OLD TOWN ALEXANDRIA, Va.
Nestled in centuries of dirt and debris, several well-preserved ships and artifacts have been unearthed that offer a glimpse of life at what was once one of the busiest ports in the North American colonies.
At the site for Robinson Landing, a new townhouse and condominium development along the Potomac River, excavations have uncovered the protruding, curved wooden bones of the ships. Three ships were scuttled and buried centuries ago as Alexandria sought to expand its land into the deeper waters of the river.
“It tells us a lot about the resourcefulness of our predecessors, how pragmatic they were,” said Dan Lee, the city historian in the Office of Historic Alexandria. “They don’t put ships in there because they’re sentimental, but because they needed something and they found a way to do it.”
The three ships, buried just feet from each other, were an unusual find in a neighborhood where residents have fought for decades to preserve the remains of everyday artifacts unearthed in construction since the 1960s. In 2015, the remains of a ship were found a block away in the construction site for a hotel, but archaeologists were shocked earlier this year to find the three ships so close to one another. “It’s a microcosm for the development of maritime-related cities,” said Eleanor Breen, the acting chief city archaeologist. “It shows that the efforts to build out the land and try to make Alexandria an economically viable town were fairly successful.”
The ships, she said, are by far the most striking discovery for the local community. But the urban archaeologists, who are required by city law to be present on any construction site, also found a trove of ordinary items that highlight what colonial residents were using, discarding and trading.
In the rubble of privies and the crumbled foundations of buildings, they found seeds, beads, pins, animal bones and a few pieces of jewelry. There were tokens from Newgate Prison in London and Spanish and Irish coins, signaling the beginnings of international trade. And steps from what is possibly the earliest discovered bakery, they found a ship biscuit: an indestructible combination of flour, salt and water designed to sustain sailors on their voyages.
The ships have a unique appeal among researchers and history enthusiasts, said Evan Goldman, vice president for acquisitions and development at EYA, the developer. But more than 100,000 artifacts painstakingly found elsewhere at the site — coins, broken glassware, straight pins and more, all separated by trowels and shovels, sifted through soil and sprayed with water — carry their own significance.
Extracting the ships is a bit tricky. They have to be stored in water to maintain the state of the uncovered wooden cribbing, and to prevent the pieces from decaying further.
The Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University has been working on the ship found under the Indigo Hotel for nearly eight months, documenting the pieces of timber and painstakingly removing water as well as iron from fastenings that permeated the ship’s wood over time. Once the iron has been drawn out, the wood pieces will be dehydrated and vacuum-frozen for six months.
The timbers — an estimated 220 large pieces — are each photographed, scanned and reproduced with a 3-D printer. There will be a 3-D model, nearly 4 feet long, created before the ship is reconstructed and returned to Alexandria.