Robinson Terminal South Excavation Update: Recovering Ship 1 and Wharves

In May 2018, archaeologists continued to excavate, document, and recover features at Robinson Terminal South on Alexandria's Waterfront

Page archived as of March 9, 2019

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

Recovering Robinson Terminal South Ship #1 and Wharves

May 2018

Ship 1 (Feature 155-1) Update

RTSMay20182(1)Thanks to a team effort, the first ship has been successfully removed from the Robinson Terminal South site!  Contract archaeologists, City staff, and consultants from the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab worked together to document, remove, and stabilize the remains.

This ship was found in mid-March and was oriented roughly north-south, paralleling the original shoreline. Both the bow and stern were notched into wharf structures used for “banking out”. Before and during removal archaeologists documented this feature using measured drawings and photogrammetry, and dendrochronology samples were taken from multiple timbers. These detailed records will provide valuable data on shipbuilding techniques and wharf construction.

The City is now storing the timbers in tanks of water to ensure their continued stabilization.  Without these measures, the wood would desiccate and disintegrate, precluding any potential for future study or conservation.


Ship Fast Facts

  • Archaeologically recovered remains include: frames, hull planking, sacrificial planking, keelson, keel, parts of the bow stem and stern.
  • Would have been roughly 55 feet long.
  • Given this size it was probably a coastal vessel.
  • The sacrificial planking shows little to no evidence of ship worm damage.
  • It appears to be more roughly made than the ship recovered from the Hotel Indigo site.

A Big thank you to everyone who helped us get this first ship out of the ground and safely into tanks!


Wharf Structure (Feature 161) Update

Archaeologists have been busy uncovering more evidence of Alexandria’s 18th -century shoreline expansion.

Contract archaeologists working at the former site of Robinson Terminal South have recently discovered the remains of a bulkhead wharf structure (Feature 161). This feature is located just north of Wolfe Street and runs roughly east-west, generally parallel to the street. It was found below the foundation remains of several structures and extends under paved portions of The Strand, previously discovered by archaeologists. The Strand was originally laid out as a 21-foot-wide alley by the Kirks in the 1780s. Initial evaluation suggests that this stacked timber structure was used in the land making (banking out) process in the late 18th century.

The uncovered remains of the wharf consist of two main walls made up of large cut beams and some un-milled logs, secured with tie backs and cross braces.  A third wall is assumed to exist underneath Wolfe Street, but is not currently visible and is outside the project area. The north wall is made of three stacked logs at its western end and four logs towards the east, closer to the Potomac River.  The eastern wall of this feature is five logs tall and large rocks were found along the eastern edge of the wall.  The timbers on the northeast corner appear to be joined using a crude corner notching technique, possibly lock notched. This construction method gives the corners a “Lincoln Log” appearance. Towards the western section of the feature, there is a continuous course of horizontally laid, abutting timbers running roughly east-west, parallel to Wolfe St. Their purpose is currently being researched.   

Feature 161 is evidence of the initial expansion of Lot 85 beyond the natural shoreline.  In the late 18th-century, this lot was associated with both Thomas Fleming and James and Bridget Kirk. Fleming purchased the lot from the town trustees in 1763.  At that time, most of the southern portion of this block was in tidal mudflats.  In 1770 Fleming sold the property to James Kirk, a merchant and later Mayor of Alexandria. The Kirks built land, a wharf, and laid out an alley before James Kirk died in 1786, after which Bridget Kirk began subdividing and leasing parcels on the lot.  

Archaeologists have been busily documenting this feature using measured drawings and photographs, and dendrochronology samples have also been taken across the feature.  These detailed records will provide valuable data on how people in the past created land to meet their needs. 18th-century wharf construction was not the standardized engineering that we often see today. In fact, methods and materials varied greatly even in the Anglo-American maritime world.  The end product was heavily dependent on local environmental and economic conditions as well as on the technical knowledge of those doing the construction. Wharves and other landfill retaining structures are prime examples of historical carpentry that fit into larger historical and cultural frameworks. Understanding the construction methods and materials of this wharf will allow it to be situated within the broader context of early American vernacular architecture.

Alexandria Archaeology has undertaken extensive research on previously excavated wharf sites. For additional information, see Dr. Shephard’s article in The Alexandria Chronicle.

This bulkhead wharf structure literally helped create the city’s modern shoreline. It provided the foundation on which early Alexandrians built their homes and commercial ventures. It provided access to deeper water in the Potomac, bringing ships, goods, and people from around the world to the city.  Banking out was fundamental to the development of the port and these wharves and piers served as Alexandria’s lifeline to the world. 


   Image Source: Jeff Hancock Hancock Photography Robinson Landing Ships - 002 - Panorama of cribbing