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Artifacts found in Southeast Alaska may be related to Russian shipwreck

  • Author: Tom Hesse
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published September 10, 2015

SITKA -- Archaeological work near Sitka this summer has turned up new evidence that may relate to a Russian shipwreck more than 200 years ago.

The Neva was a Russian-American Company frigate that wrecked somewhere near Cape Edgecumbe in 1813. Twenty-six of the passengers and crew survived the wreck and set up a crude camp on shore, where they stayed about a month before being rescued.

Principal investigator in this year's archaeological dig is Dave McMahan, who is known in Sitka as the leader of the archaeological dig on Castle Hill in 1997-98 that turned up thousands of Russian-era artifacts. At that time, McMahan was with the Alaska Division of History and Archaeology. He has since retired from his state position while continuing to do archaeological work on grant-funded projects.

"Folks have been looking for the Neva wreck site for over 200 years, and lots of legends and rumors had sprung up," McMahan said.

In a 2012 dig at the suspected site of the Neva survivors' camp, McMahan and other archaeologists discovered a collection of Russian axes. Returning to the site this past July, he and his nine-member team found more artifacts.

"We didn't find any smoking guns. No tea sets that said 'Neva' or anything like that," McMahan said. "But we didn't expect that. Rarely do you find anything that carries the ship's name on it, but this is definitely a strong indication of a survivors camp."

The area is on National Forest land on the rugged southern end of Kruzof Island, but the exact location is not being disclosed to protect it from souvenir hunters.

The new artifacts included musket balls, gun flints, modified pieces of sheet copper and a series of hearths, McMahan said. He said the material, and the apparent way it was used, coincides with the survivors' stories of the camp.

"In one of the translated survivor accounts it talks about being able to make it to shore with a pistol and using the flint to start a fire, so it sort of fits with that," McMahan said. "At least it makes for a good story."

McMahan added that the musket balls had been whittled down, which he thought suggested the survivors may have been trying to make larger balls fit into the pistol that made it to shore. Small flakes of flint suggested the gun flints were used as strikers to start a fire, and the sheet copper may have been from the Neva's hull.

"We basically excavated around the area where the axes were found and began finding things like gun flints and little tiny pieces that were struck off the gun flints," McMahan said.

The copper hull material could indicate the ship's origins, which may help determine if it indeed came from the Neva, McMahan said. He said one of the next steps for researchers is to find out as much as they can about that copper.

"We're going to do some metallurgy. One of the team members is a metallurgist at Purdue University. He and his students are going to do some metallurgy," he said.

A London-based researcher is also looking into the sheet copper with hopes of pinpointing when it was manufactured, McMahan said. The Neva was built in London before being purchased by Russia. The research team will head to London later this year for archival research to try to find ways to connect other artifacts found off Cape Edgecumbe to the Neva.

"We've got some interesting leads. It's sort of a long shot to come up with any definitive documentation, but we have some things we want to investigate," McMahan said.

Last September, the research team traveled to St. Petersburg for a round of archival research. Researchers from Canada, Russia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom have been involved with the project since 2012.

The project has been funded through a $440,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and runs through the Sitka Historical Society. Right now, the artifacts from the Kruzof Island exploration are being stored in Anchorage at the state archaeology lab, where they'll be studied in the coming months.

McMahan said 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.

The Neva is reported to have left the Siberian port of Okhotsk for Sitka in August of 1812. After a tumultuous crossing, the ship was within a few miles of Sitka when it wrecked on the shoals of Cape Edgecumbe, killing 32 of the crew and passengers aboard. Another 28 made it to shore and of that group 26 survived.

It was more than a month before word of the shipwreck, and the survivors, reached the Russian settlement in Sitka, and a rescue effort was launched.

The Neva was famous in history as the first Russian ship to sail around the world, and for its role in support of the forces under control of Alexander Baranov in the 1804 battle at Indian River.

McMahan said the survivor camp researchers will spend the winter analyzing their findings and conducting research related to the Neva. He said the team is hoping to make another visit to the site next summer.

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