Significant sites associated with cultural heritage can be found in the AAT, at Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and at Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean. There are 4 key types of cultural heritage sites in the region (Lazer 2006), associated with:
- early scientific endeavour and exploration (1911–14)
- the sealing industry on Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and Macquarie Island
- the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (1929–31)
- Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions and agencies of other nations that established research stations in the AAT after World War 2.
Any conservation work on the historic sites in Antarctica is assessed for its impact under the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 also applies in some cases. The preferred approach is to leave heritage items in situ. However, artefacts of particular significance may be recovered from Antarctica for conservation treatment or protection. These artefacts include books, clothing, scientific and mechanical devices, field equipment and many others that, if left in situ, would deteriorate and be lost. The items are catalogued in the Antarctic Heritage Register, housed in the AAD data centre.
One of Australia’s most important historic sites of international significance is Mawson’s Huts, which were erected in 1911 at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, by the men of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition under the leadership of Douglas Mawson. The expedition was the first major and, as it turned out, most dramatic scientific program of the young nation. At the time, it was important for the application of new technologies, such as the use of wireless transmissions between Antarctica and the outside world via a relay post at Macquarie Island. The expedition collected a wealth of biological, magnetic, geological and meteorological data.
The base that Mawson and his team established at Cape Denison in 1911 was never intended to be a long-term establishment. Although the huts were solidly built and survived the Antarctic conditions for many decades, wind ablation and snow intrusion have taken their toll, and the structural elements of the site have been deteriorating since their construction. The main hut and the magnetograph house are in sound condition, and the integrity of their interiors is high. In 1998, the magnetograph house was altered by addition of timber cladding on the roof. The transit hut and absolute magnetic hut are in poor condition; both huts have been stabilised to preserve them as standing ruins. The Memorial Cross is in good condition (AAD 2007). Most of the portable artefacts outside the huts are still in the same locations as when Mawson left the site in 1914 (Mawson 1915, Lazer 2006).
In 2005, the Australian Government registered the remains of the 4 huts and associated artefacts on Australia’s National Heritage List as the Mawson’s Huts Historic Site, and launched a conservation management plan to protect the site. The site is also designated as an Antarctic Historic Site under the Madrid Protocol. It was afforded a higher level of protection when, in 2014, the Antarctic Treaty parties agreed to change the status of the Cape Denison area, within which the huts are located, from an ASMA to an ASPA under the Madrid Protocol. The site may only be visited under a permit. In 2013, the AAD launched a revised Mawson’s Huts Historic Site Management Plan. All activities undertaken at the site, including conservation activities undertaken by the Australian Government or on behalf of the Australian Government by the Mawson’s Huts Foundation, are governed by the provisions of the plan.
For several years, the Australian Government has facilitated the Mawson’s Huts Foundation to undertake conservation work at the Mawson’s Huts site. The Mawson’s Huts Foundation has completed essential repairs to the huts and substantively weatherproofed the living quarters, even though access to the site has been hindered by unfavourable sea ice conditions in recent years. The most recent expedition to the site (2015–16) saw a substantial amount of snow and ice removed from the interior of the main hut, and ongoing works to improve the stability and conservation of the structures and artefacts at the site.
In addition to Mawson’s Huts, several sites within the AAT are formally protected under the Antarctic Treaty System through their designation as a Historic Site or Monument (Table ANT1). These include rock cairns at Proclamation Island, Enderby Land and Cape Bruce erected by Sir Douglas Mawson, and a cairn erected by Sir Hubert Wilkins in 1939 in the Vestfold Hills, Ingrid Christensen Coast. Several other historic sites and monuments have been declared under the Antarctic Treaty provisions to protect sites of significance to other nations active in the AAT.
In 2014, the AAD released the Mawson Station Heritage Management Plan. Mawson is the oldest station in Antarctica that has been continually occupied. The management plan provides a framework to identify, protect, conserve and transmit the heritage values of Mawson Station, noting that the station’s buildings reflect the evolution of Antarctic construction methods spanning several decades.
Most sealing industry sites are on subantarctic island coasts, and are at risk from the effects of the extreme weather, climate change and a dynamic coastline, as well as human interference and encroachment by vegetation. At Heard Island and McDonald Islands, a significant amount of cultural heritage material has been lost or has had to be relocated since recording of the cultural heritage began in the mid-1980s. Many of the portable artefacts are slowly deteriorating and only have a limited lifespan (Lazer & McGowan 1987). Several buildings at the site of the former Heard Island Station have deteriorated, and a significant amount of debris is now evident, including asbestos. Many sites on Macquarie Island are now partially buried. Shipwreck material, structural elements and portable artefacts are slowly deteriorating (Clark 2003, Carmichael 2004, Lazer 2006). Ruins of the masts and huts on Wireless Hill survive, but are deteriorating (Townrow 1988, Carmichael 2004, Lazer 2006). One of the remaining masts was removed in 2011.