Historical Archaeology and the Byrd Legacy: The United States Antarctic Service Expedition, 1939-41

By Broadbent, Noel D.; Rose, Lisle | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Historical Archaeology and the Byrd Legacy: The United States Antarctic Service Expedition, 1939-41


Broadbent, Noel D., Rose, Lisle, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


THE first official United States government expedition to Antarctica is probably the least known of Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd's undertakings. The expedition was put together in 1939 as World War II raged in Europe, and it ended with a hasty evacuation on 22 March 1941. Less than a year later, the United States entered the war, and the men of the Antarctic, including Byrd himself, served in campaigns throughout the Pacific, North Africa, and Europe.

The two bases that had been established in 1940, one at the Bay of Whales, called West Base, and the other on Stonington Island in Marguerite Bay off the Antarctic Peninsula, East Base, were left standing for future use. West Base, or Little America III, became deeply buried and was finally lost as the ice shelf eroded into the sea. East Base, by contrast, was built on a rocky island and thereby has survived as the oldest permanent U.S. research station in Antarctica. In 1989, the Antarctic Treaty nations recognized the old station as a historic monument to scientific exploration.

This article presents an account of the reclaiming of East Base, its clean up, its archaeology, and a discussion of its value as a physical record of American presence and scientific endeavor in Antarctica. Archaeology is especially helpful for bringing to light the everyday aspects of expeditions. It shifts the spotlight from planners and leaders to all the men and women who made up the expeditions, their work and leisure, what they wore, ate, and did. Historical archaeology has a rich, and little realized, potential in Antarctica.

With growing tourism-well over one hundred cruises by tourist vessels per year-Antarctic historic sites are being subjected to increasing pressure. There is an urgent need for monitoring these locations and conducting field documentation, site clean up, artifact curation, and building maintenance. The East Base site can serve as a model for future efforts by the United States and other nations. It is fitting that preserving the record of the United States Antarctic Service (USAS) expedition under Admiral Byrd's command has become a starting point for new American responsibilities for cultural resource management in the southern continent. By presidential directive, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is responsible for overseeing United States activities in Antarctica. An executive agency of the United States government, the NSF is charged with maintaining U.S. strength in scientific research and education. The East Base project, under direction of NSF personnel, was carried out as a part of extensive environmental clean up operations in 1991-92. Preserved and interpreted as a historic site, East Base also serves as a monument to the legacy Richard Byrd left to polar exploration.

By the end of 1938, after two widely publicized expeditions, Richard Byrd was seriously considering another privately funded campaign to the Antarctic. Alone, his account of the awful five months he spent at Advance Base in 1934, had just been published and was rapidly becoming both a critical success and a best seller.1 Emboldened by his steadily increasing stature as a national hero and sobered by his near-death experience on the ice four years before, Byrd had become a major, if increasingly ineffective, figure in the peace movement that swept over the United States and Europe following the Nazi seizure of power and Germany's subsequent rearmament and expansion. He continued the exhausting round of speeches on the national lecture circuit that he had begun years before after returning from his controversial North Polar flight with Floyd Bennett.2 At the same time, Byrd's restless mind had conceived yet another spectacular project to justify a third expedition: he would fly from the United States to Australia via the Antarctic.3

But the world was not about to let Byrd live out his dreams in splendid isolation or allow the Antarctic to live in peace. …

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