Collections at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum

The Alexandria Archaeology Museum has an extraordinary collection of well preserved artifacts from excavations in the city of Alexandria, Virginia. The collection plays an important role in relating the history of Alexandria and the history of every-day life in America to students, Alexandria residents, and visitors from around the world. The breadth and depth of this collection make it one of the foremost collections for use in comparative studies in historic and urban archaeology.

Page updated on Dec 16, 2016 at 9:38 AM

Earthenware pan by Henry Piercy, ca. 1795About the Collection

The collection contains over 2,000,000 artifacts, collected since 1965 from more than 150 archaeological sites in the City of Alexandria, Virginia.

The collection includes artifacts from the late 17th through the early 20th centuries, as well as from prehistoric periods. Artifacts from many sites can be related through historical records to individual people, homes and businesses. These sites represent a diverse cross-section of Alexandria society. Sites include homes of free African Americans, slaves, Quakers, and Alexandria merchants; early taverns; Civil War camp sites, shoemakers, earthenware and stoneware potteries, glass factories, a cabinet maker, copper and tin smiths, a doctor’s office, an apothecary and a sugar refinery.

Some of the best preserved artifacts were found in deep features such as wells and privies. Leather, wood and cloth preserved from water-logged contexts include over 100 shoes, 200 pieces of cloth including gloves and stockings, wooden toys, and furniture pieces. The glass and ceramics collections include thousands of restored vessels, and many more thousands of fragments. Alexandria is reported to have the largest collection of Staffordshire wares in North America. There is also a large collection of earthenware and stoneware manufactured in Alexandria.

Around 2,000 artifacts are used in the museum in exhibitions, study collections, and hands-on educational programs, or are on loan for exhibition in other museums. The remainder of the collection is stored systematically in a secure, climate controlled storage facility, and is used for research and changing exhibitions.

Highlights from the Collection

Collections Policy

Like all professional museums, the Alexandria Archaeology Museum abides by a Collections Policy in acquiring and caring for collections. The Historic Alexandria Museums worked together to create a set of collections policies that define the scope of each museum’s collections, and set policies for caring for in accordance with the special needs of each collection.

Scope of Collections: The research and collection goals of Alexandria Archaeology are centered upon the investigation, interpretation and preservation of historic and prehistoric sites within the current city limits of Alexandria, and of their related documentary and artifact evidence. Alexandria Archaeology is responsible for the curation of archaeological materials that the City holds in title or trust. These materials, because of their important research value for the City and for the field of archaeology, should be preserved and protected in perpetuity as a resource and legacy for future generations.

Alexandria Archaeology is the official repository for all archaeological materials collected within the current City limits of Alexandria. Artifacts, biological remains and geological samples which comprise the collection are acquired primarily through excavation and survey conducted by the staff of Alexandria Archaeology. Donations will ordinarily consist of artifacts that have been collected by staff on private property or by professional archaeologists or institutions. Donations of artifacts resulting from chance finds or other excavation activities will be carefully considered by staff for their archaeological merit including relevance and importance to the history of Alexandria as well as the degree and quality of documentation. It is recognized that materials of historic interest but without archaeological context will be best collected by other programs within the Office of Historic Alexandria.

The City recognizes the importance of context with regard to archaeological materials, and will thus maintain and preserve field notes, catalogues, research data, reports and other supporting materials in perpetuity along with the artifact collections.

Acquisitions: Donations of artifacts to the Alexandria Archaeology collection must meet the following criteria:

  • Provenience: Objects must have been discovered in an archaeological context within the current City limits of Alexandria. The actual provenience must be made known by the collector or donor.
  • Title: The donor must have free and clear title to the objects. (Normally, this means that the donor owns the land on which the artifacts were found.)
  • Documentation: Materials will preferably derive from scientifically controlled and recorded excavations, and will be accessioned as a unit consisting of all materials collected on a site and with all related field notes, catalogues, reports, and other supporting documents.

Loans: Alexandria Archaeology may lend artifacts to museums, institutions or public facilities for the purpose of exhibition, and to institutions or individuals with institutional sponsorship for the purpose of research or education only when such research will directly benefit Alexandria Archaeology or the Office of Historic Alexandria. Requests for loans should be made in writing to the curator of collections.

Access: The Alexandria Archaeology collection is the property of the City of Alexandria and held in public trust. The City encourages study of the collection and accompanying documentation by responsible scholars and will make every effort to accommodate research requests. Access to the collection is subject to restrictions required by the availability of staff to provide adequate supervision and resources. Access may be denied to parts of the collection put aside for exhibition or for active research by staff members. Records regarding the location of archaeological sites may be restricted in order to protect surviving sites.

