Archaeologists Discover an Amazingly Preserved 300-Year-Old Ship

In Old Town Alexandria (Virginia), archaeologists have uncovered a 50-foot remnant of the hull belonging to a ship that sank in the 1700s… completely by accident. The discovery occurred at the construction site for a new hotel, a site that seems to be rich for discovery: Two months ago, workers also discovered a warehouse foundation from about 1755 that is believed to be the city’s first public building. But whereas the warehouse could be corroborated with public records, there was no known evidence of the ship’s existence. Even more exciting is how well-preserved the wreck is, to an almost unprecedented extent for something discovered in a city.

The Washington Post describes the archaeology crews’ find as “a 50-foot-long remnant of the keel, frame, stern, and flooring, estimated to be about one-third of the original hull.” They believe that the ship was scuttled (that is, purposely sunk by letting in water and/or ripping holes in the hull) sometime between 1775 and 1798; because it was buried, oxygen couldn’t get in to decay the wood. Dan Baicy, the field director for Thunderbird Archeology, the firm brought in to the site, explained the significance of a find like this:

It’s very rare. This almost never happens. In 15 years that I’ve done this work, I’ve never run into this kind of preservation in an urban environment where there’s so much disturbance.

He also pointed out that the brick footing for another warehouse “barely missed the boat.” So, what did this ship carry, and for whom? Naval archaeologists joined the site earlier this week, dismantling the ship timber by timber to look for identifying information. John Mullen, Thunderbird’s lead archaeologist, called the find “the jewel in the crown for us”; the archaeologists have hypothesized that the ship was cargo or military, and might have been placed in its location to provide a framework against the deeper waters of the Potomac at Port Lumley.

Local residents were invited to observe for a few hours before the pieces were removed to another site. At the moment, archaeologists are waiting for room in a preservation lab to open up; in the meantime, they’re storing the pieces in tanks or a natural body of water. The hope is to reassemble at least some of the ship for public display, but that will take the city several years and will require special fundraising.

But there’s more! The construction workers also discovered a privy, one of many outhouses uncovered during the hotel construction. This one already seems to be a rich receptacle for such everyday artifacts as glass, bones, and, oddly enough, shoes. No word yet on how well-preserved those are.


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