Alexandria, VA

Alexandria’s Archeology Museum is inviting the public to come see its new exhibition on ships long-ago sunk to build the city’s waterfront.

This Saturday, October 19, the public will be able to see for themselves how archeologists and volunteers have worked to excavate and restore four of the ships in time for Archeology Month.

The museum will open the free exhibition from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at its public lab at 105 North Union Street.

“Recent development along the waterfront has led to significant discoveries by archaeologists, including the remains of four historic ships,” the museum wrote in its description of the upcoming event.

“Follow the story of the city’s archaeologically recovered maritime heritage from excavation to preservation,” it added. “View a 3D model of one of the historic vessels and find out how archaeologists are answering questions about the age and use of the ships, as well as what role they may have played in Alexandria’s early economy.”

The exhibit is sponsored in part by the Historic Alexandria Foundation.

Those who need accommodations for disabilities can request them by contacting the museum at [email protected] or call 703.746-4399 or Virginia Relay 711.

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(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.

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