  • Scholarly and Professional Access: Students and scholars requesting access to the collection shall submit a proposal of their planned research project, including collections and data to be examined, objectives, publication information, proposed timetable and schedule of hours to be spent at Alexandria Archaeology. The Director of Alexandria Archaeology has the authority to allow access to the collection on the basis of the professional qualifications of the individual, feasibility and merit of the project, the applicability of the collection to the project, and/or the ability to provide adequate staff supervision and resources for the completion of the research.
  • Public Access: Public access to the collections and resources of Alexandria Archaeology through exhibition and education programs may be supplemented by individual or group tours by appointment, at the discretion of the Director. Members of the public not engaged in approved research will not be permitted to handle artifacts in the collection without the permission of the Collections Manager.

Archaeological Standards

The City of Alexandria Archaeological Standards provides detailed guidelines to be followed for all projects within the City of Alexandria. The Collections section of the standards (2009) provides information on processing collections and associated records and on the Alexandria Archaeology Storage Facility.

Conservation: Musket Part imageCaring for the Collection

The Alexandria Archaeology Museum cares for the collection following best practices and the standards for Curation of Federally Owned and Administered Archaeological Collections, 36 CFR part 79.

Artifact Processing: All artifacts from Museum excavations are washed, labeled and catalogued by volunteers, students and staff. Archaeological consulting firms prepare collections from their Alexandria excavations in accordance with the Alexandria Archaeological Standards.

Artifact Cataloguing: A computer database is used to maintain the artifact catalogue Individual artifacts are described in the catalogue, organized by site. Since 2002, digital images have been taken of each artifact or each group of artifacts from one context, to provide a more complete record. The Alexandria Archaeology Laboratory Reference Book (revised June 2010) establishes cataloguing protocols, and includes a common lexicon and illustrated glossary

Box Inventory: Most artifacts are stored in archival record storage boxes, so that they can be easily transferred between the museum and storage facility. Each box is assigned a unique record number, and entered into a database. Information recorded includes the site and proveniences, a description of the artifacts, storage conditions, conservation needs, and storage location. The artifact catalogue is linked to the box inventory, to track the location of individual objects. The collections were re-inventoried in 2008 with assistance from interns from The George Washington University.

Archaeological Conservation: The goal of archaeological conservation is to stabilize objects for long-term preservation. In many cases, this can be achieved through proper storage, including the use of archival storage materials and proper climate control. For some artifacts, professional conservation treatment may be needed to curtail active deterioration, or so that an artifact can be exhibited. Conservation is usually required for waterlogged wood, leather and cloth, and for unstable metals. Conservation may include such methods as chemical treatment, air-abrasion and/or mechanical cleaning. A conservation survey conducted in 1990 helped to set standards for storage and treatment. The museum contracts with professional conservators for ongoing conservation needs.

Packaging: For long-term preservation of the artifacts, it is important to use stable, archival packing materials. In Alexandria, we use polyethylene zip-lock bags, acid-free labels marked with water-proof pens, and Hollinger record-storage boxes. Bubble wrap, ethafoam, mylar, and acid-free tissue paper are among the materials used for padding.

Micro-environments: Metal artifacts require a dryer environment than the rest of the artifacts, in order to prevent active corrosion. Inexpensive micro-environments are created using air-tight polyethylene boxes containing packets of silica gel. The silica gel absorbs and holds moisture. When the blue indicating crystals turn pink, the silica gel can be dried out in an oven for re-use.

Storage Facility: The Alexandria Archaeology Storage Facility was created in 1990, with assistance from the City of Alexandria, the National Science Foundation, and the Institute of Museum Services. The 1,500 square foot facility is located in a City building just over a mile from the museum, and holds a total of 3,564 boxes. The collection will eventually expand to another space in the same building. The facility was created to provide the environmental conditions necessary for long-term preservation of these important collections. Special care was taken to use stable materials for equipment and packaging that do not “off-gas,” or give off harmful fumes, and to provide a very stable temperature and humidity. The storeroom is also equipped with smoke detectors, a sprinkler system, and a separate security alarm.

Compactor shelving was used to maximize space. This shelving moves on a track, allowing nearly twice as much storage capacity as regular shelving. One pound of pressure can move 900 pounds with this mechanical assist system.

Some archaeological materials are very sensitive to climatic changes. An HVAC system maintains a constant temperature and humidity, avoiding fluctuations that would hasten the artifacts' deterioration. An instrument called a data-logger measures temperature and humidity, and records this information on a computer.