How sailors survived shipwreck in 1813 Alaska winter

Washington, Sep 11 (IANS) Archaeologists have pieced together how the crew of the wrecked 19th century Russian-American Company sailing ship named Neva survived the harsh sub-arctic winter in Alaska.

Before its Arctic demise, the Neva was famous as one of two vessels that completed the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe from 1803-1807.

The discovery can help scientists understand the adaptations that allowed them to await rescue in a frigid, unfamiliar environment for almost a month.

“The items left behind by survivors provide a unique snapshot-in-time for January 1813,” said Dave McMahan of the Sitka Historical Society, Alaska.

“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,” McMahan added in a statement.

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 archaeological team believes articles they found over the past two years represent the everyday tools used by 26 shipwrecked members of the Neva’s crew.

Those crewmembers survived for almost a month in the winter of 1813 by foraging and gathering materials that washed ashore from the wreck.

In July, researchers discovered at the campsite a series of hearths with early 19th century artifacts such as gun flints, musket balls, pieces of modified sheet copper, iron and copper spikes, a Russian axe and a fishhook fashioned from copper.

Well preserved food middens – or refuse heaps – will allow reconstruction of the foraging strategies the sailors used to survive.

Gun flints found at the site appeared to have been used by survivors to start fires by striking them against steel.

Historical accounts credit a firearm used in this manner with helping save the crew from hypothermia.

Physical evidence indicates the survivors tried to whittle down musket balls to fit a smaller caliber weapon, such as a flintlock–most likely the same firearm mentioned in the historical accounts.

The nature of the artifacts seems to strongly indicate that survivors of the shipwreck were active in ensuring their own survival.

They modified wreckage in desperation, but with ingenuity.

Because the wreck occurred in an area of profound cultural significance to the Tlingit people of Sitka, the team did not search for – nor did it inadvertently discover – any graves of those who perished.

According to McMahan, the team hopes to continue the investigation next year with a smaller field effort at the camp.

The study was funded by the US National Science Foundation.

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