By David Malakoff
Archaeologists routinely raise shipwrecks from their watery graves. But on a sparkling spring day in Alexandria, Virginia, a team that included two scuba divers was working in reverse: carefully sinking pieces of three eighteenth-century wooden ship hull remnants—including those of the largest colonial-era merchant ship ever excavated in the United States—into the depths of a murky pond.
“We’ve kind of come full circle; we dug the ships up and now we’re putting them back down,” said Eleanor Breen, Alexandria’s city archaeologist, as she watched a forklift driver help wrestle pieces of the wrecks—including thick hull planks, structural beams, and chunks of keel—on to a makeshift raft anchored near shore. Then, the laden raft moved just a few yards offshore to where the divers waited, treading water as bubbles streamed from their tanks. “Timber down!” archaeologists aboard the raft called out when a piece was ready for the divers, who then secured it to a framework that had been installed on the muddy bottom as deep as seven feet below the surface.
Members of Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research laboratory scan recovered ship timbers. | Credit: Alexandria Archaeology
By the time the divers were done this past June, they had stowed some 1,100 pieces of the wrecks—each labeled and wrapped in protective cloth—in the pond at Alexandria’s Ben Brenman Park, a popular recreation area named after the first chairman of the city’s Archaeological Commission, which was created in 1975. The goal was to ensure the long-term preservation of the ship’s remains, which are just part of a rich trove of artifacts uncovered during several massive excavations that took place from 2015 through 2018 in this historic port city along the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. The digs, which were conducted in advance of waterfront redevelopment projects, uncovered four ships that had been scuttled in the late 1700s to help expand Alexandria’s shoreline, as well the remains of one of the city’s first major buildings and numerous other artifacts.
This is an article excerpt from the Fall 2022 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription!