You may think you've found some frighteningly old leftovers at the back of your fridge, but they're likely to pale in comparison to a fruitcake recently uncovered by the New Zealand-based Antarctic Heritage Trust. Found in one of the huts used by Captain Robert Falcon Scott during his ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-13, the "almost edible" fruitcake lasted over a hundred years wrapped in paper and preserved in a tin-plated iron alloy tin

It's possible to connect to some of the greatest dramas in history through the most mundane of things, and this is a perfect example. In 1910, Captain Scott and the 65 men of what was officially called the British Antarctic Expedition set out for the frozen continent aboard the exploration ship Terra Nova. Their goal was to carry out a comprehensive scientific study of the Antarctic and be the first party in history to reach the geographic South Pole.

It was an endeavor that would only be matched in ambition today by a manned mission to Mars, but the expedition ended in disappointment and tragedy when Scott, along with Edward Wilson, Captain Lawrence "Titus" Oates, Henry "Birdie" Bowers, and Lieutenant Edgar "Taff" Evans set out on the arduous journey on foot to conquer the Pole. They reached their goal on January 17, 1912, only to discover that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had got there 34 days before.

Fruit cake after conservation treatment(Credit: Antarctic Heritage Trust)

Scott and his men attempted to return to base, stopping at supply caches previously left piled on the ice for their return, only to find that the extreme cold had damaged the tins holding their vital heating oil. Evans died of frostbite and infection on February 17. Then a severe blizzard trapped the remaining party in their tent only 11 mi (18 km) from their next depot. Oates, his foot useless from frostbite, left the tent to give his three companions a better chance, but they succumbed to exposure and malnutrition on March 29, 1912.

Based at the Cape Adare huts left behind by Norwegian Carsten Borchgrevink's expedition in 1899, Scott's expedition was well supplied with provisions, including the fruitcake made by the London firm of Huntley & Palmers, who provided emergency biscuits and other baked goods for the explorers.

The cake is currently in New Zealand after undergoing conservation. Though the tin was reported to be in poor condition and needed consolidation and preservation against corrosion and the label has some physical damage, the paper liner was intact and the cake itself was in excellent condition.

The fruitcake is one of 1,500 artifacts brought back from the Cape Arde base for study and preservation as part of efforts to conserve the first building ever erected in Antarctica. The Trust will hold on to the cake until work on the buildings is completed, when it will be returned with the rest of the finds to the site where they were found in keeping with the site's status as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA)

Huntley and Palmer's fruit cake in wrapper(Credit: Antarctic Heritage Trust)

"With just two weeks to go on the conservation of the Cape Adare artifacts, finding such a perfectly preserved fruitcake in amongst the last handful of unidentified and severely corroded tins was quite a surprise," says Programme Manager-Artefacts Lizzie Meek. "It's ideal high-energy food for Antarctic conditions, and is still a favorite item on modern trips to the Ice."

As to whether this is the world's oldest fruitcake, believe it or not, there are older ones, with one in Canada clocking in at 139 years old. Given the tendency to regift fruitcakes rather than consume them, who knows? There may be a new champion unwittingly sitting under a Christmas tree this year.

Source: Antarctic Heritage Trust

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