Documentary Research & Historical Archaeology

Historical Archaeologists use all the tools at their disposal to learn about the past. The archaeologists must put their archaeological sites and finds within the context of known history. Alexandria Archaeology staff and volunteers, and Cultural Resource Management firms conducting archaeological research in Alexandria, have conducted a vast amount of documentary research over the years, looking at the broader context of Alexandria history as well as specific site-related history.

Page updated on Feb 1, 2021 at 12:29 PM

Research Projects

Here are some of the research projects that have been undertaken by Alexandria Archaeology staff and volunteers.

  • Discovering the Decades places Alexandria’s history in the context of U.S. history, and includes snippets about archaeology and architecture in Alexandria. This content was originally published in the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News as part of the City’s 250th Anniversary in 1999.
  • Waterfront Studies . As part of the City’s Waterfront Planning initiative in 2009/2010, Alexandria staff, commission members, students and volunteers compiled a tremendous amount of information about the history of the waterfront. Travelers' accounts of the Alexandria waterfront, written between 1624 and 1900, have been excerpted and organized by decade.
  • Antebellum Reminiscences of Alexandria, Virginia , by Mary Louisa Slacum Benham, describes her life in Alexandria in the first half of the 19th Century. These memoirs, thought to be written in the 1880s, were transcribed and extracted by Alexandria Archaeology volunteers. A variety of topics are discussed: the Potomac River; rural scenes; Christ Church; dancing school; the Alexandria Theater; childhood experiences including food, furnishings and African Americans; and Mount Vernon.
  • The Alexandria Archaeology Bibliography is a comprehensive listing of archaeological site reports, journal articles, books, theses and manuscripts pertaining to archaeology in Alexandria, Virginia.

Documentary Studies

In keeping with contemporary archaeological standards, archaeological project areas are placed within a general context of their environmental, cultural, and historical surroundings. Archaeological site reports include a section on the property's history, establishing the land use and occupation of the property from prehistoric times to the present. The documentary studies include maps and primary and secondary source information. The ultimate goal of the research is to identify, as precisely as possible, the potential locations of archaeological resources that may be preserved within the project area, and to develop a historical context for the interpretation of these potential resources.

The research involved in these studies includes a search of deeds, plats, title documents, probate and other court records; tax and census records; published and unpublished manuscripts of first-hand accounts (such as letters, diaries, and county histories); historical maps; newspaper articles; previous archaeological research; pedological (soil), geological and topographic maps; modern maps, previous construction plans and photographs that can indicate locations of previous ground disturbance; and information on file with Alexandria Archaeology and the local history sections of public libraries in northern Virginia. Information on file at Alexandria Archaeology may include to-scale historical maps, site reports, secondary compilations and indexes, and existing research on primary sources.

Site Reports and Public Summaries, prepared in accordance with the Alexandria Archaeological Protection Ordinance, each contain sections on the history of the site. These are being posted online as time permits. A complete Bibliography is also available, and all reports can be found at the  Alexandria Library Special Collections, at the Virginia Department of Historic Resource in Richmond, or by appointment at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum.

The following are some examples of documentary studies prepared as part of archaeological preservation projects.

  • 1300 Duke Street (Fannon Property) This property includes foundations of a house built for John Emerson in 1847, and a nineteenth-century water filtration system. Earlier, a brickyard and tenements stood on the site. In the Civil War, the block included portions of the US Military Railroad complex, Contraband quarters, and Soldier's Rest.
  • 1604-1614 King Street (Hotel Lorian)   A documentary study showed this property to have been in a semi-rural area between the village of West End and the town of Alexandria. In the 19th century the land was used to pasture livestock, and may have contained a small tenement. Townhouses were built on the site in the 1910s.
  • Robert Portner Brewing Company, 44AX196   This large brewery made Tivoli Brand lager beer from 1868 until Prohibition.