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Archeology Saves Historic Antarctic Base : Exploration: National Science Foundation team returns to East Base, an outpost built in 1940 and closed in 1948 after two historic expeditions.

April 11, 1993|From National Geographic

Noel Broadbent pushed gingerly on a door, as if he might disturb ghosts.

There were three abandoned old buildings on the tiny pile of rock called Stonington Island, lodged between ice and sea in a remote corner of Antarctica.

Snowdrifts embraced these remains of the first permanent U.S. station in Antarctica--East Base, built in 1940 and closed in 1948 after two historic expeditions.

"The place was deserted but not silent: The wind howled, bits of ice washed noisily on the stony beaches, and the glaciers near the island grumbled and thundered, dropping icebergs into the sea. But it was eerie nevertheless," Michael Parfit wrote in the current National Geographic.

"It had been such a busy little place, alive with human purpose and the excitement of discovery."

Broadbent, an archeologist for the National Science Foundation, was the leader of an eight-man, four-week expedition that included Parfit and photographer Robb Kendrick.

East Base had recently been named an international historic monument by the 39 nations that administer the continent under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The base achieved that status because of the exploration conducted from it and because it is the place where women first wintered in Antarctica.

The science foundation sent Broadbent's expedition to make East Base worthy of its designation--to clean up and repair the old buildings, to collect and catalogue its artifacts and thus to honor an unsung period in the history of Antarctic exploration.

"The door swung open. Broadbent stepped in," Parfit wrote. "But there was nothing to be troubled but solitude. The wind murmured in vents. Light from a broken skylight slanted on a dusty floor. On the floor was an empty box and an anvil. On a shelf was a map. It was a weather map, printed in 1939 for recording weather patterns."

Those explorers who have gone into the far reaches of the world have not lived far from their childhood dreams.

"If I had the chance to go to the end of the universe for six months, even knowing it was death, I would go, for the beauty of it," one of the 1940s-era Antarctic explorers told Parfit.

The early history of East Base is dominated by two men: American Richard Black and Finn Ronne, a Norwegian immigrant to the United States whose father was part of the support team for Roald Amundsen's South Pole expedition. Black and Ronne headed the 26-man, U.S. government-sponsored expedition that built the base.

That expedition was hastily evacuated as World War II loomed. But Ronne didn't forget East Base.

In 1946 he put together a private expedition with 23 members, including the first two women to winter in Antarctica--his wife, Edith (Jackie) Ronne, and Jennie Darlington, wife of pilot Harry Darlington. His team arrived in early 1947 for one more year of exploration, sharing the little half-mile-long island with a group of British explorers.

The men and women led hard and dangerous lives, but they didn't get much glory. The glamorous feats had already been done: The South Pole had been conquered on foot in 1911 and by plane in 1929.

But most of Antarctica had remained unknown. By the time Ronne's team left East Base--which would never be lived in again--most of the fundamental exploration had been done. By 1948 most of the last uncharted coastline of the continent had been mapped.

Perhaps most important, the explorers at East Base had finally proved Antarctica was all one continent, laying to rest the theory that a frozen sea divided it.

The beauty that surrounded Stonington was a common thread in all Parfit's interviews and in his expedition's daily life.

"Being on that island was like living inside a roofless ruined cathedral built of marble and aquamarine, among thunderstorms that rained silver," he wrote.

Antarctic archeology was downright strange. "This is the famous archeological dental pick you've been reading about," Broadbent said one morning, whacking at a mound of ice with a crowbar.

Instead of sifting soil, Broadbent's team pounded on ice. Everywhere that snow could get into, the buildings there were little indoor glaciers. The team moved 20 tons of ice out of the East Base bunkhouse. Under a piece of old floor, they found a case of Noxzema and a spool of thread.

The Broadbent team braced walls, filled holes in roofs and floors and put plexiglass in broken windows. They dug carefully at the heaps of debris outside the buildings.

Most of what they found would be left on display in one of the East Base buildings: a razor; a jar of hair tonic; boxes labeled "Vitamins Plus"; cases of medical supplies; a dozen boots of different sizes; a cork used as a pincushion; a Mormon text, "Joseph Smith Tells His Own Story"; a chess bishop; an eight of clubs; strips of movie film with faces of forgotten stars.

Life at East Base in the '40s had many of the trappings of civilization. The explorers indulged in modern entertainment. This perplexed the more adventuresome among them, who had expected a more Spartan life.

"Here we are, 26 hardy explorers marooned by the ice in the desolate land of perpetual snow and blizzards, reduced to making popcorn and fudge, playing bridge, watching movies," one member of Black's expedition reportedly told a friend.

During tough times, people of Stonington occasionally turned to strong drink. Drinking, however, didn't help the loneliness.

"I know it well. I have been more deeply lonely in Antarctica, a place I love as much as any on Earth, than anywhere else," Parfit said.

Broadbent's expedition created what must be one of the world's most remote museums--artifacts in the base's old science building.

In the early morning darkness on the day the expedition departed, the clank of the ship's anchor woke Parfit. He went to the bridge and turned the searchlight toward Stonington.

"A privilege to live here," he mused, "a sadness to leave."

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