Archaeology Above and Below the Waves
The story of the Neva has long fascinated archaeologists and the people of Sitka. Because the Neva survivors lived on shore for nearly a month, and were rescued by a Russian party sent from Sitka, the general location of shipwreck was well documented. But finding a historic wreck even along a relatively limited section of shoreline is not an easy task in cold and stormy Alaskan waters. After 200 years, most wrecks are fragmented and spread apart. Furthermore, the land and sea floor around Sitka are still changing in response to melting of glaciers that covered this area over 3,000 years ago. NOAA scientists have found that the land and the sea floor are rising relative to the sea at 17.12 mm a year, amounting to 3.4 meters of uplift since 1813. Former coastal and intertidal zones became forested terraces, meaning that some fragments of shipwreck may in fact lie beneath today’s forest floor.
To locate the remains of the Neva archaeologists conducted a systematic metal detector survey of the narrow terrace where Russian axes were discovered in 2012. 583 artifacts were recovered during three field seasons, including tools, navigational devices, fragments of the ship, personal items and more. Contrary to two hundred of years of stories and legends, not a single item was made of precious metal. Less than luxurious, these items are evidence of shipwreck survivors’ resourcefulness.
Archaeologists also uncovered a number of rock piles and charcoal features. Some of the stones were fire-cracked, and the charcoal often contained remains of burnt animal bones. The stone piles may have been used as anchors for tent-like shelters constructed by survivors with sailcloth to protect them from the elements. Russian archaeologists working on the site proposed that the fire-cracked stones may indicate that survivors made and used sweat baths.
Charcoal features are the remains of hearths that were used for warming and cooking. Maintaining adequate body temperature and finding sustenance are key elements of surviving. Animal bones found in the hearths of the survivors’ camp revealed how the crew of the Neva sustained itself after the shipwreck. Dr. Megan Partlow, a zooarchaeologist affiliated with Central Washington University, found that most of the animal bone found on the site were remains of Sitka black-tailed deer and harbor seal. According to her analysis, a minimum of two deer were represented, which provided survivors with at least 70 lbs of meat. A harbor seal would add about 88 lbs of meat and blubber to the survivors’ diet. People also subsided on rockfish, salmon, and sea lion.
Underwater search for the shipwreck was less successful: low visibility and dense kelp forest made diver survey challenging. The team’s attempt to use a magnetometer to locate large iron objects such as cannon, anchors, and rigging was tempered by the past volcanic activities of Mount Edgecumbe. Volcanic lava has high ferrous content, which masked shipwreck-related magnetic anomalies. Ironically, the most notable ship-related artifact was found on shore, buried at the root of spruce tree. Trunnion caps from the cannon carriage were used to mount one of the ship’s 16-pounder guns. The ship was carrying 14 of such guns. Along with heavy anchors, they are likely last preserved elements of the ship still awaiting discovery beneath the wave.
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