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On Time and Other Things: Some Cartesian Dichotomies in Antarctica

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 October 2021

Sarah de Barros Viana Hissa*
Department of Anthropology and Archaeology Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais Av. Antônio Carlos, 6627. Pampulha 31270901 - Belo Horizonte, MGBrazil E-mail:
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Antarctica differs from all other regions in the world, not only from its unique geography, but also in the way humans understand it and have incorporated it into global relations. Considering Antarctica's distinctive landscapes and human relations, this paper discusses aspects of how time is humanly perceived in Antarctica. Basing on elements from different human occupations, nineteenth-century sailor-hunters and current incursions, this discussion approximates different historical groups in their experiences of Antarctica, connecting their personal lives, past and present. Meanwhile, also put into issue are the dualities that separate nature and culture, physical and relative time, and past and present, as well as the related notions of time in itself, perceived time speed and internal time consciousness.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research


This paper discusses experiences and concepts of time, landscape and memory, regarding certain fundamental Cartesian dichotomies. In this paper, Antarctica is the place that brings these issues together, binding nineteenth-century sailor-hunters, today's Brazilian mariners and myself, as well as our materials.

Antarctica is a unique region in the world regarding geography, climate, animal and plant life, and harsh living conditions. This uniqueness led to the fact that human relations with Antarctic were (and are) marked by our temporary presence in the continent, since we first reached it a few centuries ago. This temporary nature of human presence in Antarctica means an interruption of dwelling (Ingold Reference Ingold1993; Reference Ingold2000) in that place, which, in turn, is necessary to tune into and perceive Antarctica's time pacing and subtle changes. In addition, retentions and protentions (Husserl Reference Husserl1991; Reference Husserl2008), intrinsic to the manner through which we live internal time consciousness, are, in Antarctica, filled with memories of many places and plans for the future, connecting spaces and times in a non-linear way. In all of this, these non-linear forms of experienced temporality are not lived as separate from physical time (Fabian [1983] Reference Fabian2014), chronos (Witmore Reference Witmore and Smith2014) or historicity (Olivier Reference Olivier2004).

Also due to the harsh living conditions, Antarctica requires of us durable items (Lucas Reference Lucas, Hicks and Beaudry2006), in the sense of social (such as decorative style) and physical (such as hardness and thickness of vessels) longevity. This evokes a temporality different from the one we experience in globalized urban centres. Other items archaeologically recovered also evoke an intimate temporality, such as the pace of burning candles. On the other hand, other materials can be seen today reaching Antarctica, through sea currents—ordinary trash—reminding us that Antarctica is indeed a part of the human world. These human-made materials turned into waste, also durable, bring other concerns, related to the anthropocene's negative global impact, pulling Antarctica into the rhythm of capitalistic consequences. In the lattermost anthropocene (Solli et al. Reference Solli, Burström and Domanska2011; Edgeworth Reference Edgeworth2014; Zarankin & Salerno Reference Zarankin and Salerno2014; González-Ruibal Reference González-Ruibal2018), ecological implications of our actions have reached wider range impact, meaning we do not have to be near Antarctic waters to interfere negatively with it.

While interpreting all these phenomena which refer to issues of time and things, some dichotomies inherent to our Cartesian thinking are also brought to light and discussion. Sources are of various types, such as landscapes, photographs, ethnographic remarks, historical documents, personal observations and archaeological materials, making the subject of discussion more important than methods or their epistemological niches. It becomes evident that partitions within the concept of time, such as objective and subjective time, or past and present, in which things—human or not—exist, have much more explanatory or analytical value than real meaning in lived life.

On Cartesian dichotomies: nature/culture, objective and subjective time, past/present

A fundamental Cartesian dichotomy well established in modern thinking divides nature and culture (Descola Reference Descola2013). In a very few words, through this ontological view they became two autonomous realms, opposite to each other, susceptible to scientific, empirical and positivistic study.

Other Cartesian dichotomies brought up in this paper regard time. As stated by many authors of philosophy and anthropology (Gell Reference Gell2014; Jaguaribe Reference Jaguaribe and Doctors2003; Piettre Reference Piettre1997; Reis Reference Reis2005; Schöpke Reference Schöpke2009), time views in science and common sense may be sorted into two main groups. One of them is physical time (Fabian [1983] Reference Fabian2014). Based on astronomical events, it is clock and calendar time, mechanical, regular, absolute and measurable. This view considers time as an independent and non-human reality, external to our thoughts and experiences. It belongs to the realm of nature, as opposed to culture. Physical time is congruent with what Witmore (Reference Witmore and Smith2014) defines as chronos. It is concordant with capitalism and modernity, synchronizing production and consumption activities (Thompson Reference Thompson1967). It also harmonizes with modern sciences, while measuring experiments and organizing biological, geological, historical and archaeological processes of long duration into intervals of distinct sizes. Some intervals simply consider astronomic movements, such as seconds, minutes, hours, months, years, decades and centuries, which are useful for hard sciences, such as experiments in physics and chemistry. Meanwhile, other types of intervals may be also divided by particular changes and events viewed as of great importance, such as ages, eras, and so on, useful for geology, biology or archaeology.

