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Shackleton’s 111-year-old beer barrel returns to Antarctica

New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust has returned a carefully reconstructed beer barrel to the Antarctic hut that was home to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s historic ‘Nimrod’ expedition in 1908.

Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds is also where the Trust found three crates of Mackinlay’s whisky encased in ice; a discovery that attracted global attention.

The barrel of beer was originally donated to Shackleton by New Zealand brewer Speight’s in 1907. Its iron hoops and staves were pulled out of Pony Lake, alongside the Cape Royds hut, by caretakers in the 1970s.
The Trust’s Programme Manager-Artefacts Lizzie Meek says the barrel pieces were left near the hut and remained there, embedded in ice, for decades.
“The Trust spent four years conserving the hut, finishing in 2008. During that project, we saw some of the staves half buried in the ice and put a plan in place to excavate and conserve them.

“It took some time but we managed to get them back to New Zealand in 2016. One of the staves has a bunghole and is engraved with the words ‘Speight’s’ and ‘Dunedin’ so we knew it was a beer barrel from the brewery.”

Once in New Zealand, the barrel underwent a detailed examination by the Trust’s conservators in a laboratory at Canterbury Museum.

“The iron hoops were too badly corroded to be used to reconstruct the barrel but many of the staves were in suitable condition,” says Lizzie Meek.

Antarctic Heritage Trust then connected with one of New Zealand’s only practising coopers, Jurgen Voigtlander, and worked with him to re-build the Speight’s barrel.

“Jurgen established a repair strategy after a lot of research and trial assembly. It wasn’t an easy job given that, over the years, the original staves had lost some of their curvature and were heavily eroded. But Jurgen painstakingly rebuilt the barrel, using traditional techniques, the original staves, new iron and some new wooden elements. We were delighted with the result.”

The Trust paid for the conservation of the barrel and it was taken back to site with logistics support from Antarctica New Zealand.

The Cape Royds hut sits in a protected area, which means international permits are required to remove anything from the area and anything taken has to be returned.

Trust Executive Director Nigel Watson says it was a poignant moment to see the barrel be returned there.

“Just as when we returned Shackleton’s whisky to the ice, there was some celebration at the barrel’s return. Conserving Antarctic artefacts is an incredibly meticulous process so it’s always satisfying to see them put back with a new lease on life that will see them survive for generations to come,” concludes Nigel.

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