In addition to viewing the exhibits, visitors can learn about the archaeological process by interacting with volunteers and staff at work in the museum’s public laboratory. Fridays are the best time to find volunteers washing, marking and cataloguing artifacts from the latest dig.
A Community Digs its Past: The Lee Street Site
A Community Digs its Past: The Lee Street Site is the Museum’s main exhibition, and surrounds the public laboratory. The exhibition weaves the story of the wharves, taverns, bakery and Civil War privy excavated at the corner of Lee and Queen Streets together with the story of archaeologists at work, from excavation, to historical research, artifact processing, and archaeological conservation.
Preserved on the Lee Street Site was a cross-section of Alexandria's history from its founding in 1749 into the 20th century. Eighteenth century wharves remained intact below remnants of a bakery, taverns and residences that had sprung up on the bustling waterfront. The block was later used by the Union Army as a hospital support facility for the huge influx of soldiers during the Civil War. These layers of time were preserved under shallow foundations and a paved parking lot, and survived to yield their secrets to archaeologists and the community.
Read A Community Digs its Past: The Lee Street Site, an 18-page booklet accompanying the exhibition.
On some days you may find volunteers washing, marking and cataloguing artifacts from the latest dig. On other days we may just be working on our computers, but please ask about our current projects.
All of our artifacts are processed right here in the museum. Most of the work is done by a trained group of volunteers, under staff supervision. The artifact catalogue is maintained using a computer database, so that the archaeologists can search and analyze the data. Photographs of each object are stored along with the catalogue.
Lab facilities include sinks with a dirt-trap, drying racks, tables and counters with solvent-resistant surfaces, and a fume hood a flammables storage cabinet to keep us safe when using chemicals. A small storage room is located upstairs, near the Museum offices. Some conservation work is done in-house, but usually the artifacts are sent out to specialized conservation labs when special treatment is required.
The Museum exhibits some artifacts, and lends others for exhibition at other museums. Most of the collection is housed in a climate-controlled storage facility, in archival packaging. The Alexandria Archaeology Storage Facility houses more than 3,000 boxes, containing more than two million individual artifacts.
You and your children can try some hands-on activities. You can be the archaeologist and try putting plates together. The artifacts you will be working with were broken in the year 2000, but our lab volunteers may be doing the same thing with artifacts broken around 1800. There is also a coloring activity for children, and you can ask about Discovery Kits, which are self-directed activities for use by families visiting the museum.
In the hallway adjacent to the Museum, learn about the Alexandria Heritage Trail, a 23-mile tour of Alexandria’s history, and read about some of the many sites along the trail. The accompanying book is out of print, but may still be available from online resellers.
Walk and Bike the Alexandria Heritage Trail, A Guide to Exploring a Virginia Town's Hidden Past. By Pamela J. Cressey, 2002. Capital Books, Inc., Sterling VA, $11.95.
The Wickham Musket was thrown away in a backyard privy sometime in the 1860s. Archaeologists found it, cocked and loaded, more than a hundred years later. Learn about the musket, and how archaeologists found and conserved it.
Visitors can view artifacts from current excavations, lab projects or research, and a few of our most popular finds, displayed in two glass cases and an array of tabletop exhibits.
Mercy Street Uncovered: Archaeology in Civil War Alexandria. Explore artifacts discovered from during excavations of the remains of a Civil War hospital and privy. Learn more about Alexandria's Civil War Hospitals, and don’t miss the special self-guided Civil War Hospital walking tour.
- The Account of Colonel Ellsworth showcases an original May 26, 1861 edition of the New-York Tribune detailing Ellsworth’s death in Alexandria, the first conspicuous casualty and the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. A Peeps diorama depicts the event.
- Also from the Musket Privy. Archaeologists study assemblages – artifacts found together in one place – to learn about the past. The Wickham Musket was thrown away in a convenient backyard trash pit, along with dishes, glassware, a baby bottle, toys and architectural fragments from a household at 106 South St. Asaph Street.
- A Clovis Point is the oldest artifact found in Alexandria. See this 13,000-year-old artifact and other prehistoric stone tools found at the
Freedmen’s Cemetery and Jones Point Park sites during building of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
- Wanted: Young Heroes. A Civil War Drummer Boy. The re-examination of a 19th century drumstick, found in a privy behind 404 King Street during the 1974 excavation of the block, led to an examination of young drummer boys during the Civil War.
- The Dog. A dog skeleton is used to look at the excavation and study of a 19th century pet dog, found on the Coleman Site on South Fairfax Street.