Considering time in anthropology, among other time-related concepts, hot and cold societies, a distinction made by Lévi-Strauss (Reference Levi-Strauss1976) regarding indigenous peoples, bring out change as movement, historicity and time speed, and tend to see cold societies as devoid of time. Indeed, as Gell (Reference Gell2014, 30) points out, Lévi-Strauss is concerned not with real or perceived time, but with the time underlying abstract analytical models in anthropology. Cold societies, therefore, are seen as not susceptible to systemic change, and anthropologists then focus on synchronic structural elements. These synchronic universals and extensive specific terminology (such as savage, primitive, ancient, traditional, complex, literate society, and many others that hold temporal connotations) are used to differentiate typological times and make grounds to deny these societies coevalness, making them the distinct ‘other’ to be studied (Fabian [1983] Reference Fabian2014, 23). In this sense, physical time can serve as a canvas for placing and sequencing events, historic or otherwise. Here, these intervals comprise events linearly allocated, as containers (Lucas Reference Lucas2005) of events (Miller et al. Reference Miller, Samford, Shlasko and Madsen2000; Lyman & O'Brien Reference Lyman and O'Brien2006).

Physical time arranged in intervals as containers of events or as typological time is comparable to the historicist approach as critiqued by Laurent Olivier (Reference Olivier2004). The author points out how that approach accumulates facts and descriptive details, filling up time with narrative and a homogeneous course of history as a monolithic, unilinear and unidirectional arrow. This historicist view is then based on time conceptualized as pure continuity, unity and succession, together with history as progress, acceleration and teleology (Tamm & Olivier Reference Tamm and Olivier2019). This brings us to another way of thinking about time, analytically separated from physical time.

Instead of considering the world (and time) as a reality on its own, detached from humans, a somewhat Kantian perspective brings out the world as perceivable only through human awareness and understanding, seeing time as relative, such as other phenomena or dimensions of existence. The idea that time is relative stresses that human intellect numbers, organizes and gives meaning to absolute time. This approach to time is then relative regarding human experience and socio-cultural frameworks.

At the individual level, Edmund Husserl's phenomenology (Reference Husserl1929; Reference Husserl1991; Reference Husserl1992; Reference Husserl2008) observes internal time consciousness, as a flow of lived experiences. At the anthropological level, discussions often consider that conceptions of time and its rhythms are not constant in all cultures, and discuss how ethnographic peoples understand and manage their own idea of time (Gell Reference Gell2014). In archaeology, phenomenological and ethnoarchaeological works (either through analogies or simply by raising new aspects to consider) have connected socio-cultural elements situated in different absolute times, confronting different contexts through experiences. This humanistic take on time moves away from notions of things-in-themselves and time in itself, both taken as a world's hard physicality, bringing nature and culture closer. Thus time can also be discussed as a construct and a powerful tool in politics and heritage management (for several discussions on chronopolitics, see Hamilakis & Anagnostopoulos Reference Hamilakis and Anagnostopoulos2009; Norum & Mostafanezhad Reference Norum and Mostafanezhad2016; Wallis Reference Wallis1970; Witmore Reference Witmore and Smith2014) and human sciences’ epistemology (Fabian [1983] Reference Fabian2014; Gell Reference Gell2014; Lucas Reference Lucas2005; Olivier Reference Olivier2004). In all these cases, forms of human time emerge, based on subjective and social experiences, and may be perceived as heterogeneous, non-linear and irregular (Hissa Reference Hissa2016). Thus, this analytical opposition between physical time and human time feeds upon the dichotomy nature versus culture.

Finally, the dichotomy between past and present feeds epistemological fields of knowledge and their frontiers, delineating objects of study. Remembering Gell's (Reference Gell2014, 145) revision of time types A and B, absolute and chronological time is congruent to time B, while relative and relational time is consistent with time A. While in absolute and chronological time (time B) events, periods, dates are fixed, in relative time (time A) distinctions between past, present and future are not clear-cut, stationary or linear. In time B there is a strict dividing line somewhere between past and present. On the other hand, time A presents no such line, permitting non-linear time movements and fluid interpretations. In other words, when considering time type B (physical time), past and present are understood as different from present and from future, rigidly framed within a linear scale. In turn, time A, without much difficulty, allows for other arrangements. Olivier (Reference Olivier2004) argues for alternative arrangements in historic time. According to the author, the historicist approach considers past and present as an interrupted flow of events and instants. However, historic time should not be viewed as the empty and homogeneous time of historicism, the time of dates, chronologies and periods (similar to what Gell defines as time B), but, on the contrary, as the full and heterogeneous time of the fusion between the present and the past (Gell's time A). This way of thinking would mean building the memory of material objects, which could make the past stand out in its particularities. Note both authors stress past and present dichotomy as more evident within conceptions of physical time.

