A Timeline of Archaeology in Alexandria

The first archaeological research in Alexandria was conducted at Fort Ward in 1971. In 1975, after an extensive urban renewal project, City Council established the Alexandria Archaeology Commission, the first of its kind in the nation.

Page updated on Mar 15, 2020 at 8:49 PM


1961  Alexandrians’ passion for history inspires the first archaeological excavation within the city limits in 1961, when the wooded area of  Fort Ward’s northwest bastion is slated for a new housing development. Community concern over the potential loss of the historical significance of the site leads instead to City Council preserving it as a park and historic landmark.


Fort Ward Excavation 1961 

Excavation at Fort Ward’s Northwest Bastion, 1961. 

1964  Alexandria receives the All America City Award and is featured in Look Magazine in recognition of citizens’ efforts to preserve the City’s historical past from threats of urban sprawl.
1965  Once again, local citizens mobilize to protect the City’s archaeological resources, this time in Old Town, as a result of the Gadsby’s Urban Renewal Project. As buildings are razed, exposing artifact-laden privies, community outcry demands that the City address and halt the archaeological loss. The Smithsonian Institution agrees to finance the rescue excavation of the north side of the 300 (Market Square), 400 and 500 blocks of King Street, until 1971. Artifacts found are associated with early taverns, a comb maker, doctor’s office, and shoemaker.

Excavations onMarket Square
 Artifacts from an 1830s doctor's office on Market Square

Excavations on Market Square 

 Artifacts from an 1830s doctor's office on Market Square 


1972  A citizen group, the Committee of 100, is created to fund the archaeological excavations after the Smithsonian Institution funding comes to an end. Committee members are asked to donate $10 each per month to help finance the excavation of the south side of the 300 block of King Street. Rescued artifacts relate to a furniture factory and an apothecary.


Foundations and a privy on the 300 block of King Street 

Foundations and a privy on the 300 block of King Street 

 1973  The City Archaeologist position is established and the City funds the excavation of the south side of the 400 block of King Street (current site of the Hotel Monaco), unearthing lead type from the Alexandria Gazette, artifacts from Alexandria’s first potter Henry Piercy, and the “...finest collection of late 18th century American ceramics anywhere,” as noted by Ivor Noël Hume, renowned Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist. 


A privy on the 400 Block of King Street, 1973 

 A privy on the 400 block of King Street 

1975  City Council establishes the Alexandria Archaeological Commission, the first of its kind in the country.
1977  State archaeologist excavates the Wilkes Street Pottery, recovering over 6,000 sherds of stoneware made by John Swann and B. C. Milburn between ca. 1810 and 1876.

Stoneware Wasters from the Wilkes Street Pottery 

 Stoneware wasters from the Wilkes Street Pottery 

1977  The City archaeologists and hundreds of volunteers excavate the Alexandria Courthouse Site on the south side of the 500 block of King Street, retrieving over a million artifacts discarded by early merchants and residents. An early water-purifying system and artifacts from an urban slave household are uncovered.

Excavations at the Alexandria Courthouse Site, 1977 

Excavations at the Alexandria Courthouse Site, 1977. City Archaeologist Pamela Cressey is standing in the brick-lined privy shaft. 

1978  For the next three years, research for the first urban survey, sponsored by the State’s Alexandria Regional Preservation office, identifies Native American sites throughout the City. The survey also provides pioneering methods to locate early African American neighborhoods. The City’s first Resource Protection Plan is written.


Map showing African American Neighborhoods, 1810 - 1850  

Map showing African American Neighborhoods, 1810-1850 

1979  Excavation of the 19th-century African American neighborhood “The Bottoms,” located east of the Alfred Street Baptist Church. The work initiates the Alexandria African American Neighborhood Project, which undertakes to define and study free black life in Alexandria. The following year the project continues with excavations of the “Hayti” neighborhood along the east side of the 400 block of South Royal Street.


Archaeology in Hayti neighborhood 

Aerial view of the Coleman Site, in the Hayti neighborhood. At the left are the foundations of a cooper shop. At the right, the “I” shaped structures are fireplaces from a duplex 


1981  First urban archaeology survey funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities results in the creation of maps depicting the development of neighborhoods and land use from 1790-1910. Work on the survey continues for three years and includes comparative documentary, archaeological, architectural, and oral history research.
1982  Alexandria Canal Lift Lock and Pool No. 1 are excavated with funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Maritime Preservation Program. Two years later the lock is reconstructed and a waterfront park created as part of the TransPotomac Canal Center Project

1984  Opening of the Alexandria Archaeology Museum and laboratory in the newly renovated Torpedo Factory Art Center.

The Alexandria Archaeology Museum 

 The Alexandria Archaeology Museum 

1985  Historic Cemetery Project begins with the archaeological discovery of unmarked graves at Christ Church cemetery. Several excavations follow, which preserve burials in other cemeteries.

