To shipwreck in Alaska in the early 19th century was as good as a death sentence—yet 26 aboard the Russian-American Company frigate Neva managed to not only survive its wreck off Kruzof Island but also a month of the winter of 1813. The feat spawned legends stretching over two centuries, but a new study offers the best clues yet as to how they managed it. Research began in 2012 when a survey uncovered Russian axes at a spot believed to be the survivor camp. Further searches revealed more tools archaeologists say Neva's crew members, who had set out from a Siberian port, used to survive. "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," the lead researcher says in a release.
Based on artifacts—including sheet copper, iron and copper spikes, a copper fishhook, gun flints used to start fires, musket balls carved to fit a smaller caliber firearm, and perhaps part of a navigator's dividers—archaeologists believe crew members gathered ship materials that washed ashore near their destination of Sitka, where survivors were eventually taken; only two who survived the wreck died during the month-long effort. "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," the researcher says. Archaeologists add preserved food heaps, still to be examined, will likely reveal the sailors' foraging strategies. Until further studies can be carried out, experts plan to review oral histories of the local Tlingit people for further insight. (This man survived two days in an underwater shipwreck.)