The survivor camp of the Russian frigate Neva

Cache of early 18th century Russian Axe Heads. Source: Dave McMahon via NSF.

Cache of early 19th century Russian Axe Heads, on Kruzof Island, Alaska. Source: Dave McMahan via NSF.

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.

Print showing the Neva at anchor in St Paul, Kodiak Island. Source: Paul McMahon via NSF.

Print showing the Neva at anchor in St Paul, Kodiak Island. Source: Dave McMahon via NSF.

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.

A representative collection of artifacts discovered in July 2015 includes (from left) part of a set of dividers, a nail, a fishhook, a buckle, sheet copper, gun flints and a musket ball. Credit: Dave McMahan, Sitka Historical Society via NSF

A representative collection of artifacts discovered in July 2015 includes (from left) part of a set of navigational dividers, a nail, a fishhook, a buckle, sheet copper, gun flints and a musket ball. Credit: Dave McMahan, Sitka Historical Society via NSF

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.

Project lead Dave MacManhan at work at the site.

Project lead Dave MacMahan at work at the site.


7 responses to “The survivor camp of the Russian frigate Neva

  1. I wonder if our 10 year army tent field camp at Hoko River sites, if, when, excavated, would appear to be a survivors camp??! Probably not many navigation pins, but some ballpoint pens, and Al Mackie’s shave kit–true sign of survival–I know he and bros are out there. Hope everthings going well and working on Chiton II covering the South Coast. Dale


  2. Fabulous post. SO interesting and somewhat amusing! I like the reference to the “not-entirely benign Alaskan winter”. I bet they froze their tails off! And the “don’t think of” bit. Has there ever been any evidence found of shipwreck survivors resorting to cannibalism?


  3. The Franklin Expedition crew resorted to cannibalism and there is excellent archaeological and oral history evidence. See, among other papers: “The Final Days of the Franklin Expedition: New Skeletal Evidence”; A. Keenleyside, M. Bernoulli, and H. Fricke; 1997; Arctic, pp. 36-46. Inuit reported to Rae, a doctor surveying the Boothia Peninsula, that they clearly saw signs of cannibalism in the human remains they encountered. Rae was publicly discredited upon reporting this to the Admiralty, who could not accept that Royal Navy crew members would resort to such extremes.


  4. Thanks for the comment Photobooth, and for answering the question. Mad Dog, no editing I’m afraid except my end but I fixed it to Boothia.

    And hey, turns out that paper is online! From the abstract “Cut marks on approximately one-quarter of the remains support 19th-century Inuit accounts of cannibalism among Franklin’s crew.”
    Such a cool project, the Franklin thing, way to go Parks Canada!


  5. Further to your question, Photobooth, it being a morbid enough topic for me, I found the image below from a book on the Donner Party cannibalism of the 19th century west. It shows a number of documented shipwreck cases and would provide some good google search terms for those wanting to know more.

    Source: An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party’s Alder Creek Camp
    edited by Kelly J. Dixon, Julie M. Schablitsky, Shannon A. Novak


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