had always been drawn to old things and, in particular, old books. History is not everyone's cup of tea."

She admits life in the field is physically demanding but she loves her job and has no plans of stopping.

"I wouldn't swap it for anything."

The Press