An interesting alternative in time understanding can be found in Edmund Husserl's important concepts of retentions (such as memory and duration) and protentions (such as expectations and successions). They refer to a coexistence in the now of one's consciousness of time frames usually made distant (past and future). According to this perspective, what we experience is actually several nows always tied together and that may be sensed simultaneously. As such, ‘Every memory contains expectation-intentions whose fulfilment leads to the present’ (Husserl Reference Husserl1991, 54). Furthermore, ‘It is through the indeterminate retentions and protentions that the actual present content is inserted into the unity of the stream’ (Husserl Reference Husserl1991, 89). The flow of lived experiences, the stream, constitutes ‘being in time’ (Husserl Reference Husserl1991, 381). For the author, a way of truly grasping the strength of these concepts is concentrating on how we experience sounds or music. When a note sounds, then another after that, the preceding sound does not disappear totally, and this continues successively in a stream. There is a duration flux joining recollection and expectations in the now. These retention and protention fluxes are non-linear continuums, allowing back-and-forth movements in internal time consciousness. In a similar manner but regarding a more collective scale, Olivier (Reference Olivier2004) reminds us that remains from older pasts existed in younger pasts, just as the fabric of our present-day world is made up of materials from the past, as well as the fact that archaeology studies memory and materials in the present.

These characteristics of time perception are not intrinsic to human experiences of/in Antarctica, but are supposedly intrinsic to how humans experience time and its passage. However, we cannot forget the impossibility of separating time and space, or the perception of time and place. In this sense, as discussed throughout this text, Antarctica offers its own specificities regarding human occupancy, resulting in temporary stays and journeys of rather short duration.

Antarctica's uniqueness

Antarctica is a very large continent of c. 14,200,000 sq. km, the majority covered by thick ice layers. It has registered the coldest temperatures in the planet, with very low precipitation, high-speed winds, specific fauna and scarce vegetation. A variety of obstacles and hostile environments need to be crossed and endured, such as the seas of Drake Passage between the South American peninsula and Antarctica's South Shetlands, or the cold temperatures and strong winds themselves. The humanly known world incorporated Antarctica between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Senatore and Zarankin (Reference Senatore, Zarankin, Barr and Chaplin2011; Reference Senatore, Zarankin, Gnecco and Langebaek2014) highlight two processes through which this was undertaken. Firstly, a more exalted form of contact was exploration, which lasted until Shackleton's expedition (1917–22). That period became known as the Heroic Age, remembered by stories of scientific exploration, from which there are many books and some archaeological remains (Harrowfield Reference Harrowfield1978; Quartermain Reference Quartermain1963). A second form of contact refers to other visitors who reached and ephemerally inhabited Antarctica at that time, the sealers. Never celebrated like the exploration heroes, they were lower-class labourers associated with the exploitation of resources.

These sealers, sailor-hunters (Hissa Reference Hissa2012, 87), travelled further and further south, searching for marine animals to take their fat and fur for global consumption. Seal fur was used for garments: hats, coats, waistcoat and boots, and the fat oil for lubrication, manufacture and lighting. Antarctic sealer ships traded mainly in London, New York and Canton harbours (Basberg & Headland Reference Basberg and Headland2008; Berguño Reference Berguño1993a,Reference Berguñob; Bonner Reference Bonner1968; Fanning Reference Fanning1924; Goodridge Reference Goodridge1837; Morrell Reference Morrell1832; Murdoch Reference Murdoch1984; Smith & Simpson Reference Smith and Simpson1987; Zarankin & Senatore Reference Zarankin and Senatore2007), coming from the USA, UK, South Africa, New Zealand, France, Tasmania, Canada, Chile, Norway, Portugal, Germany, and so on (cf. Headland Reference Headland1989). These ships added some labour personnel at southern regions during their passage, as well as fugitives and outlaws (Delano Reference Delano1817). This first Antarctic industry (Basberg & Headland Reference Basberg and Headland2008, 3) did not last long due to the intense killing, with a highest peak between 1820 and 1825 and a softer return in the 1870s (Headland Reference Headland1989, 41–3). Antarctic exploitation of animal-fat oil and fur ceased by the end of the nineteenth century.

The sealers’ activities left many archaeological remains: the shelters they built, vestiges of their work activities, and some personal items, such as clay tobacco pipes and pieces of clothing. Teams of archaeologists from Argentina, Chile and Brazil excavated sealer sites on the South Shetland Islands, directed by Andrés Zarankin (UFMG/LEACH- Brazil), Maria Ximena Senatore et al. (CONICET-Argentina) and Ruben Stehberg (Museo Nacional de Historia Natural-Chile) (Fig. 1). It is noteworthy, considering the geopolitics of knowledge, that southern countries and researchers undertook these scientific endeavours, publishing their results in Portuguese, Spanish and English. Some of their research focused on making visible the workmen who took a form of capitalism to the southernmost continent, as well as discussing particulars of the relations between them, considering issues such as individuality and sociability (cf. Salerno et al. Reference Salerno, Cruz, Zarankin, Nyman, Fogle and Beaudry2019; Senatore Reference Senatore2020; Senatore & Zarankin Reference Senatore, Zarankin, Barr and Chaplin2011; Reference Senatore, Zarankin, Gnecco and Langebaek2014; Stehberg Reference Stehberg2003; Stehberg & Cabeza Reference Stehberg and Cabeza1987; Zarankin & Salerno Reference Zarankin and Salerno2014; Reference Zarankin, Salerno, Symonds and Herva2017; Zarankin & Senatore Reference Zarankin and Senatore2005; Reference Zarankin and Senatore2007; Zarankin et al. Reference Zarankin, Hissa, Salerno, Froner, Radicchi, Resende de Assis and Batista2011).

