Alexandria archeologist says unconventional preservation project for Old Town ships is paying off

Pieces of 18th-Century ships waiting to be scanned (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

One year after Alexandria re-sunk historic ships into the pond at Ben Brenman Park, City Archeologist Eleanor Breen said studies show the unconventional preservation project is working as intended.

Back in 2018 during work on the Robinson Landing project, a group of somewhat intact hulls were discovered underground. They’d been scuttled beneath the ground, likely as part of the foundation of the new waterline.

Without proper water treatment, the water-logged timbers would grow damaged after being exposed to the surface. If they dry out, the wood will warp, shrink and crack. So while one of the ships was sent to Texas A&M for study, the city opted to send the other three back to Davy Jones’ Locker — specifically in Ben Brenman Pond.

While re-submerging ships to preserve has been done before, Breen said Alexandria’s project was still at a unique scale within the United States.

“It’s definitely an innovative storage solution,” Breen said. “It’s one they do in Europe often but not quite as frequently in the United States. There were similar ones in Maryland and Ohio, but this is far larger… One may be the largest 18th-century merchant ship that’s been excavated.”

Recently, Breen said divers went back to the wrecks in Ben Brenman Pond to see if the preservation methods have been working.

“They unwrapped them and checked on them with archeologists and conservators,” Breen said. “They did that detailed process and found that overall the plan is working as intended. They’re in stable condition… Everything is going as expected and the best news is a blanket of silt has started to accumulate on top of the timbers, replicating the original burial environment.”

Divers are scheduled to go back down for another check on the ships in Ben Brenman Pond in spring 2028.

Meanwhile, Breen said the ship at Texas A&M will likely remain there for another two and a half years undergoing conservation efforts before returning to Alexandria.