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October is Archaeology Month in Virginia and Alexandria!

An archaeologist from Thunderbird Archaeology mapping three historic ships at Robinson Terminal South. (Photo: Office of Historic Alexandria)

By Daniel Lee, Office of Historic Alexandria

ALEXANDRIA,VA- October is Virginia’s and Alexandria’s Archaeology Month! Alexandria has a robust citizen-led history of prioritizing archaeology in our city. That means that thousands of volunteers have provided the city with their service over the course of decades.

“The roughly 5,000 volunteer hours donated to Alexandria Archaeology each year allow us to meet our mission of preserving and studying the city’s archaeological resources and sharing that past with the public,” said City Archaeologist Eleanor Breen. “Our volunteers help us reach our mission by answering visitor questions in our free museum, helping to teach archaeology programs to school groups, transcribing historical records, and working with our collections.”

Celebrating Archaeology Month in Alexandria

In honor of Archaeology month, Alexandria Archaeology is running a program at Waterfront Park during the Portside in Old Town Festival on Oct. 14. The program will highlight the archaeological findings of the 18th century ships that have been found as well as include other aspects of maritime history from Alexandria’s past.

“It’s important to celebrate the contributions that archaeology has made to better understanding our past, and to share the importance of preserving those resources,” Breen said.

The Alexandria Archaeology Museum is also opening a new exhibit titled “Preserving Alexandria’s Maritime Heritage” on Saturday, Oct. 19, which just so happens to be International Archaeology Day. Guests will be able to view a 3D model of a historic ship and be shown insight into how archaeologists research the age and uses of the ships. The exhibit will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will be located at 105 North Union Street, #327.

On top of the excavation and preservation, Alexandria Archaeology prioritizes education as part of its mission. This includes summer camps, school field trips and outreach programs, and special events to share the city’s rich archaeological heritage.

An Archaeology volunteer piecing together vessels in Alexandria in 1975. (Photo: Office of Historic Alexandria)

Preservers of History

Recent real estate development along the waterfront has led to well publicized discoveries. In 2015, the remains of John Carlyle’s 1755 public warehouse and an 18th century merchant ship were discovered during the construction of the Hotel Indigo. The discovery of three more ships in 2018 at Robinson Terminal South displayed how wooden structures, including derelict ships, were used to create new land. These discoveries generated, among other press, an article in the New York Times!

The City of Alexandria has conducted archaeological excavations since 1961, with a citizen-led major excavation at Fort Ward’s bastion. The effort led to the City’s acquisition of the land containing Fort Ward, one of Alexandria’s most significant Civil War sites.

A few years later when major urban renewal in Old Town threatened wells and privies associated with early Alexandria, citizens received grant funding from the Smithsonian Institution to conduct rescue excavations. Later, a local group, the Committee of 100, received meagre funding from its members to continue archeological work in the city.

The 1977 excavation of the Alexandria Courthouse. (Photo: Office of Historic Alexandria)

More and More Discoveries

It wasn’t until 1973 that the City of Alexandria hired a full-time archaeologist. While Alexandria might not have been the first city in the country to do that, it was the first in the nation to establish an Archaeological Commission, which sets goals for the city’s archaeology program and acquires, preserves, and displays the more than 2 million artifacts that belong to Alexandria Archaeology. The commission also works with relevant government entities to advocate for the work of the program, especially in relation to new development.

In 1977, city archaeologists and hundreds of volunteers excavated the Alexandria Courthouse site on the south side of the 500 block of King Street. Perhaps two of the more interesting finds of a site that yielded over a million artifacts were an early water-purification system, and artifacts from a family of urban enslaved people. Two years later, excavating began at “The Bottoms” an African American neighborhood east of Alfred Street Baptist Church. Another excavation was started the following year in “Hayti”- an African American neighborhood that predates the Civil War.

The 1989 Archaeological Protection Ordinance adopted by City Council serves as a backstop to ensure that significant archaeological resources are preserved. That same year, City Council also adopted a metal detection ordinance, which prohibits the search and removal of historic materials from land owned by the city.

In 2002, Alexandria Archaeology began work on what became known as the Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery. The discovery of burials led to the rededication and restoration of a cemetery that had been removed by city maps for a half-century.

Coming Up: This November is the 30th anniversary of the City’s Archaeological Protection Ordinance that ensures that significant archaeological resources are preserved during development or ground disturbing activities that require a permit or approval.

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