Figure 1. (Top) Map of archaeological sealers’ sites located at Livingston Island, South Shetlands, Antarctica; (below, left) trip to Antarctica; (below, right) archaeological sealer site, Livingston Island, South Shetlands. (Map: Letícia Hissa, 2012; Photographs: Sarah Hissa, 2011.)

After nineteenth-century heroic age and exploitation voyages, other human relations with Antarctica came about: twentieth-century scientific research and, on a much smaller scale, tourism. Thus, past to present, humans reached the continent, but never settled in any definitive terms, taking something from Antarctica and returning home as soon as possible. It seems there were never natives, not even on the islands outside the Antarctic Polar Circle. Evidently, the particulars of living environments of all these places must be considered, but this is an interesting point, bearing in mind the harsh conditions faced by northernmost autochthonous peoples within the Arctic Polar Circle, in Greenland, Siberia, Norway, Svalbard, Canada and Russia. In addition, there were never lasting housing and administrative structures for that continent's colonization, only temporary shelters for hunting, and now well-structured provisional lodgings and laboratories within the research bases of several nations. As becomes evident, intrinsic qualities of Antarctica—or Antarcticness (see Ingold's stoniness: Reference Ingold2011, 30)—generate particular temporary relationships with humans. In other words, it is only because Antarctica is the way it is that this specific history came about, no matter how rigid or devastating economic or cultural globalization wished to be.

Thus, the obvious pattern in human relations to Antarctica became its temporary character, with a seasonality factor, since southern summer is more inviting. The image of Antarctica as always part of a voyage brings out the idea of a non-place (Augé Reference Augé1997). Augé's non-place is a product of supermodernity, typified by airports, supermarkets, big stores and tourist travel destinations. These spaces are supposedly anonymous and we travel through them without really engaging, relating or identifying with them, taking from them merely snapshots, shopping and blurred memories. These would be locales with no history of their own, spaces of passing by, of never-lasting prosaic spectators, which bring people only similitude and the solitude to be one of many. ‘The non-place is the opposite of utopia: it exists, and it does not contain any organic society’ (Augé Reference Augé1997, 111–12).

Since human relations with Antarctica are essentially constituted of passing by and never-lasting visits, one might think that Antarctica, as well as the journey to it, could have been made of something like non-places, both in the past (ships, ports and islands), and in the present (airports, airplanes, ships, ports and islands). Regardless of whether the concept of non-places is sound for so-called supermodenity, it is not applicable for Antarctica voyages. Not because the nineteenth century had not seen supermodernity. Not because there are no tollbooths, signboards, stamps, texts, logos, or transnational signals of where to go next. Not because we do not find Antarctica tourism brochures at every next travel agency. Not even because there is constant movement and shorter-lasting destinations. But because Antarctica and Antarctica voyage places do provide profound dwelling. Antarctica travellers may engage with all places and moments of the journey, from the planning onwards, perhaps more so than other destinations. These travelling experiences stretch boundaries between distances, of nationalities. They provide potential exchanges of ideas, things and knowledge at each stop. As Peixoto describes it, travelling appears like a way of being in the world (Peixoto Reference Peixoto2015, 249).

Furthermore, Antarctica is still easily portrayed and understood as a still, static and homogeneous space. Since there are no innate peoples, Antarctica is mostly understood as seeing no movement, velocity, action, noise, combat, chaos or modernity, an idea which Vangelis’ piece Antarctica Echoes evokes and describes very well. It is a place of slow, silent and mild non-human life. It is seen as an example of intact and immaculate nature, barely touched by humans, and constituted of wind, clouds, cold, ice, snow, rocks, pebbles, penguins, seals, elephant seals, skuas, moss, sand and sea.

This idea of Antarctica is crucial to this argument, since it shows how that continent was associated strictly to the domain of nature, as opposed to culture. In its closeness to nature, it holds similar associations to the Amazon or desert areas. However, unlike any other region on Earth, there are no human groups associated to Antarctica. It is, then, considered non-human, and is mainly remembered regarding biological and ecological issues. Secondly, but not in a dissociated matter, Antarctica is often understood as a place where time either does not pass, or passes very slowly. This notion, of course, is not based on physical, absolute time (a time that is of nature), since by it, regardless, a day is a day. It is based on relative, humanly perceived time.

Dwelling in Antarctica: on time and on things

This paper's section, while focusing on time issues, presents sailor-hunters, present-day Brazilian Navy mariners, and something of my own experience of dwelling in Antarctica. A comparison between these three contexts is also an attempt to extract something of what would be intrinsic to Antarctica.

The idea is that sailor-hunters and Brazilian Navy mariners have experienced similar places in Antarctica voyages—seas, ships, harbours, port cities, and Antarctica's seas and landscapes—under some similar conditions—torments at sea, unexpected maintenance of ships, the need to pick up supplies in different harbours, shore leave at port cities, and Antarctica sojourn. Approximating inferences of time perceptions by different groups and people who lived in different historical periods in Antarctica, we offer some remarks on how some Brazilian mariners felt retentions and protentions during their voyages. Things—landscapes or mobile materials—will appear in this discussion as a fundamental part of dwelling.

