Robinson Terminal South Excavation Update: Uncovering Historic Ships and Wharves

Archaeologists working at the former site of Robinson Terminal South discovered the remains of several historic ships and a wharf structure.

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Note: The information on this page reflects the state of knowledge when this update was written. Information may have changed. 

Uncovering Historic Ships and Wharves

April 2018

Spring brings more exciting discoveries at Robinson Landing! Archaeologists have recently uncovered several historic ships and wharves.

Archaeologists working at the former site of Robinson Terminal South have discovered the remains of several historic ships and a wharf structure.  Initial evaluation indicates that these ships and wharves were probably used as part of the land making (banking out) process in the late 18th/early 19th century as early Alexandrians filled in the Potomac River shoreline.  These ships along with the one previously recovered at the Hotel Indigo site provide insight into a critical period of Alexandria’s early history of trade and commerce as well as the larger maritime world of the late 18th and early 19th-century. Recovering one ship is rare, but having at least four within a two-block area is remarkable. Together these ships and wharves are a valuable and extremely rare data source for maritime historians and archaeologists.   

Ships

To date, three ships have been discovered at Robinson Landing. Preliminary field evaluation of the materials and construction technique suggests that they all probably date to the late 18th/early 19th century, the same time period as the ship uncovered at the Hotel Indigo site one block to the north. All of the vessels show a mix of trunnels (or wooden pegs) and iron fasteners.  A likely interpretation of how these ships came to be buried on this block is that once they were past their prime as sea-going vessels, they were either abandoned and simply covered by fill or they were intentionally scuttled and used as fill to extend the City’s shoreline into the Potomac. Most of the Robinson Terminal South block was filled in and the outline of the original Point Lumley had disappeared by the turn of the century.

The first ship found on this block was discovered in early March. It was found underneath the 1852 Pioneer Mill foundation, scuttled near Point Lumley and used as part of the wharf system. It is listed, or tilted, on its side and oriented roughly east-west, perpendicular to the shoreline. This vessel may be more intact than the one found at the Hotel Indigo site and may provide additional clues about ship building traditions and construction techniques.

Another ship, closer to the Potomac River shoreline, was found in mid-March and is located to the southeast of the first one. Archaeologists have uncovered a section measuring roughly 46 feet long and 12.3 feet wide, consisting of 49 frames. This ship appears to run roughly parallel to the current shoreline. It is immediately north of a stone warehouse foundation and is part of the associated wharf structure.  This ship appears to be intentionally notched into the adjoining wharf structure.  Further study of this ship and the associated wharf structure may provide additional clues about late 18th-century harbor engineering.   

A third ship was recently discovered near Wolfe Street. Only a portion has been uncovered at this time, but it appears to lie roughly parallel to Wolfe Street. This is the most complete of the ships in that it appears to have a significant portion of both sides (port and starboard) present continuing up the sides.    

Currently, the ships are being evaluated by archaeologists from Thunderbird and the City with assistance from maritime archaeologists, dendrochronologists, and other experts to reveal further information about their construction and to assess their structural integrity. Archaeologists will document the vessels in place. Dendrochronology of the ship timbers may be able to provide additional information on construction date and location of these vessels. Once more is known about them, contract archaeologists and City archaeologists will develop a plan for these unique finds for future research.

RTS Ship 2 (image 17). Credit, EYA, LLC.

RTS Ship 2 (image 32). Credit, EYA, LLC.

RTS Ship 2 (image 37). Credit, EYA, LLC.

RTS Ship 2 (image 39). Credit, EYA, LLC.

Photos of Ship #2, courtesy EYA, LLC.  Archaeologists uncovered a section measuring roughly 46 feet long and 12.3 feet wide, consisting of 49 frames. This ship appears to be intentionally notched into the adjoining wharf structure.

Wharves

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of an intricate network of wharves and other waterfront structures. These likely date to the late 18th and early 19th century when Alexandrians were busy filling in, or banking out, into the Potomac River.

Cribbing and large wooden pilings have been found across much of the eastern portion of the property. Large timber pilings are related to and have been pulled from beneath the Pioneer Mill foundation.

Archaeologists have uncovered a nearly 100-foot-long portion of timber retaining wall or bulkhead running roughly east to west across the property. This feature is roughly six timbers tall, held together via scarf joints and trunnels (wooden nails), and formed one wall of a larger wharf. The wall was additionally held in place with long timbers (called tie-backs) running roughly perpendicular to it. Additionally, the second ship also appears to have been used for support as one of its ends is slotted into the wharf wall. A stone structure, possibly an early warehouse, sits atop this wharf. 

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