Digging for clues: The wreck of the NEVA

“Lands beneath the bow!”

The shouted warning wakes the captain of the Russian frigate, NEVA, from his afternoon nap as the ship runs aground in narrow, cliff-bounded Sitka Sound.

It is a cold day in December 1812, and the NEVA is on its last leg to Sitka, capital of Russian America in the Alaskan panhandle. In an attempt to keep the ship from washing farther up on the rocks, the anchor is thrown over, but the line is not secured. Precariously, the NEVA perches on the rocks for several hours. Women and children are put in the longboat, but their rescue craft breaks up on the rocks. All on board are lost.

Punctuating this tragic loss, the NEVA’s stern begins to break away. The survivors that remain on the NEVA hold on to anything they can as the bow then breaks apart and they are set adrift. At the end of the day, 28 of 60 make it to shore; 2 die later of hypothermia.

NEVA Project Principal Investigator, Dave McMahan, taking notes in a completed excavation block. Photo: Gleb Mikhalev
NEVA Project Principal Investigator, Dave McMahan, taking notes in a completed excavation block. Photo: Gleb Mikhalev

The NEVA has since been the stuff of legend, lore of the sea. People have been looking for the wreck site and survivor’s camp for two centuries with little progress. Over the last few years, however, David McMahan, a retired Alaska State Archaeologist who has been interested in the NEVA for years, has mounted a more successful search. The initial work was a partnership of the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology, the U.S. Forest Service, the Sitka Historical Society, NOAA, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation.

“The ship was legendary in Sitka, even in the 1800s, due to its role in the Battle of Sitka in which the Russians drove out the Tlingit for control of the island,” says McMahan. “We researched the stories, recorded survivor accounts, and Russian records. We looked at historical tide and weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), studied aerial photos and satellite images. An abalone fisherman told us about finding a cannon of the right vintage in the 1980s and showed us where he found it on the chart.

All of the information we had amassed over the years finally converged, and in 2012 we went looking for the NEVA and her survivor camp. In June of that year, we walked the shoreline in the alleged vicinity of the wreck during the lowest tide of the year. We used a metal detector and found a cache of nine Russian-made axe heads that were stacked, like they had been in a wooden crate that had eroded. At this point, we knew we had something, so we applied for funding from NSF,” McMahan explains.

In August 2012, McMahan’s team attempted to find the NEVA, but the challenges were too great. Despite a shallow water depth of only about 50 feet, the rocky pinnacles, strongly surging current, and dense kelp forest hindered progress. The group tried to find the wreckage using a marine magnetometer on loan from NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

NEVA Project divers returning from a search in thick kelp for evidence of the wreck. Photo: Dave McMahan
NEVA Project divers returning from a search in thick kelp for evidence of the wreck. Photo: Dave McMahan

“We tried to use a professional metal detector underwater, but had the same problem as a group who did a similar survey in the 1980s. Both of our attempts failed because the rocks are iron-rich volcanic rocks, so we couldn’t separate a signal coming from boat wreckage from the signal coming from the rocks,” says McMahan. “We also tried to use sonar methods. But, the air in the kelp negatively affects the data, and we couldn’t see anything.”

In May 2015 the team attempted several scuba dives with assistance from marine archaeologists John Jensen (University of Rhode Island), Brinnen Carter (Sitka National Historical Park), and Travis Shinabarger, but the effort was plagued by weather and boat problems. (They plan to try again in March or April 2016 before the summer kelp growth season.)

Group Photo (L to R): John Pollack, Dan Thompson, Sean Adams, Dave McMahan, Yury Likhin, Ty Dilliplane, Gleb Mikhalev, Artur Kharinsky, Evguenia Anichtchenko
Group Photo (L to R): John Pollack, Dan Thompson, Sean Adams, Dave McMahan, Yury Likhin, Ty Dilliplane, Gleb Mikhalev, Artur Kharinsky, Evguenia Anichtchenko

A few months later, in July of 2015, McMahan, along with an international team of six from the United States (Timothy Dilliplane, Massachusetts Maritime Academy; videographer Gleb Mikhalev; archivist and underwater archaeologist Evguenia Anitchenko; historical archaeologist Daniel Thompson), Canada (John Pollack and Sean Adams, Institute for Nautical Archaeology), and Russia (Artur Kharinsky, Irkutsk State Technical University; Yury Likhin, Taltsi Museum of Architecture and Ethnography,) returned to the beach where the axe heads were found. Tribal representative Bob Sam came out twice during their 20-day stay.

Canadians Pollack and Adams first mapped the area in detail and laid out a grid for theplanned excavation. Along the shoreline, several blocks of contiguous one-meter squares were subjected to detailed excavations. McMahan admits it’s a confined area to work in.

“This is a really high-energy shoreline. There has been a lot of undercutting and erosion. Much of the site has been lost to the sea. Even so, we found several hearths along the shoreline. With 28 people they would have had several fires in close proximity. One survivor attributed a pistol and its French gunflint to their survival. With it, they were able to start a fire. In fact we found flint flakes and carbonized grass, which we’ll attempt to radiocarbon date, in one of the hearths.”

After sieving soil through a quarter-inch mesh screen, the team used a professional metal detector to go over sifted piles and double check for smaller material. Other artifacts include lead shot whittled down to fit in a smaller weapon, animal bones that will be analyzed by zooarchaeologist Megan Partlow, and a piece of copper, probably ship’s sheathing modified into a fish hook. The survivors gathered what they could find. Some things, like a barrel of butter, washed up from boat stores and were used as is. Other things, like the copper ship siding, were fashioned into tools.

“Our best find was a nautical divider, a tool that was used to measure distance on a chart. It was a great find because it ties the site to the ship,” says McMahan. “Everything we found is consistent with a survivor camp. There are no glass or ceramic artifacts – things that would be consistent with a 19th century settlement or village.” Still, the archaeological record is complicated by subsequent visits to the site (probably by salvors) during the first half of the 19th century. 

NEVA survivors spent nearly one month at the camp. They were rescued in early February after one survivor ran into a native boy and offered to buy him a new shirt for a boat ride to Sitka. A rescue party was dispatched shortly after their arrival.

McMahan says the group will return to continue their excavation in the July 2016. McMahan and Russian-born Anichtchenko, an Anchorage maritime specialist and doctoral candidate at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, have already studied archival materials in London and St. Petersburg. This has provided details on the ship’s English roots and the way the ship was outfitted for around-the-world voyages. Archaeometallurgist Corey Cooper (Purdue University) will study metal artifacts. English archaeometallurgist Peter Northover, who specializes in copper sheathing from 19th century ships, will analyze samples as well. Bob Sam will accompany McMahan to Russia to present findings in April 2016.

“Artifacts will help us piece together how people dealt with Alaska’s remote and harsh winter environment,” says McMahan. “Their ingenuity, improvisation, and grit helped them survive, so we can learn a lot from them.”—Marcy Davis