Working closely with the U.S. Forest Service and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, an international team of researchers funded by the National Science Foundation has begun to piece together an archaeological and historical narrative of how the crew of the wrecked 19th century Russian-American Company sailing ship Neva survived the harsh subarctic winter.

“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 for almost a month,” said Dave McMahan of the Sitka Historical Society.

McMahan is the principal investigator for the NSF award, which was made by the Arctic Sciences Section in NSF’s Division of Polar Programs.

The wreck of the frigate Neva, which occurred near the city of Sitka, has been surrounded by stories and legends for two centuries. Although survivors eventually were rescued and taken to Sitka, few accounts of their experience were collected or published. No official records relating to the wreck and its aftermath have been discovered.

The researchers are seeking to verify the wreck location and confirm the site of a survivor camp. They also hope that Tlingit oral history will add to the story and help to place the wreck in a broader context.

Longer-range plans for the project include a “virtual museum” with 3-D scans of artifacts, along with a short film that can be used in local educational curricula.

Watch a short video about the excavation

Picture credit: Credit: Gleb Mikhalev