It is a truism that archaeology begins yesterday, and now with only the archaeology of the future to plan for, the discipline has been expanding into areas of the globe where material culture has hitherto played little part.Antarctica is one of these new areas: more than two centuries of human occupation have left plentiful traces. At least five successive and partly overlapping phases of activity can be defined: sealing, whaling, polar exploration, scientific investigation and tourism. Sealing began in the late 18th century, when Captain James Cook’s account of his voyages in the Southern Ocean, published in 1777, included his discovery of South Georgiawith its enormous population of fur seals.
Sealers from England and the eastern United States swarmed to raid the seal rookeries.Wooden clubs and iron-tipped lances were used to kill the seals for their pelts, which were scraped clean of fat before being salted for shipping. Sealers lived in primitive camps, traces of which survive on South Georgia. The skins were shipped to China to have the dense fur removed and made into felted clothing: in the 1800-1801 season the Aspasia, out of New York, took 51,000 pelts.
seals were also hunted for their thick blubber that was used to make
oil: some of the large iron trypots in which this was done can still be
seen. As overkill took its toll on South Georgia, the sealers moved
south, and their characteristic artefacts have been found on the
Antarctic mainland and adjacent South ShetlandIslands.
The industry continued
throughout the 19th century, and on South Georgia sealing licences were
issued until 1965, but whaling had long overtaken it in economic
significance. Steamships and explosive harpoons made a once-chancey
industry much more cost-effective. First the humpback whale and then
the great blue, sei and fin whales were hunted to within an ace of
extinction. Their bones can be seen on King George Island and elsewhere.
The Norwegians set up the
Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia in 1904 before expanding
south to Deception Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula, in 1912.
Houses, boilers and oil tanks from the Hektor station survive,
interspersed with the remains of a later phase of occupation, the
secret British base for Operation Tabarin during the Second World War.
In 1944 this became the first scientific base inAntarctica.
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