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Mawson specimen boxes

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Mawson specimen boxes

Mawson's mineral specimen boxes from the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09; formerly the property of the University of Adelaide Geology and Geophysics Department, and housed in the Tate Museum at the Mawson building at the University; complete with certificates of authenticity from the Department. Sir Douglas Mawson (1882-1958) was lecturing at Adelaide University in 1907 when Ernest Shackleton visited Adelaide on his way South to Antarctica, and after meeting together and consulting with Edgeworth David, also on the expedition, Shackleton appointed  Mawson "physicist" for the expedition that sailed in the Nimrod to the Antarctic.

Mawson had good opportunities to survey the geology and glaciation of the continent, and collected a large quantity of mineral samples, each wrapped in brown paper and stored in the wooden boxes offered here. Visitors to the South Australian Museum can see one of these boxes on display, and observe the rock samples, still wrapped, inside. (the box is on loan from the Tate museum)

These boxes are in very good condition, almost without wear and tear, and completely at odds, it seems, with the likely battering they should have received in the South Polar regions. It is only when the expedition photos are considered that the apparent contradiction can be resolved. The large number of wooden boxes that were used on the expedition is immediately apparent in some of the photos. These boxes housed all manner of equipment, and in many instances a packing case was purpose-built to house, for example, a microscope in it's own wooden box. In the same way, 19th C. military or naval campaign furniture (mahogany or teak) was transported in specially made deal (pine) packing cases from barracks to other duty stations. The barracks-room outfitter J.W. Allen has an advertisement showing just this arrangement of drawers within two cases (see photo). Rarely these days does one see a mahogany campaign chest (mostly in two parts) with it's companion pieces, the outer protective pine cases, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was common practise to transport a case within a case.

These boxes are all of the same footprint; WxD = 460mm x 460 mm indicating that they had to fit neatly into a specific size. The height varies: 120 mm, 145mm and 170mm. The boxes are made from (imported) Baltic and sugar pine. One of the expedition sponsors was a timber merchant, so there may be a connection there. The cast iron handles on these boxes are of two similar styles and of a type readily available in Australia at about 1900. ( See, for example TM Davie and Co. Melbourne Tool Depot catalogue, item #199, reprinted in Chandeliers and Billy Tea, by Cuffley). It is our contention that the boxes we offer were first used by Mawson on the BAE and then on later expeditions including B.A.N.Z.A.R.E. (1929-30) and we are led to that conclusion by various paper and other labels that were affixed by Mawson, and others, over the passage of time to these items. When these 33 (surviving) boxes were purchased from Adelaide University, their contents had been dumped and they were stacked up in a disused store-room. No outer cases were found, but they were likely long gone, as was the connection to the (separately stored) specimen boxes. Mawson had been dead 40 years by then, and they represented further storage issues. We offer these boxes on a "per each" basis, each with it's own certificate of authenticity from the Geology Department. One box of this set was sold by Christies London, 22 September 2010, for 2,000 G.B.P. (including premium)




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