Alexandria’s historic waterfront has given up the remains of two more ships, probably from the late 1700s or early 1800s, at the site of a former warehouse that is being redeveloped into townhouses and condos in Old Town.
The ships lie below ground level, so they are not visible from the street, and the land itself is private property. They are just two blocks from where a similar ship was uncovered at the Hotel Indigo site in late 2015.
Describing the discovery as “a tangible piece of Alexandria’s maritime history,” Eleanor Breen, the city’s acting archaeologist, said she was “incredibly excited” by the find.
“The discovery of three historic ships in a two-block area is absolutely incredible,” Breen said. “There have been very few ships from this era excavated in Virginia or nationwide.”
The discovery was made late last week by archaeologists for Thunderbird Archaeology, which is under contract with developers JBG Smith and EYA. The developers are turning the old Robinson Terminal South warehouse site into a 96-unit residential complex, part of Alexandria’s major remaking of its Old Town waterfront.
It’s not yet clear whether or how the newly discovered ships will be preserved.
Breen said archaeologists are still uncovering, examining and measuring the ships’ wooden construction and iron fastenings as soil is being removed. As part of the city’s archaeological protection code, developers are required to have archaeologists on site to watch whenever the ground is disturbed.
The Alexandria waterfront was a working port starting before the city was founded in 1749. Ships from all over the world brought in goods and slaves for sale and transfer to other points. The shoreline was extended several times, often by filling in shallow water with derelict or scuttled ships, building materials and rocks.
One of the newly discovered ships was found beneath Pioneer Mill, which dates to the 1850s, Breen said. The two ships were not adjacent to each other — one was found close to the original shoreline of the now-vanished Point Lumley and the other was south and west of there.
“It wasn’t an unexpected discovery, especially since what we knew from the Hotel Indigo site,” Breen said. “I think there’s a high possibility of additional archaeological treasures to be found.”
Alexandrians showed great interest in the discovery of the first ship more than two years ago, creating long lines in freezing midwinter to watch the ship being excavated. Months later, they thronged to look at the deconstructed ribs and planking in a city warehouse. That ship is now at the Texas A&M University’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation.
Breen said city officials do not yet know if there will be similar public viewing opportunities for the two newly discovered ships.