Construction workers unearth 18th century ship in Alexandria, MAC Lab helps excavate

Posted at 10:48 AM, Mar 31, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-05 23:26:09-04

When you build in Alexandria, remnants of the past come back to life.

In December of 2015 workers building the Hotel Indigo were digging on South Union street when a backhoe pulled up a huge hunk of wood.

They got on the phone with archeologists involved with the project and a team of volunteers assembled in a flash to solve the mystery of what this log belonged to.

As they carefully brushed dirt away, the form of a cargo ship's hull came into view. Looking at the construction and the logs used to create the vessel, archeologists pieced together it was built in the 18th century.

To preserve the wood as much as possible, the team quickly, yet meticulously disassembled the ship board by board. Crew members cataloged and tagged each piece so it may be reassembled once the wood is professionally preserved.

TheMAC Lab assisted in the excavation and initial stabilization of the ship. They also advised local archeologists on the project.

Then archeologists had to figure out where they could store a 50-foot ship hull in pieces, with access to water and temperature control. 

"When wood dries out it warps, and disintegrates, and we really wanted to prevent that from happening," City Archeologist Eleanor Breen said.

The City of Alexandria owns a building called the "bus barn", that stores various emergency vehicles and school busses, and it was a perfect fit for the project.

Volunteers and archeologists carefully hauled the ship fragments to the barn, where two SUV sized tanks, lined with a grey plastic tarp were waiting.

The big logs were sunk in the tanks, while smaller, more delicate planks were laid out in a tarp sandwich so they didn't dry out. 

Since January of 2016, that's where the ship has been docked.

Archeologists are looking for conservators who will seal the wood with polyethylene glycol, similar to wax, then freeze-dried so it can be reassembled and put on display.

This process will take about five or six years.

"One of the appeals of the ship is, I mean it's something large, and it's very visible and very tangible piece of the past that you know, sometimes when you're in school and you're learning about history, it's sort of in the abstract. You sort of have to imagine it, but if you have a 46-and-a-half-foot chunk of a ship standing in front of you, I mean it's very very visible and very very real," Archeologist Benjamin Skolnik said.

The archeologists need donations to make this happen. Donations, some city money and grants funded the project to this point.

You can donate online.

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