Cape Adare pendant mystery

Mystery surrounds a green stone pendant that was recently donated by Janet Sykes of Melbourne to the Australian Antarctic Division. Handwriting on a torn piece of card attached to the pendant claims it is “A polished stone pendant from a stone obtained from Cape Adare, Antarctica, by a member of expedition, 1900”.

The pendant was found in a charity shop in Kew in the 1980s by Marie Eberbach, who liked the look of it. Twenty years later it was identified by her co-worker at another charity shop as an object of possible historical interest, and donated to the Australian Antarctic Division.

To clarify whether the artefact is genuinely from Cape Adare, Dr Barbara Frankel, a Senior Environmental Officer at the Division with a geological background, was asked to examine the stone and provide an opinion on its authenticity.

The stone is mostly an amorphous dull green colour, with a few flecks of grey or black prisms that can readily be identified as an igneous volcanic texture. To see the stone fabric more clearly, micrographs were taken to magnify it and X-ray fluorimetry undertaken to check its mineralogy.

With the help of an expert alumni network the stone was identified as phonolite or trachyte, which is an intermediate volcanic rock with a high feldspar and low quartz content. So are there phonolites and trachytes at Cape Adare?

There are a few publications on the geology of Cape Adare from the numerous expeditions that have now visited the area, which confirm that these sorts of rock are present. The authenticity of the stone being from Cape Adare looks promising, but what about the connection with an expedition in 1900?

It quickly became evident that this stone had to be from the first ever British wintering Antarctic ‘Southern Cross Expedition’ of 1899, led by Norwegian, Carsten Borchgrevink. This expedition returned in 1900, two years before Robert Falcon Scott’s first attempt at the South Pole in 1902.

Borchgrevink had seized an opportunity to be the first to winter in Antarctica, thanks to Sir George Newnes, a wealthy London publisher, who funded the expedition. By all accounts the expedition and its subsequent publications were shunned by the Royal Geographical Society and other distinguished scientific bodies because of its lack of scientific method. Borchgrevink was not a scientist, a naval officer, nor an aristocrat. He may have fared better in reputation had he been a good leader, but sadly the accounts are scathing. None more so than by his meteorological and magnetic observer, the Belgian-born Tasmanian, Louis Bernacchi.

In fact, it took 30 years for Borchgrevink to be acknowledged as a pioneer in Antarctic exploration, proving the effective use of dogs and equipment, and discovering access to the Ross Ice Shelf that Scott and others would later use in their fight to be first at the South Pole.

The success of the expedition is likely due to the presence of the other Norwegians in the group. There were only two Brits and one Australian (Bernacchi), out of 10 men. None of these men were geologists, and no field descriptions of the collections seem to exist. In fact the biological notes made by the ill-fated zoologist, Nicolai Hanson, were inexplicably lost after his death in October 1899. All geological and biological specimens were thus returned to London without notes, and donated by Sir George Newnes to the British Museum; now the Natural History Museum.

The geological specimens were described by the museum’s resident mineralogist, George Prior, and published in Borchgrevink’s book First on the Antarctic Continent (1901), and in a later publication on the discoveries of the Southern Cross Expedition in 1904. This collection still resides at the Natural History Museum and I was surprised to find I could search the names of the hand-collected specimens within the museum website. To my delight, phonolites and trachytes are listed.

While I have contacted the museum to try and match the pendant with other specimens from the same expedition, it is difficult to tell from photographs if the rock types match; a closer personal inspection is needed to confirm their identity. My next visit to the United Kingdom (UK) will no doubt include a trip to this and other museums!

Apart from Louis Bernacchi, there is no obvious link between the Southern Cross Expedition and Australia, apart from Hobart being the last port of call on departure, and one of the ports visited on return (after stopping in New Zealand). One possible link is with Louis’ brother Roderick, who had moved to Melbourne from Tasmania, while the rest of the family, including Louis, had moved back to the UK. Is it possible that Roderick was given a trinket by his brother on the return of the Southern Cross Expedition?

The print on the reverse of the card holding the pendant alludes to a wild flower exhibition by a Victorian club, opened by the Governor General in October 1917. This was a large exhibition by the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria that opened on 2 October 1917. When I contacted the club to seek any Antarctic connection I discovered that the club has records of Borchgrevink’s visit to them in 1895, in the days he was seeking funding for his expedition (unsuccessfully). The club also has a record of sending congratulations to Borchgrevink on his return. However, they confirmed that no Bernacchis were members, placing doubt on Roderick as a link to the piece of card.

In October this year I travelled to the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch to see a New Zealand Natural Heritage Trust exhibition of artefacts from the Southern Cross Expedition, retrieved from Cape Adare for conservation, before their return this summer. The Heritage Trust has no record of any instruments used to polish a stone pendant during the Southern Cross Expedition, so the question of whether the pendant was crafted on site remains unanswered. However Artefacts Conservation Manager, Lizzie Meek, suggests it could have been crafted by the young dog handlers from Lapland who may have had the traditional skills.

So my search for clues continue, including a search for Bernacchi’s grand-daughter, Janet Crawford, who studied the diaries of Louis and other expedition members and published them in That First Antarctic Winter (1998).

For now though we can only speculate. Perhaps Borchgrevink requested that the pendant and others like it were made so that he had souvenirs to hand out on return, including to those clubs and societies that had wished him well.

Roderick Bernacchi died in 1962, a widower. His only son perished in World War II, leaving no members of the Bernacchi family left in Australia. Perhaps the pendant was given to Roderick by his brother Louis, and his deceased estate was disseminated to the charity shops where Marie was to stumble on it decades later.

I can only thank Marie for keeping such an interesting artefact that has provided so much intrigue, and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for taking custody of it.

Barbara Frankel
Australian Antarctic Division