Archaeology and Preservation

Alexandria Archaeology reviews development projects to determine their impact on archaeological resources, and administers the Archaeology Protection Code of the City of Alexandria, Virginia, included in the City’s Zoning Ordinance.

Page updated on Dec 27, 2018 at 9:15 PM

Archaeology in Alexandria began with community preservation efforts in the 1960s at the Fort Ward and King Street Urban Renewal projects. The Alexandria Archaeological Commission (AAC) – the first of its kind in the United States – was established by City Council in 1975, and City archaeology staff soon followed. In the 1980s, when increasing development threatened the city's archaeological resources, the AAC partnered with the private development community to advocate for and draft the Archaeological Resource Protection Code. It passed in 1989 as the first such code in the nation.

The Code requires the evaluation of all development projects for which site plans must be filed, to determine the potential for impacting archaeological resources and whether there is a need for preservation action prior to site development. This sometimes necessitates that the applicant to the review process hire an archaeological consultant to conduct research, survey, and excavation. This procedure reduces the loss of sites and objects of antiquity that represent the cultural heritage of the nation, the commonwealth, and the city.

Archaeological Protection Code

  • Archaeological Protection Code Zoning Ordinance, Section 11-411 (D), 1992.
  • Ordinance 3413. City Council Resolution establishing the Archaeological Protection Code, 1989
  • Request for Preliminary Assessment. Completion of this Form is required for compliance with the Archaeological Protection Code.
  • The City of Alexandria Archaeological Standards describes procedures to be followed by archaeological consultants working in Alexandria. The Standards includes sections on Documentary Studies, Survey and Excavation, Processing Collections, and Deliverables, including reports, associated records and collections. The Standards are periodically updated, and consultants are responsible for compliance with the latest Standards as of the date of the Scope of Work of their project. Please contact Alexandria Archaeology for the latest copy.
  • Archaeological Resource Management Firms. A partial list of firms who have completed approved projects in Alexandria and the Washington, D.C. area.
  • Archaeological Resource Areas. The Archaeological Resource Areas as described in the Archaeological Protections Code are shown on an interactive map, along with descriptions of each area.
  • Senate Joint Resolution No. 198. State Resolution commending the 20th anniversary of the City's pioneering Archaeological Protection Code.
  • Twenty Five Years and Counting: The Alexandria Archaeological Protection Code. In 2014 the City of Alexandria celebrated the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Archaeological Protection Code, which has served as a preservation model for local jurisdictions across the nation. 

Permit Review

Alexandria Archaeology reviews all building permits and other code enforcement permits that involve ground disturbance. On projects which do not require site plans (such as small additions to private homes), we may ask property owners to allow City archaeologists and volunteers to excavate prior to construction or to monitor the site during construction. Alternatively, we may ask that the owners call us if artifacts or features are found.

Metal Detecting Code

Metal Detecting and removal of property of any kind is ILLEGAL on public land, including City, State and Federal parks and property. Illegal activities on public lands include collecting artifacts along the shorelines and streambeds and removing plants, as well as metal detecting and excavation. The Alexandria City Code prohibits metal detecting, digging, or removal of objects on City property.

City of Alexandria Master Plan: Historic Preservation

The Alexandria Master Plan was adopted by the City Council on June 24, 1992. The Master Plan is made up of 15 small area plans (SAPs) covering neighborhoods throughout the City; and chapters on topics of citywide relevancy, such as Historic Preservation, Urban Design, and Open Space.  

Reports of Preservation Projects

Investigations produce reports, which include the technical results of the projects and their interpretation, as well as artifacts, preserved as part of the City’s Alexandria Archaeology Museum collection. Other archaeological inquiries in Alexandria not initiated by the Code also yield reports and artifacts, most of which are part of the collection. Thus, while not all sites are protected, they do live on through their information and material culture in spite of the passage of time and persistence of development. Over the years, the reports have been filed at the Museum, with copies provided to the City Library, and artifacts housed in the City's repository. Yet few know of the reports have been published. In an attempt to bring the “gray literature” to light, most of these archaeological reports, spanning six decades of archaeology in Alexandria and chronicling thousands of years of history across the city, now are available for the first time for download as PDFs. New reports will be added online as they are processed. The information is organized into a Topical Listing of Archaeological Reports. Below each topic is a list of associated sites/projects. If a Virginia site registration number exists for a project, then it, too, is listed. Simply click on a report to go to its precise entry on the Alexandria Archaeology Bibliography. Underneath each entry is a PDF (or PDFs) and report summary. The summaries also provide related reports and/or recommendations for further reading. For a comprehensive listing of written material on archaeology in Alexandria, view the full bibliography. It also includes some historical, architectural and artifact studies.

GIS Tools for the Archaeologist

The use of GIS improves the efficiency and accuracy of the review process, thus enhancing Alexandria’s historic preservation efforts. Historical maps and aerial photographs are scaled to serve as layers within the City’s Geographical Information System in order to predict topographical locations of Native American occupation and to identify the locations of historic sites on the contemporary maps. Alexandria Archaeology is working with the Center for Geospatial Information Technology  at Virginia Tech, and with the City of Alexandria’s GIS Division in the Department of Planning and Zoning, to develop historical map layers.

As a result of the archaeological review process, many sites have been investigated, and a wide variety of important information has been made available to the public. The kinds of sites and resources explored and preserved as a result of the Code include Native American camps, tenant farmsteads, Civil War encampments, plantations, cemeteries, African American homes, and businesses, including a sugar factory, a ropewalk, grist mills, potteries and glassworks.

Archaeology at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Both State and Federal laws and procedures require that significant archaeological sites be identified and considered in a variety of public projects. As the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), VDHR  assists state and federal agencies in meeting their responsibilities.  

Federal Laws and Regulations on Archaeological Preservation

For more information about Federal laws, and on archaeology and preservation programs of the Federal government, visit the National Park Service website.

  • The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the government the power to protect antiquities on federal lands, and gives the President authority to establish national monuments and historic sites to protect them.
  • The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 recognizes a federal interest in encouraging the preservation of culturally significant resources through public and private efforts. Central to the accomplishment of the goals of this act is the National Register, a current listing of districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects deemed significant in American history, architecture, archaeology and culture. Section 106 of this Act provides for archaeological studies of federally funded or licensed projects.
  • The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979 clarified the scope of protection and expanded penalties for violations of the Antiquities Act. Stealing and vandalism of antiquities on federal lands is a criminal offense punishable with fines up to $100,000 and five years in prison.
  • The Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 provides for the protection and cultural management of abandoned shipwrecks.
  • The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 requires Federal agencies and museums that receive Federal funds to complete inventories and summaries of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony, to notify Indian tries or Native Hawaiian organizations in regard to these collections, and to repatriate the return such items at the request of affiliated tribes.
  • The Curation of Federally-Owned and Administered Archaeological Collections (36 CFR Part 79) is a Department of the Interior regulation passed in 1990 which establishes procedures for the care and preservation of archaeological collections.

Archaeologists in the Washington, DC Area