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Archeologists Hunt For Clues as They Work to Save Buried Ships

(Updated 10/17) New details are coming in about one of Alexandria’s long-buried ships.

Two hundred years after the ship was scuttled to be built into the artificial waterfront, teams in Texas and here in Alexandria are putting the ship back into a stable condition and learn more about them.

“We’re starting to put the picture back together of what the ship may have looked like when it sailed,” said Eleanor Breen, City Archaeologist for Alexandria.

In April 2018, a construction crew at the Robinson Terminal South site (300 S. Union Street) found the remains of several ships buried underground, including one particularly large ship with a relatively intact hull.

“The remnant in the ground was 50 feet long, but they think the ship was about 70 feet long when it sailed,” said Breen. “They’re speculating it was likely a brig or a large sloop.”

Using dendrochronology — the study of tree rings to learn more about the age and history of wood — Breen said her team was able to find that the ship was built sometime after 1741.

Currently, the ship is at the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M University, where a team is working to carefully extract the corrosive iron from the ship without damaging the timbers.

“We need to first extract all of the iron that was in the wood as possible,” said Dr. Peter Fix, head of Conservation and Reconstruction for La Belle. “The ship was held together in part by iron fastenings. As they corroded during service or in the ground, that corrosion product permeated into the timber itself and will cause lots of problems down the line if we don’t manage that now.”

Once the iron is removed from the wood, Fix said the team will have to apply a chemical substance — polyethylene glycol — that will fill in the gaps in the cellular structure caused by bacteria eating away at the wood. Those gaps are currently filled with water, meaning the ship is required to remain hydrated or it will lose its shape.

“If we were to just leave the wood on the street and allow it to evaporate out, that would alter the shape of the timbers significantly,” Fix said. “So what we have to do is displace that water and put it into a freeze dryer and by the process of freeze-drying, we will gently remove whatever water is remaining.”

Fix said filling those gaps with polyethylene glycol should be a permanent fix… provided the ship isn’t suddenly inundated with water again. As they work on the ship, Fix says they’re learning more about the impressive craftsman that went into the vessel.

“Personally, the size of the timbers in comparison to the size of the ship [is interesting],” Fix said. “In some areas, it was almost like a wall of wood that they put in there. They didn’t skimp on timber selection. They put them very close together and 100 years later, there would have been a lot more space in the framing.”

Fix attributed this to the skill of the shipbuilders.

“The yard that built it knew what they were doing, it wasn’t someone in their backyard,” Fix said.

But some of the challenges to learning more about the ship come from it being cut up to form the supporting structure for a man-made piece of the waterfront.

“It’s sort of hard to determine exactly how things were originally for the fact that it was hauled up onto the shore and used for cribbing. There are chop marks, hack marks, all the way through the wood. We had to physically stop and say ‘no, this is a construction mark from the original assembly, but this is where someone took a hewing ax.'”

“We will clean the exterior of the timber, package it up, and send it back to Alexandria for whatever their purposes are,” Fix said. “It should be about another three years, roughly. But in this project, the degree of preservation and degradation of timber controls how fast we can go. It’s not a construction science where you can figure out ‘we’ll have this mile of roadway finished by this date.'”

The other ships found in the waterfront, meanwhile, are kept in pools of water in Alexandria to keep them stabilized.

A scale model of the ship is currently on display at Alexandria Archeology Museum on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory at 105 N. Union Street. But just the scale model fills much of the museum. Discussions are still ongoing about what to do with the full ship once it comes home.

“The goal of the project is to reassemble the timbers and put them on exhibit in a [to be determined] location,” Breen said. “We’re sort of going through a process to think about where this ship could go on exhibit. It’s a 50-foot ship. It’s large. So we’re thinking through locations and storage options.”

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