Archaeological investigations in the Main Hut over the past twenty years have recorded the items left behind, including food tins and foodstuffs, bottles, photographic plates, reference books, newspapers, novels, notices, pictures, chemicals and developing paper.
Artefacts associated with the AAE are distributed across Cape Denison, but are concentrated around the Main Hut, often roughly sorted to type. To date, several thousand have been recorded; some representative of the time, some particularly related to the expedition.
The cultural heritage objects on site are in the process of being documented and mapped – over 1700 items have been recorded to date. Some objects were removed from the site in 1931 or by visitors between the 1950s and the 1980s. Some have been displaced from their original contexts onto shelves or into storage boxes, generally after the location in which they were found was documented. However, those remaining in the hut are objects that were left on the site by the AAE, and are therefore of high integrity. The extended distribution of AAE relics was underlined by the 1997 discovery of the remains of an AAE husky dog some 6km inland.
The condition of objects inside the Main Hut is variable: some are in good condition, while others are sound other than mould stain (on paper and fabrics) or surface corrosion (on metal). Objects in poor condition include boxes almost entirely consumed by mould, food remains in a state of advanced decay, the damp detritus congealed on the dark room floor, and tins represented only by rust rings.
Attitudes to the detritus have changed markedly since work began to conserve this site. Early works parties, for instance, viewed the undifferentiated mass of material on the floor as ‘compost’ that should be dug out and discarded, whereas archaeologists now view the litter as a resource that enriches our understanding of the site’s use beyond what the documentary sources provide.
Artefacts outside the huts are in various conditions, with seasonal variations in snow levels limiting the monitoring of some items. Wind also damages and moves artefacts.
The Australian Antarctic Division developed interim guidelines in consultation with the then Australian Heritage Commission for the treatment of artefacts for the 1998 expedition, including criteria for repatriation based on assessed significance and threat. A metal artefact known as Webb’s Lantern, in very poor condition from frequent cycles of snow cover and summer melt, was repatriated to Australia with Antarctic Division approval. The remains of an AAE husky dog, retrieved from the ice-cap, are now located inside the workshop. If ice were removed from the workshop, options for this object’s location would include one of the verandahs – the original home of the dogs. If the remains can be conserved on-site, there appears to be no necessity for repatriation to Australia.