Discovery

The story of the Neva’s sinking has generated many legends. According to one, the ship was carrying a cargo of church items and icons for the chapel in Sitka. The local lore maintains that some of the icons were recovered and are now in the Sitka St. Michael’s Cathedral, while a portion of this precious cargo is still on the sea bottom. In 1915, Seattle and Juneau newspapers even published an announcement that J. Stagger, a commercial diver from Port Townsend, was planning a dive expedition to recover these sunken treasures, but no real action followed. In 1966, the newsletter of the Alaska State Centennial Commission reported that Sitka “skin divers” had decided to find the Neva to commemorate the centennial of the Alaska purchase. The last major field effort to find the wreck was by the group “NevaQuest” in 1979, led by diver Dennis Cowles.  The team used a marine magnetometer, but did not succeed in finding the wreck.

In June 2012, Alaska State Archaeologist David McMahan organized an exploratory search for the Neva wreck site, reasoning that the best chance of discovery would be through archaeological survey of the tidelands and adjacent uplands in the predicted wreck area. The team, including Jay Kinsman (US Forest Service) and Bob Medinger (Sitka Historical Society) surveyed the beach at low tide, but found no evidence of shipwreck or related camp.  The search was then moved to an upland terrace near the beach, which looked like an optimal location for a survival camp, and the story of the Neva took a new spin when their metal-detector led researchers to two caches of stacked Russian axes, indicating that the survivor’s camp was likely located nearby.   

Exciting as it was, the discovery left many questions unanswered. Can archaeology tell us how shipwreck survivors endured twenty-six days in Alaskan wilderness in the heart of winter? Are there shipwreck remains in the nearby bay? Are there traces of survivors’ activities in the landscape and archaeological record? Do legendary accounts of treasures have any foundation?  To answer these questions, a team of researchers from the USA, Russia, and Canada, in partnership with the Sitka Historical Society, US Forest Service and Sitka Tribe of Alaska applied for, and received a National Science Foundation Grant for multi-year exploration. For two field seasons the team camped on Kruzof Island conducting terrestrial and underwater archaeological surveys and excavation.

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