During archaeological survey at Cape Flora. Photo credits Vladimir Melnik  Open Ocean Project
During archaeological survey at Cape Flora. Photo credits Vladimir Melnik Open Ocean Project

Association “Maritime Heritage: Explore & Sustain” has just completed its complex scientific expedition of 2018 season on board MS Alter Ego: Open Ocean: Arctic Archipelagos – 2018 (O2A2-2018).

On the second leg, in August–September, the expedition chiefly aimed at conducting archaeological survey on the Eira shipwreck in Franz-Josef Land as a part of the project “Arctic legacy of Benjamin Legh Smith”. The project is dedicated to 190-s anniversary of the largely forgotten English polar explorer B. Leigh Smith, who made a great input into the discovery and early exploration of the Franz-Josef Archipelago.

Expedition departed from Murmansk on August 22nd, and returned on August 14th. Entire work has been conducted in Franz-Josef Land archipelago within the territory of the Russian Arctic National Park. Overall weather conditions and extremely light ice conditions of the late summer season of 2018 favoured our work in high-Arctic archipelago.

Expedition O2A2-2018 visited most of the Franz-Josef Land area, which was discovered by Eira expeditions in 1880–1881. These were some 30 islands, capes, straights and bays named after B. Leigh Smith discovery.

In September, the expedition managed to work at southern coast of Northbrook Island, in the vicinity of Cape Flora. Here, on August 21st, 1881 the expedition ship of Leigh Smith, the Eira, sank, having been pressed by sea ice.


In 2017, expedition O2A2-2017, by means of ship’s navigation systems, occasionally discovered an artefact at the depth of 20 meters near Cape Flora. Further analysis of echo-sounding and Go-Pro images along with location and size of the object, allowed to attribute the artefact as the Eira wreck. According to the application of the Association, Ministry of culture of Archangelsk Region proved the discovery and included the artefact into the list of discovered objects of cultural heritage of Archangelsk Region as “Shipwreck of steaming yacht Eira” (Decree of Inspection on the protection of cultural heritage of Archangelsk Region № 36-р of 30.03.2018).

To obtain more detailed information on the object, Association Maritime Heritage initiated archaeological survey on the Eira shipwreck within the framework of O2A2-2018 expedition.

Main tasks of the survey were the following:

·         To define the exact position of the shipwreck

·         To evaluate conditions of the shipwreck

·         To prove archaeologically that the shipwreck belongs to Eira.

Underwater works were supervised by the diver & rescue officer of international class, Sergey Kovalev, who has had over 3000 dives, including ones on the North Pole. Archaeological survey was supervised by the young underwater archaeologist Mark Stepanov experienced with work on the underwater monuments of the Baltic & Black seas, the Sea of Azov, the Volkhov River and Ilmen Lake.

Altogether, 13 dives lasted for 336 minutes have been performed involved six divers.

Underwater survey was conducted under harsh conditions with water temperature below zero, air temperature ranged between minus 1 and plus 3 degrees Centigrade; variable underwater tidal and permanent currents up to 1 meter per second, and underwater visibility limited by 1.5 – 5 meters. Storms and waves largely limited overall conditions suitable for diving.

Visual survey, photo & video documentation, and measuring of the artefact have been conducted.

Eira found to lie flat on the keel with minimal inclination to the starboard. The haul as well as the steam engine are largely destroyed, likely due to iceberg activities.  The bow and stern parts of the vessel are missing. Gross length of the shipwreck is about 32 meters.

45 small artefacts were collected including ceramic pieces of laboratory dishes and tableware, elements of ship’s decorations, details of ship’s equipment and mechanisms, rifle cartridges etc.

Main results of the Archaeological survey at the Eira shipwreck:

 -exact coordinates of the shipwreck are obtained;

- status of the Eira shipwreck is evaluated as «satisfactory»;

- artefacts collected from the wreck proved the ship is of British origin and has attributes of Peterhead, the town where Eira has been built (the name Peterhead and the part of the producer’s logo are inscribed on the ceramic bowl).

Additional hydrobiological observations suggested the monument has not only cultural but also natural value, since during almost 150 years Eira shipwreck has become an underwater oasis developed among the surrounding sand desert bottom seascape.

Archaeological monument “Eira Shipwreck” is indeed a unique underwater cultural and natural heritage object which deserved further complex investigation.

Archaeological survey conducted by Association Maritime Heritage on the Eira shipwreck in Franz Josef Land appeared to be the first ever underwater archaeological work in the Russian Arctic.

Short historicnotes

British expeditions led by Benjamin Leigh Smith to the Franz-Joswf Land on board steam yacht Eira (1880–1882) were the first large-scale research enterprises to the archipelago after it had been discovered in 1873 by Julius Payer & Karl Veyprecht. Eira was built by Leigh Smith on his own resources on the Stephen & Forbes shipyard in Peterhead. She was purposely built exploration ice-going ship constructed on the prototype of Scottish whalers. She was a three-masts 240 tones barquentine with length of 129.6 feet and 50 h.p. steam engine. Second voyage of Eira in 1881 was aimed at Franz-Josef Land further discovery and exploration, study of its nature. During the expedition, on the August 21st, 1881 Eira has been sunk near Cape Flora after she had been pressed and destroyed by sea ice. All 25 people along with minimal supplies they managed to rescue from the sinking vessel, successfully overwinter and spent 10 months on Cape Flora. In spite of the lost of its ship, expedition not only survived but continued observations and exploration of the neighbouring area. Leigh Smith and his crew gained first ever experience of winter survival on the islands of Franz-Josef Land.

Overall, expeditions led by B. Legh Smith made a great input to the discovery of Franz-Josef Land, discovered and described some 180 miles of the western limits of the archipelago, including 12 islands, they resulted in some 40 geographical names still on the  Franz-Josef Land map, meteorological and biological observations, zoological, geological and hydrobiological collections.

In spite accidental lost of the ship and unplanned overwintering, all members of the expedition survived and successfully returned to the Britain.

For his Arctic exploration achievements, Benjamin Leigh Smith was awarded by Royal Geographical Society with gold medal.



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