Sailor-hunters’ relationship with Antarctica time will be tackled through some of their materials and logbook written accounts. For today's mariners, a compressed time mode ethnography (Jeffrey & Troman Reference Jeffrey and Troman2004) in two Brazilian Navy polar ships provided an initial overview of several themes (Hissa Reference Hissa2017).Footnote 1 My own account is as follows.


Inspired by the works of Christopher Tilley (Reference Tilley1994; Tilley et al. Reference Tilley, Hamilton and Bender2000) and by the film Smoke (1995) based on Paul Auster's piece Auggie Wren's Christmas Story (published in The New York Times in 1990), I ventured a photographic experiment while camped at Livingston Island. I captured frequent photos very much from the same spot, during my three-week stay at the south coast of the Byers Peninsula of Livingston Island, South Shetlands archipelago (Fig. 2). I could not use a fixed tripod, since the weather would not have been kind to it. I used as frame references a small and pointy rock outcrop to my right side and a stone on the floor to my left, close to my feet. Since my stay on Livingston Island was only three weeks, I did not take only one picture a day at the same hour, like Auggie. To produce a larger and more varied record, I took several photos a day. Figure 2 shows just a selected few from several shots taken.

Figure 2. Antarctica's time-landscape. Livingston Island, South Shetlands. (Photographs: Sarah Hissa, 2011.)

A dividing horizon line crosses the images and a small rock outcrop frames the landscape registered. At times, you see a skua, a person or some moss, as representative of life in Antarctica. I believe one might relate these images to the autonomous landscape Descola (Reference Descola2013) describes using historical paintings as examples of how we came to view landscape. However, as an assemble of images, they surmise and register something of my dwelling in that place (Ingold Reference Ingold1993; Reference Ingold2000), my learning Antarctica's pace, and of how it is possible to engage with Antarctica's time and landscape changes. Landscape appears as more a process than a finished setting. The photos, which frame only a single spot, leaving a whole Antarctica and its potential relations to be registered, already show colour changes in the sea, soil, clouds and sky, variations in vegetation and spread of snow and stones, and, we can infer temperature and humidity. These changes creep in a petty pace (Macbeth). In addition, they in fact infer me, taking the photograph (Dubois Reference Dubois1993), as well as all the logistics, activities and teams which made my presence there possible. This engagement coming from dwelling in that place is synchronizing oneself with Antarctica's own rhythms and arrhythmias, gradually creating a routine with its uniqueness.

Returning to the idea that Antarctica is timeless, still, or even sees time passing slower, I argue that this is the result of a direct comparison primarily based on modern anthropized urban living environments. This notion is fundamentally built on human changes and humanly observable changes, or better yet, on modern occidental views of what change is. As a result, Antarctica is not at the same speed as the rest of the world. Moreover, the notions of slow and fast time, in a similar manner to how hot and cold societies function, rely on the idea of a single speed continuum, applicable to any landscape, materials, experience, culture or cosmology.

In order to be more accepting of others (humans or not) and their time, it becomes necessary to move away from simple dichotomies such as with history/without history, change/continuity and slow/fast time, accommodating multitemporal scales. In this manner, perceived time in both places is not two dots in a spectrum of oppositional binaries. This does not mean a symmetry or equivalence between time as we perceive it in Antarctica and in globalized urban centres. It means our sensibilities should be numbed or adjusted to perceive Antarctica's changes on their own terms.


Nineteenth-century sailors-hunters were sea nomads (Basberg & Headland Reference Basberg and Headland2008), leaving home, stopping in several ports, confined to the ship, and stranded on shore. They carried with them the absolute, mechanical, modern and progressive time that was in construction world-wide. It influenced their daily life. Specific hours would mark activities to execute or events passed, and sound-alarms hourly based could mark labour shifts:

Unlike the merchant sailors to whom eight-bell watches are almost sacred, the whalemen commenced them watches at six bells, and in this respect they differed from all other seamen. Thus the first watch was from 7 until 11 P.M.; the middle watch was from 11 until 3, and the last watch was from 3 until 7 A.M. Moreover, half-hours were never struck on a whaling vessel's bell, only the even hours being sounded, and one, three, five or seven strokes never rang across the waters from a whaleship. (Verrill Reference Verrill1916, 49–50)

Saturday on board. Lying at anchor, Bedford Harbor below Palmer's Is. 5 fathoms of Water. First part of these 24 hours strong Breezes from the NW, the weather fine. Most of the crew on Board employed in Ship's Duty. Mid part (of the day) light airs from the N.W. Latt. part a fine Breeze from the N. At 5 o'clock Broke ground and Bid a Due to the Land, We all so much admire. But with the hopes of a Short Voyage, We set all sail. At 9 o'clock the pilot left us. Steered out SW. At 11 o'clock the wind shifted to the East from that time to the SE, we steering to the SW. At 12 o'clock to Gay Head light House. Bore E 1-2 N. Dist. 8 miles. The No Mans Land Bore ESE. Saw number of vessels steering different courses. So Ends this day with Sweet Fealings of Home. (Verrill Reference Verrill1916, 92)

