In late 1812 or early 1813, the London-built, Russian-owned frigate Neva foundered on rocks somewhere near Sitka Sound, in Tlingit territory on Baranof or Kruzof Islands, SE Alaska, (map). The Neva was a prominent ship of Russian colonial Alaska having, for example, taken part in the 1804 Battle of Sitka as well as making multiple round trips during the maritime fur trade hauling sea otter pelts to Chinese and Russian ports. The actual wreck site has never been found. However, in 2012 archaeologists led by Dave McMahon and the Sitka Historical Society found a small historical-era site which they thought might be where the 28 survivors of the wreck sheltered for a month before being rescued in January 1813. An intriguing and suggestive find in 2012 was an apparent cache of Russian made axeheads (above), suggesting further work was called for. In 2015, a fuller excavation took place finding a remarkable assemblage “focused on survival”, not at all typical of early historic settlement sites. So, while there is no smoking gun yet, such as crockery with the Neva’s monogram, there are plenty of indicators that this site is where the survivors sheltered in the not-entirely benign Alaskan winter while awaiting a rescue that might never come.
There’s a really good, detailed press release from the funding body National Science Foundation (NSF) from which I link these pictures – available here in high resolution. There’s also a good article from the Alaska Dispatch News which adds more information and quotes from the team. Above all, there is a well-done short video (2 mins) of the project.
Three of the above artifacts are of special interest. “C” is a fish hook made out of a nail – that is, not a manufactured fish hook. This poignant artifact suggests a scramble for survival on that chilly island bank. Artifact “i” is a musket ball — but not any musket ball, it has been cut down to, presumably, fit into a smaller calibre weapon such as a pistol. (And, it’s not the first hand-made musket ball we’ve seen on this blog from Sitka!) And the gun-flints (g,h,) showed striking patterns more typical of flint-to-steel fire lighting than of gun-fire (and tiny flakes of flint were also found). It seems they left the sinking ship with a limited amount of supplies, and had to fit mismatched items together. All the same, someone had the idea of grabbing some navigational dividers (A).
None of these are unequivocally from the Neva. As is common in archaeology, you also have to think of what is missing. A typical historical site of this vintage would undoubtedly contain glass and ceramics – bottles, broken bottles, other glass, the remains of plates and bowls. A variety of domestic items in general left by people who would be planning on staying a while. Instead we see a very limited (so far) presentation or archaeological signature of a more random selection of artifacts, several of which have been cleverly, yet somewhat crudely, re-purposed. It’s a really interesting glimpse into a short event, indeed, it’s doing what archaeology does surprisingly well, considering the scope of time it deals with: a compelling documentation of micro-time in an otherwise unknown struggle. As McMahan says,
….. one of the strongest indications that the researchers have found the site of the Neva survivor camp is that all of the artifacts point toward short-term goals such as starting fires and scavenging.
“The flavor of the collection is one of survival, rather than settlement,” McMahan said.
Just don’t think of those countless other survivor camps which must be scattered along the coast, the lonely ones where rescue never came. Where the survivors turned to drinking urine and slowly eating each others’ lower limbs while shrieking in blood-curdling, primordial savagery through red-crusted beards. I said, don’t think of those sites!
Further scientific tests may well firm up the association with the Neva. For example, the copper sheathing shown above may be traceable to a certain source, hopefully typical of British shipbuilding.