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 Jul 6, 2021 at 3:20 PM

Archaeology and Preservation

Archaeology in Alexandria began with community preservation efforts in the 1960s at 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.

Alexandria Archaeology has received national awards for its leadership in the fields of archaeology and preservation.

About the Code

The Archaeological Protection Code, established in 1989, has served as a preservation model for local jurisdictions across the nation

Through the investigation and preservation of numerous sites that would have been lost to development, the code has enabled the recovery of information about the full range of human activity in Alexandria, from Native American occupation through the early 20th century. The excavated sites highlight the wharves and ship-building activities on the waterfront; the commercial and industrial establishments, including potteries, bakeries, and breweries; life in rural Alexandria; the Civil War; cemetery analysis and preservation; and African Americans and the horrors of enslavement.

By the late 1980s, development in Alexandria was proceeding at a rapid pace, and large open spaces, such as the two abandoned rail yards, were slated for change. Concern for threatened sites across the City led the Archaeological Commission to recognize the need for a local protection ordinance to identify and preserve buried resources threatened by this myriad of development projects. The Commission sought input from the business community, especially developers and their lawyers, thereby bringing new players into partnership with archaeology. As a direct result of the Commission’s vision and commitment, City Council adopted the Alexandria Archaeology Protection Code on November 18, 1989.  Not only was Alexandria’s code one of the first local ordinances in the country; it also remains one of the few local jurisdictions to consider archaeological preservation across an entire city, not merely in a historic district.

The Archaeological Protection Code set out a process whereby the private sector would pay to preserve resources and information through excavation and analysis before ground disturbance on large-scale construction projects. The code also helped to pave the way for protection and interpretation of some sites in situ.  Incorporated into the City’s Zoning Ordinance, the code requires coordination with other City departments—the planners, engineers, landscape designers, and other regulatory officials who oversee the site plan process. Implementation involves review of all City development projects by staff archaeologists. The staff determines the level of work to be done by private developers who are required to hire archaeological consultants to conduct investigations of potentially significant site locations and produce both technical and public reports on their findings.  

The archaeological review process necessitated the compilation of as much data as possible regarding the locations of potential sites in order to make appropriate determinations of the work levels.  Using maps obtained and surveys completed through previous research efforts, City archaeologists wrote a preservation chapter for the City’s Master Plan that included over 4,000 potential site locations, as well as historic districts and standing structures.  This mapped information, now in digital form with Geographic Information System software, facilitates the review process by allowing the staff to assess which projects require archaeological investigations prior to construction.

The code changed some aspects of the Alexandria Archaeology program. Research became more development-oriented and focused on threatened sites, with consultants conducting the bulk of the fieldwork. In addition to completing reviews of development projects, the staff adopted the responsibility of managing the archaeological preservation process to ensure quality, writing scopes of work, overseeing during the processes of excavation and analysis, and reviewing technical and public reports. The City’s archaeologists also direct the excavations on City development projects, coordinate with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources on federal projects, and conduct investigations of significant sites with volunteers on projects that are too small to fall subject to official code requirements. 

In addition, through the partnership that has developed with planners and developers as a result of the code, the implementation process has led to the integration of history and archaeology into development projects—to bring the past out of the museum and into the streets and to incorporate it into the very fabric of the community.  Interpretive markers on the Alexandria Heritage Trail relate the stories of the past. History has also found its way into public art that adorns development projects.  Elements of the historical past have been saved and interpreted for the public in the city’s open spaces. And most importantly, the code has played a significant role in the creation of authentic historical spaces, such as the African American Heritage Park and Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, that promote an understanding of the past and enrich the lives of residents and visitors.

After more than 11,000 reviews conducted by the City’s archaeological staff, we can look back and evaluate what the code has accomplished, highlighting all the information that would have been lost without the vision of the Archaeological Commission and the foresight and action of City Council.  Organized according to theme, a brief description of information recovered from some of the significant sites investigated is presented online in the Alexandria Archaeology Bibliography.

A special thanks goes out to all of the landowners, developers, planners, and archaeological consultants who have helped to save the information from these sites and contributed to making the past come alive in Alexandria.

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 list of consultants who have completed approved projects in the City of Alexandria in the past ten years.

  • Archaeological Resource Areas. The Archaeological Resource Areas as described in the Archaeological Protection 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.

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 is made up of 18 Small Area Plans covering neighborhoods throughout the city, as well as topical chapters of citywide relevancy, such as Historic Preservation, Urban Design, Transportation, and Open Space. The Alexandria Master Plan was adopted by the City Council on June 13, 1992, and chapters are added or updated on an ongoing basis as needed through Master Plan Amendments

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 that 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 download as PDFs. New reports will be added online as they are processed. 

The site reports are listed in the Alexandria Archaeology Bibliography, and include a topical listing. 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. Each entry includes a link to PDF (or PDFs) and report summary. The summaries also provide related reports and/or recommendations for further reading. The bibliography also includes some historical, architectural and artifact studies pertaining to Alexandria sites.

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 worked 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 tribes or Native Hawaiian organizations in regard to these collections, and to repatriate the return of 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