Whether it’s searching for gold in a sunken Russian ship, or finding historical nuggets in the dusty archives of a Washington museum, the researchers of the Alaska Anthropological Association are on it.
The group is holding it 43rd annual meeting this year in Sitka, through March 5th on the Sheldon Jackson Fine Arts Campus.
Here’s a look two of the many papers and presentations scheduled for the weekend.
Find a complete schedule of this weekend’s meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association in Sitka.
It’s been called the most important ship to sail Alaskan waters, and it’s certainly the most important ship to sink here.
The Russian merchant-frigate Neva was built on the Thames River in London in 1800, and wrecked on Cape Edgecumbe, just outside of Sitka 13 years later.
In the meantime, the Neva circumnavigated the globe twice. It was the first Russian ship to call in Hawaii. The first Russian ship to call in Australia.
And, it reshaped the history of Alaska.
Dave McMahan is the former state archaeologist. He’s been searching for the Neva since the late 1970s — but he’s no treasure-hunter. The ship was at the heart of a pivotal conflict between worlds.
“She’s probably best-known in Alaska for her fortuitous involvement in the Battle of Sitka. The ship just happened to be in Kodiak, when Baranov was trying to establish his settlement here in Sitka. And Lisianski and the Neva came and assisted Baranov at the Battle of Sitka. So she’s famous or infamous depending on your perspective. I always like to say, We come here to bury Caesar, not to praise him. I’m not making a judgement. We’re only looking for the facts. We want to develop a timeline on the Neva’s history, and we want to replace some of the lore of the sea with scientific outcomes.”
Some of that lore is that the Neva was loaded with gold. At this presentation before Sitka’s Chamber of Commerce, an audience member asked McMahan about it. He’s not showing any cards.
“Well you hear stories like that. Any shipwreck in Alaska is laden with gold, full of treasure and all that. We just don’t know yet.”
In all likelihood the Neva was not carrying gold when it went to the bottom below Mt. Edgecumbe in 1813. It was carrying supplies for Russia’s Sitka colony, and a long-awaited replacement for Russian-American Company chief manager Alexander Baranov, who was ready to retire. It held 77 passengers, 26 of whom managed to go ashore on Kruzof Island and establish a camp, where they survived for nearly a month before the arrival of a rescue party from the colony.
With support from a $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, McMahan and his team completed an archaeological excavation of the survivor camp last summer. The Neva itself has not been found.
Slideshow: Sitka Scenes from the Harry Marcus Weston Edmonds collection at the Carnegie Institution, Washington, DC.
A government historian, however, did strike gold — last fall in the archives of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC.
John Cloud is officially a map historian for the NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
Last year he unearthed the story of Harry Marcus Weston Edmonds, who was sent to Sitka at the turn of the last century to study the earth’s magnetic field.
He did that and much more.
“Edmonds was here as the magnetic observer for the original beginnings of the observatory. He was also an ethnographer — what we would call an anthropologist now — and he did a lot of work with Eskimos, Inupiaq people, around Norton Sound and St. Michael. He overwintered for two winters above the Arctic Circle on the Porcupine River with Gwich’in, and he became a great photographer. In October, in the archives of the Carnegie Institute in Washington, there were hundreds of glass plate negatives that nobody had opened up and looked at for more than a century.”
Cloud has been scanning the plates for his presentation to the Alaska Anthropological Association. Many are of scenes in Sitka: the landscape surrounding the magnetic observatory, the waterfront, and formal portraits of the totem poles in what would eventually become Sitka National Monument, and later national park.
The work by John Cloud and Dave McMahan are not the only surprises at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association. Also in the lineup for this year’s conference are presentations on coastal and Arctic anthropology, indigenous cartography, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.
It’s a four-day meeting with dozens of sessions. But in John Cloud’s world, there is never enough time.
“That’s one of the great things about history. There’s always new old things.”
KCAW’s Rich McClear contributed to this story.