National News

Ships Unearthed in Virginia Offer Glimpse of Colonial Era

Posted May 7, 2018 6:39 p.m. EDT
Updated May 7, 2018 6:43 p.m. EDT

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 in the Old Town neighborhood along the Potomac River here, excavations have uncovered the protruding, curved wooden bones of the ships. Three ships were scuttled and buried here 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 apart, 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, a ship’s remains were found a block away in the construction site for a hotel, but archaeologists were shocked this year to find the three ships so close to one another.

“It’s a microcosm for the development of maritime-related cities,” Eleanor Breen, the acting chief city archaeologist, said. “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.

“It’s difficult to imagine a dig that wouldn’t bring up an artifact from some point in time in Alexandria’s history,” Lee said.

The city and its residents initially established an archaeological commission and a formal city archaeologist position in the 1970s to preserve and protect the history dug up by modern construction. Since then, the city has excavated multiple sites throughout its boundaries, including a privy from a Civil War hospital support complex, a slave household, 18th-century kitchenware and Native American sites.

The first ship found in 2015 is undergoing conservation at Texas A&M University, and the others will most likely be preserved in a similar manner.

The three ships found together in Robinson Landing are still partly buried. The last one found, in April, seems to be the most complete so far. Archaeologists believe that it was an ocean vessel based on its thick hull, while the other ships are probably river crafts that sailed on the Potomac and the Chesapeake. Founded in the late 17th century in Virginia, which was one of the earliest American colonies, Alexandria initially thrived as a trading port for tobacco and other crops. By the end of the 18th century, it served as a major point of entry for foreign ships and became one of the 10 busiest ports in the colonies. George Washington shipped wheat and other crops from his Mount Vernon estate through Alexandria merchants.

As the tobacco industry waned, Alexandria maintained its economic foothold as a center for the slave trade in the early 19th century and a supply center for the federal army during the Civil War.

The 18th-century ships — derelict and past their prime — had been filled with soil as part of the planned extension of city land. It was a common practice at the time, with other ships found buried along the coast and, in one instance, under the site of the World Trade Center in 2010.

“We were impressed by the size of it,” Breen said, tracing the ship’s curves as she spoke. “You literally start to see it emerge.”

It is unlikely that any more ships will be found on this particular site, Breen said, because excavation is nearly complete. Evan Goldman, vice president for acquisitions and development at EYA, the developer, said the company had expected there might be a need for excavation before the $185 million construction project could be finished by its completion date of 2020.

“It’s part of the fabric of working here,” Goldman said. “It’s hard to understand how exciting it is until you see it and how complete it is. It’s incredible.”

The ships, he acknowledged, have a unique appeal among researchers and history enthusiasts. But more than 100,000 artifacts painstakingly found elsewhere at the site — international coins, broken glassware, straight pins and more, all carefully 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 further decay.

The Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M 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. Tree nails, the few iron spikes left in there and other stray parts, will be pulled out as part of an in-depth investigation.

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, and a virtual model created before the ship is reconstructed and returned to Alexandria. The community is still working to raise funds for completion of the 2015 ship’s conservation.

“Whenever somebody finds a ship, it has incredible magnetism for the public,” said Dr. Peter Nix, the research specialist leading the conservation team at Texas A&M. In the last 50 years, he said, there’s been a significant interest in heritage and the preservation of artifacts as ships are discovered underneath seaport towns in the United States.

“They’re the same as the Ryder trucks, pickup trucks and eighteen-wheelers of today,” he said. “They were everywhere.”

Dan Baicy, an associate archaeologist at Thunderbird Archaeology, which has been investigating the Robinson Landing site for more than a year, said the ships are just one aspect of the excavation.

“The level of preservation has been unprecedented,” he said of the site, where he has worked on at least 19 buildings and their contents. “You don’t get that very often, and particularly in Alexandria, this is a rare chance to gain data and investigate and research day-to-day life in the beginnings of Alexandria.” More than 100,000 artifacts painstakingly found elsewhere are being moved to a lab for dating and preparation, and then will be categorized and identified based on material, age and usage. Archaeologists will establish a time period based on the layers of soil before looking at where the artifacts were manufactured, their usage and how they were assembled.

City officials and archaeologists hope that from there, the artifacts can be paired with the trove of documents and records meticulously preserved in city museums and archives.

“You can do cross-comparative analysis, this house with this house with this house, with tax records, who was living there, how they were presenting themselves,” Baicy said, adding that some of the remaining buildings do not have corresponding documents.

“You can piece together industry, who’s working where,” he added.

The artifacts and ships will eventually be returned to Alexandria, where they will become part of exhibits and continued research for the city, curated in air-controlled conditions.

“Alexandria can come here and look at what we’re doing,” Breen said.

And in Alexandria, each excavation has been met with enthusiasm from residents. More than 3,200 people toured the site last month, when researchers opened it to showcase the ships before removal and preservation began, pausing on their way to the wharf on a sunny spring day.

“I love it,” said Steve Woyicki, 43, who stopped with his daughter on their bicycle ride so Kate, 7, could see the ship. “She’s going to grow up with all this living history around her.”

Kate, still wearing her sparkly bicycle helmet as she peered through the chain-link fence, agreed that the ship, still partly buried in sand and dirt, was an exciting sight.

“When you dig, you never really find stuff, just rocks,” she said. “But here, you dig and you find ships.”