A painting titled “Battle of the Cheseapeake” of the Revolutionary War, by V. Zveg; the Potomac River, where the ship was found, empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

Remnants of 18th Century Ship May Provide Clues to Revolutionary-era Shipbuilding

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Archaeologists preparing for a Potomac riverfront redevelopment project in Alexandria, Virginia, United States, have found the remains of a large, heavy ship dating to between 1775 and 1798 that will give clues as to how shipwrights of the era constructed their ships.

The ship dates to the time of America’s Revolutionary War, and researchers are speculating it may have been a warship or possibly meant to carry heavy cargo.

Just two months ago in the same block workers found remnants of a warehouse from 1755 that is thought to be the city’s first public building. Alexandria was one of the colonies’ most important ports.

“It’s very rare. This almost never happens,” Dan Baicy, field director for Thunderbird Archeology, told The Washington Post newspaper. “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.”

A crew of naval archaeologists joined the group working to identify historic structures and artifacts found during Alexandria’s Old Town hotel construction project. The naval archaeologists will take apart the vessel and look for artifacts and markings that may tell where it sailed and what its cargo was.

The ship’s ribs can clearly be seen in this city of Alexandria photo.

The ship’s ribs can clearly be seen in this city of Alexandria photo. ( City of Alexandria )

The site where the hotel is being built is within a stone’s throw of old cobblestone streets and is near several buildings that date to before the Revolutionary War. Close to the site of the ship and warehouse, workers have uncovered three outhouses that archaeologists find just as exciting as the ship because they contain artifacts, including glass, ceramics, shoes, bones, and everything else people of the time threw in the toilet.

Construction workers were digging the foundation for the hotel when they found a blackened bow. Then archaeologists took over and uncovered a 50-foot (15.2 meter) section of the keel, stern, frame, and some of the ship’s flooring that they estimated comprised about a third of the hull. They explained that the wood had not decayed because oxygen couldn’t reach if after it was buried.

The well-preserved wood of the ship.

The well-preserved wood of the ship. ( Thunderbird Archaeology )

Archaeologists think the ship was either a naval vessel or a cargo boat built to carry heavy loads. Additionally, they believe that the ship may have been scuttled, perhaps to provide framework to fill in a cove and sand flats for a port there. Historians know the city’s merchants scuttled ships for fill.

The Potomac River empties into Chesapeake Bay, a site of much naval intrigue and conflict during the Revolutionary War. Alexandria became an important port in the 18th century, in part because of nearby tobacco growers.

The U.S. National Park Service has an article about the history of the city and says Alexandria grew rapidly into a prosperous port town after a tobacco warehouse was built there on the river in 1732. The city’s merchants soon began building large wharves and warehouses to compete with other ports. The park service article states:

“It became the shipping and manufacturing center of the Potomac River by the mid 1700s. In 1779 the city became an official port of entry, a title which meant that foreign ships could complete their required customs inspections right there in Alexandria. The docks were now crowded with shipbuilders; small factories that produced naval stores and iron products; millers and distillers who refined corn, wheat, and sugar; and tanners and butchers who processed local livestock. These agricultural products and locally manufactured goods were exported to every state in the new nation and to the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and Asia. During the late 1700s Alexandria was one of the ten busiest and wealthiest ports in the United States.”

Drawing of Alexandria Waterfront with Carlyle House circa 1764.

Drawing of Alexandria Waterfront with Carlyle House circa 1764. ( Elizabeth Luallen )

After experts dismantle the ship, the wood will be stored in a natural body of water or in tanks until it can be taken to a preservation lab, according to Alexandria’s archaeologist, Fran Bromberg. Wood from the warehouse was taken to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, but the lab does not have room to take the ship, Bromberg told The Washington Post.

Discovery of the ship came about because the city required the company developing the hotel to do an archaeological survey before construction began. The company will pay for the cost of the removal of the ship and for 3D imagery, but the city will pay for the ship’s preservation.

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