Ingeniously-repurposed tools could have aided in the shipwrecked crew’s survival during the 1813 Alaskan winter

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In August of 1812, Neva, an important ship of the Russian-American Company, set sail from the Siberian port of Okhotsk, carrying a crew of around 75 men and a consignment of guns and furs. During the three-month voyage, those on board faced terrible gales, illness and water shortages. Before it could reach its destination, however, the vessel hit rock and sank, taking with it the lives of 32 people and stranding 28 more in a remote part of Alaska’s Kruzof Island. How these individuals managed to survive one month of the savage subarctic winter has been the source of many legends and stories for the last two centuries.

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As part of an ongoing research that started back in 2012, a joint team of researchers, from Russia, Canada and the United States, has been examining the wreck and the camp sites in search of archaeological clues, which could in turn shed more light on the incident, especially the methods adopted by the sailors to remain alive until the rescuers arrived. Speaking about the project, Dave McMahan, an archaeologist at the Sitka Historical Society and Museum and a member of the excavation team, said:

The items left behind by survivors provide a unique snapshot-in-time for January 1813, and might help us to understand the adaptations that allowed them to await rescue in a frigid, unfamiliar environment.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project is the result of a collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service, the Sitka Historical Society and the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology. Working alongside the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, the researchers have successfully located the main camp where the survivors lived for one month, fighting against the bitter cold of winter. Situated only a few miles away from the city of Sitka, the site contains several artifacts, mainly everyday tools, which could have been used by the shipwrecked crew of the Neva.

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One of the only two ships to have completed the first Russian circumnavigation of the Earth, between 1803 and 1806, the Neva was later used in the Battle of Sitka (1804), in which the Russians regained control over what is now Sitka by defeating the local Tlingit people. Following that, the vessel came to serve the Russian-American Company, until it drowned in 1813. During the fateful voyage, it encountered severe storms that damaged its rigging. Fifteen members, of the crew, died while at sea, while 32 more were killed in the wreck. Of the 28 people who managed to reach the shore, 26 survived long enough for the rescuers to come and save them.

While the story of the survivors has remained in the local memory for the last two hundred years, few written accounts and official records of the event exist today. Taking the help of the oral history of the indigenous tribes, the researchers have uncovered a series of 19th century artifacts, including gun flints, copper and iron spikes, musket balls, and a heavy Russian axe. The crew likely used the ship’s wreckage to construct tools needed for their survival. For instance, they fashioned a fishhook out of small copper pieces, and started fires by scraping gun flints against steel sheets. McMahan added:

Collectively, the artifacts reflect improvisation in a survival situation, and do not include ceramics, glass and other materials that would be associated with a settlement.

The team will continue its research next year, scouring the ocean floor in search of the shipwreck debris. According to McMahan, future plans include a short film on the subject as well as a “virtual museum” showcasing 3D-scans of the collected artifacts. He said:

One goal of the research is to replace some of the myths and ‘lore of the sea’ with scientific findings.

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