It is likely that the ship's captain would have had a pocket watch, marking the ship's shifts and tasks, but at that time, they were expensive and would not have been accessible to shipmates. That did not prevent temporal regularity from percolating their daily activities, even if by astronomic movements alone, but their days would have many other metronome implements. The sailor's sea shanties, for instance, would have provided rhythm for specific activities, on ship or on shore, without the constraints of a clock. Candles, from which many fragments were recovered archaeologically at sites on Livingston Island, also mark the passage of time by their duration. These candles burning inside a small shelter built abutting a small rock outcrop, covered by whale ribs and leather, offered warmth, closeness, and light for a time-span. Tobacco-pipe smoking, whose kaolin clay fragments are found at those sites, would also have paced time, maybe during a break between activities, or a time to relax and warm up after a hard day's work.

A mixture of different places in memory appears mildly in some ship logbooks, as less linear subjectivities and irregular time expressions, creating a mesh of entangled places in their internal time consciousness flux. In the second of Verrill's (Reference Verrill1916, 92) transcribed excerpts above, and underlined, protentions and future projections fill the present, as anticipation. In the first, the final phrase brings out the past as retention, with sentimental recollection. Furthermore, the entire passage expresses how both types of time—absolute and relative—intertwine with each other. Descriptions of each day, through memory, relive several small nows referencing absolute time, and knit them with remembrances and expectancy of other places from further back and/or forward in time. In other terms, what Gell (Reference Gell2014) presented as times A and B, and Husserl (Reference Husserl1991) referred to as objective time and internal time consciousness, coexist entangled in experiences.

Also considering this Antarctic internal time consciousness flux, many Brazilian mariners stated the polar trip was just a period in their lives, a mere phase. Antarctica would not be their usual assignment. One of them was very categorical: never again would he travel for that long without his family (this trip lasted approximately five months). Another mariner balanced it: although missing his family, he enjoyed the adventure and knowing such an exotic place. Retentions appeared for Brazilian mariners in their remembering and missing their families and home, while protentions took form in their counting of the days until the trip's end. The Brazilian Navy set sail with a precise deadline for the expedition, which might change only slightly with unforeseen events. Even so, this previously set date is something Brazilian mariners hold on to, counting how much of the voyage is still to come, and how much of it they have conquered. Brazilian mariners organize their anxieties for the trip's end in terms of more precise absolute time. To tackle that same longing for home, many Brazilian mariners talk to their families every day, but there are a few days without internet and phone. One mariner said it was like recharging his batteries. Sailor-hunters did not have a precise date of arrival, but, as seen, they still anticipated and longed for home. They also could not count on the luxury of immediately reaching home as with our present-day digital implements, and might not know exactly when or what to expect on their return home.


Evans-Pritchard (Reference Evans-Pritchard1940, 102) brings out an important aspect of time organization and awareness, considering the Nuer people: ‘It is the activities themselves, chiefly of an economic kind, which are basic to the system and furnish most of its units and notations, and the passage of time is perceived in the relation of activities to one another.’ Bearing that in mind, we gather the importance of tasks and activities in forming past, present and future flows in what would be internal time consciousness (Husserl Reference Husserl1991), and the concept of taskscape (Ingold Reference Ingold1993; Reference Ingold2000). They all converge to activities and the importance of their rhythms in time perception, and the intrinsic relationship between these dimensions and landscape.

Maintaining the idea that Antarctica and the journey to it hold particularities that approximate those of sailor-hunters and contemporary Brazilian polar mariners, it is noticeable that tasks and activities in Antarctica are somewhat similar too. Evidently, for instance, mariners did not stay on shore violently killing and processing dead animals into products, or wait for unknown periods of time for a ship's rescue; neither did sailor-hunters have phones and internet to talk to and see their families during sea travel, nor did they operate under strict military order and national laws regarding interpersonal conduct. However, Antarctica and the journey to it, while they evoked and evoke similar retention and protention time consciousness movements, also demanded and demand similar tasks.

An important element for understanding time through different tasks is the modern ontological separation of work and rest. Capitalist logic brought a division between labour and leisure times. The latter, mostly understood as free time to do with as one pleases ensuring well-being (Gross Reference Gross1984; Magnani Reference Magnani1994; Reference Magnani2003), also gradually equated to consumerism: ‘there is a time to earn and a time to consume’ (Valtonen Reference Valtonen2004). With the exception of polar tourism, that kind of consumerism is not a reality in Antarctica. However, the opposition discussed here is simply between productivity or worked hours and rest time dissociated from labour activities.

The work of Antarctica sealers was obligated to capitalist time, by which, remembering Benjamin Franklin, time is money. They had to hunt, kill and dismember the animals, then salt the skins, boil the fat and store the products. The Hero managed the high number of 10,000 seals in 12 days’ work in the South Shetlands (Stackpole Reference Stackpole1955, 33). Considering this number, and disregarding any other work activities, as well as sleep, rest and eating time, an estimate for hunting, killing and processing results in 830 seals a day, or 34 seals an hour. Another ship reached 60 seals an hour (Stackpole Reference Stackpole1955, 34). These numbers allow us to infer something of inland work intensity. The profit-aiming enterprise organizes the velocity of work, the very stay in Antarctica and its length.

Many archaeological remains attest work activities, such as iron bowls for boiling fat, wooden stakes for stretching and drying leather, barrel fragments, a machete, a wooden club, and even mended clothing or the camp building itself. Their archaeological counterparts allude to leisure time, such as clay tobacco pipes, glass bottles for alcoholic beverage consumption, and board games (Salerno Reference Salerno2006; Zarankin & Senatore Reference Zarankin and Senatore2007). These remains show there were indeed moments of pause in labour or slowing-down of work activities.

In their turn, the Brazilian mariners probably have this separation between work and leisure time more established in their daily lives than sailor-hunters, having many institutions assuring this, and having it very clearly defined in their discourses:

The more work I have, the better for me. Day passes quicker. It is impossible to do nothing on board. Leisure is complicated, since it is a small ship. But there are options. I do not like reading and only watch movies if others set it up. I like using the computer. I was here, looking at this trip's photos. (Brazilian Navy mariner, 2011)

It's work, bunk bed; Bunk bed, sleep, and work; Eat and sleep; Bunk bed and work. And there are always things to do. Always. Like at the last barbecue, I was on watch so I did not go. Then the vacuum pump stopped functioning and we had to remove it. All systems halted. When it happened, we had to work hard and fast. If I had gone to eat barbecue it would have interfered. I prefer working, and only after do my leisure time. (Brazilian Navy mariner, 2011)

Depending on the task they are assigned, they may perceive the passage of time as more or less repetitive. In addition, the types of task also influence how closely they observe clock time. A waiter described time's passage as very repetitive and homogeneous, without much change in routine. However, the various clock-timed activities related to food cycles spread out during the day make him constantly aware of absolute time. Meanwhile, personnel assigned to repairs reported feeling time repeats moderately, but passes slowly compared to their lives in Brazil; they mostly wait for any emergency that requires their assistance. The clock is not what gives rhythm to their days, but sudden and unforeseeable accidents, which break the flow of expectation.

On the other hand, since activities differ when in a harbour, at sea or in Antarctica, perceived time passage also relates to its particular place. At sea, time seems to pass slower to Brazilian mariners than in Antarctica and port cities, where work activities require haste and focus, or during shore leave's leisure time (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Brazilian mariners’ Antarctic places and activities. (Photographs: Sarah Hissa, 2010–11.)

Returning to sailor-hunters, Antarctica and ocean waters have a movement of their own, directly influencing activities and waiting times, as in the following whalers’ account:

Aboard the ship, when cruising, the crew or seamen had little to do, once they were on the grounds, save to swing the yards, trim sail or perform other work necessary in navigating the vessel; for every ounce of strength and every spark of vitality was conserved to be brought into instant use when a whale was sighted and the chase commenced. (Verrill Reference Verrill1916, 49)

This excerpt reminds us of the unpredictability of the sea, ship and harbour activities, which might demand caution, deceleration, detours, waiting. These elements together determine the ship's position in the world, its acceleration, speed, arrival, departure, travel duration and tasks undergone. In addition, when sealers are on shore, after finishing the preparation of products, they would await rescue, sometimes for months (Landis Reference Landis2001, 30–31). This forced labour pause would have to be filled with survival-based activities, among expectation and uncertainties, in tune with Gell's time type A.

When considering materials taken to and used in Antarctica in terms of retention (duration) and protentions (successions), the durability of things comes to mind (Lucas Reference Lucas2005; Reference Lucas, Hicks and Beaudry2006). For instance, in the case of sailor-hunters, only two fragments of faience were found archaeologically in the South Shetlands. One of them, excavated by Ruben Stehberg and collaborators at Rugged 1 archaeological site, is an earthenware teacup with hand-painted rim and blue transfer print depicting three women (cf. Hissa Reference Hissa2012). This is a very odd item, too delicate and clumsy to be used in such a harsh environment, and associated with violent hunting activities. Meanwhile, the majority of artefacts recovered archaeologically in the South Shetlands express the occupations’ ephemeral nature and the need for robust, durable articles. For example, thick glass bottles and stoneware jars are the predominant manufactured objects found, instead of thin decorated tableware. In addition, clothes were mended to prolong their use, attested by some archaeological finds, which also speaks of durability (Salerno Reference Salerno2006). In their turn, Brazilian Navy polar ships do not present those limitations and offer their crew and passengers a great deal of material comfort and space, with fine tableware, television sets, computers, and gym space and equipment, not to mention pillows, blankets, room windows, electricity, clean water and plenty of food, as well as the possibility of taking one's own technological gear. Many breakables, non-durable and easily replaced fragile items, accompanied the voyage. In this context, thew materials’ durability is not as much a matter of concern as it was for sailor-hunters.

Other durable materials reach Antarctica, taken by sea currents, temperature changes and winds, with no previously known path or human intention. These are modern human-made and human-abandoned materials (Fig. 4). Sometimes they are just made of modified wood, so present no major environmental consequences. However, much of this drift is plastic or made with potentially dangerous chemical materials, which may cause negative interactions with their new resting-places.

Figure 4. Antarctic drift. Livingston Island, South Shetlands. (Photographs: Sarah Hissa, 2011.)

Pétursdóttir and Olsen (Reference Pétursdóttir and Olsen2018) see humanly abandoned stuff drifting throughout the sea and into Arctic Norway shores as post-human drift, since they supposedly float with no connection with human intentions, and far from their past associations. In that sense, the authors claim they might seem odd for archaeology, since they are removed from their original contexts, floating materials with a non-human life of their own. They are almost mindful explorers, nomads or migrants.

However, this post-humanistic approach results in shifting the focus away from human responsibility. These are still humanly produced items, and many times manufactured with modern non-biodegradable or eco-friendly compounds. As such, even having lost their human usefulness and seen by us as unusable trash, these materials’ destinations are a human responsibility. Symmetric thinking behind the idea of floating materials’ agency and its non-human material life conceals asymmetric relationships intrinsic to the modern world, mainly power relations, and, in this case, humans’ (or specific groups of people's) increasing destructive effect in the world and, therefore, masks the need for taking political responsibility towards these actions. If our discarded materials are adrift throughout the globe, they should not be so. In addition, and using Pétursdóttir & Olsen's analogy, neither is theory adrift. When considering decolonial standpoints, theories are very much territorial and contextual, and the places in which they were created have real political consequences, taking into account differences in economic, political and academic power (Mignolo Reference Mignolo2002).

Ion (Reference Ion2018) brings very similar evaluations of that same paper, concluding that object-oriented ontological philosophies can lead to important negative ethical and political consequences, such as the alienation of human responsibility. Furthermore, returning to the basis of the dichotomy between culture and nature, the idea of things-in-themselves (Olsen Reference Olsen2003) as something other to all humanistic aspects and intentions, is ultimately based on dividing human and non-human, and actually reinforces the culture versus nature dichotomy. Ingold (Reference Ingold2010) has discussed how the sheer conceptualizing of a hard physicality in the world is thinking through a hylomorphic model, which divides matter/nature and form/culture. This issue becomes extra important here, when considering the limits of the idea that humanly made artefacts have a life of their own, independent from humans. This is mainly a critique of viewing the world with symmetric lenses, regardless of specifics. Moreover, if while focusing on these things’ independence from humans the dichotomy between nature and culture remains, no gain was reached, and we have retained our damages.

Final words

This paper has discussed issues about time in Antarctica, connecting past and present human perceptions, tackled in this study through different kinds of information sources. Materials, written discourses, oral accounts and photographs were contrasted, formulating an idea of what would be characteristic of time perception in that continent. Something of an Antarcticaness was evoked in this construction. Antarcticaness meant a temporary human presence in that continent. Because humans were and are in Antarctica only during a previously projected duration, retentions and protentions result in an internal time consciousness strongly filled with different places. Even so, the presence of Antarctica is felt when tuned into its particular time pace. Materials appeared as part of internal time consciousness, as retentions and reminders of home, as durability in and connection to a hostile environment, while travel and work activities give experience rhythm.

Throughout the paper, some modern thinking dichotomies were also a matter for discussion, such as culture/nature; physical time/human time; past/present. This paper showed a few ways in which these binaries actually function as one. It is hoped that this text has not only informed about human occupations in Antarctica since sailor-hunters camped in those islands, but mainly brought forward issues of time perception, its relationship to particular places, landscape, mobility, activities and memory.


The Antarctic Archaeology project White Landscapes, coordinated by Prof. Dr Andrés Zarankin (UFMG), made possible my fieldwork in Antarctica. Additionally, PROANTAR/CNPQ and the Brazilian Navy provided the logistics for the voyage, and my research received CNPq funding. I also thank Brazilian mariners from the ships NApOc Ary Rongel and Npo. Almirante Maximiano for the conversations and formal interviews.


1. Research while aboard Brazilian Navy polar ships NApOc Ary Rongel and Npo. Almirante Maximiano for a total of seven weeks in two separate research seasons of the Brazilian Antarctic Program (PROANTAR), in 2010 and 2011. This short ethnography comprised informal and formal conversations with Brazilian mariners, directly and indirectly regarding time perception, as well as observation during daily routine work activities, leisure time and festivities. The study included semi-structured interviews with volunteers, previously approved by ship authorities.


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Figure 0

Figure 1. (Top) Map of archaeological sealers’ sites located at Livingston Island, South Shetlands, Antarctica; (below, left) trip to Antarctica; (below, right) archaeological sealer site, Livingston Island, South Shetlands. (Map: Letícia Hissa, 2012; Photographs: Sarah Hissa, 2011.)

Figure 1

Figure 2. Antarctica's time-landscape. Livingston Island, South Shetlands. (Photographs: Sarah Hissa, 2011.)

Figure 2

Figure 3. Brazilian mariners’ Antarctic places and activities. (Photographs: Sarah Hissa, 2010–11.)

Figure 3

Figure 4. Antarctic drift. Livingston Island, South Shetlands. (Photographs: Sarah Hissa, 2011.)

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