Excavations at Christ Church Cemetery 

Excavations at Christ Church Cemetery 

1986  A group of volunteers incorporates the Friends of Alexandria Archaeology (FOAA), a not-for-profit organization that supports Alexandria Archaeology.


Friends of Alexandria Archaeology, GW Parade 2007 

Friends of Alexandria Archaeology march in the George Washington Birthday Parade, 2007 

1987  Excavation of a sugar refinery (in operation from 1804 to 1828) begins on the 100 block of North Alfred Street and continues for the next five years. Research indicates that Alexandria was a major producer of refined sugar.


Fragments of sugar molds used in the refining process 

Fragments of sugar molds used in the refining process, found at the site of the Moore-McLean Sugar Refinery. 

1989  City Council adopts the Archaeological Protection Ordinance to ensure that significant archaeological resources are preserved during development. City Council also adopts a metal detection ordinance prohibiting the search and removal of historic materials from land owned by the City.
1989  Virginia Abandoned Cemetery Survey identifies City’s cemeteries.
1989  The National Science Foundation and Institute of Museum Services fund a conservation survey and collections inventory, and renovation of the Alexandria Archaeology Storage Facility. Two million artifacts are moved to the new state-of-the-art facility in 1991.


Storage Facility before the grant-funded renovation  The Alexandria Archaeology Storage Facility, with climate control and movable-aisle shelving, holds more than 3,000 boxes of artifacts. 

One of the museum’s storage facilities, prior to the grant-funded renovation. 

 The Alexandria Archaeology Storage Facility, with climate control and movable-aisle shelving, holds more than 3,000 boxes of artifacts. 


1991  The public is invited to help screen for artifacts at the first Public Dig Day. 


Family Dig Day 

Participants help the archaeologists to screen excavated soil for artifacts at the Public Dig Day. 

1992  Archaeological investigations as part of the Stonegate development along West Braddock Road uncover a late Archaic Period (3,000-1,200 B.C.) stone tool making site. This important discovery leads to the creation of the City’s first archaeological preserve.


Stone tools from the Stonegate site

 Stone tools from the Stonegate Site 

1993  Alexandria Archaeology Summer Camp begins, offering twelve- to sixteen-year-olds an opportunity to excavate a real archaeological site. The Camp program is offered from 1993 to 2006 , and again in 2008. In December, Alexandria Archaeology receives the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award for historic preservation.


Alexandria Archaeology Summer Camp, 2008 

Summer Campers mapping a feature at the Shuter’s Hill Site, 2008 

1993  The Quaker Burial Ground is excavated, prior to expansion of the Barrett Library.
1994  Archaeology identifies 21 burials in the oldest independent African American burial ground, which leads to the creation of the African American Heritage Park.


African American Heritage Park

African American Heritage Park 

1994  Partners for Livable Communities awards Alexandria Archaeology the Entrepreneurial Leadership award for its community archaeology program.
1995  Shuter’s Hill Plantation excavation begins and continues today, near the George Washington Masonic Memorial. The discovery of an 18th- century laundry sheds light on rural slave life.


Foundations of the 18th-century laundry at Shuter's Hill Plantation 

Foundations of 18th-century laundry at Shuter’s Hill Plantation 

1997  Alexandria Archaeology’s website is launched, as a section of the City of Alexandria’s website.


Alexandria Archaeology homepage, 1997-2001  Alexandria Archaeology homepage, 2001-2009 

Alexandria Archaeology homepage, 1997-2001 

 Alexandria Archaeology homepage, 2001-2010 

1997  Excavation of the Lee Street site, which includes a wharf, taverns, and a privy from a Civil War hospital support complex, captures the attention of over 4,000 visitors as the town’s history is unearthed before their eyes.


The Lee Street Site 

 The Lee Street Site 

1999  As part of the City of Alexandria’s 250th Birthday celebrations, Alexandria hosts the annual Archeological Society of Virginia conference and an Alexandria Archaeology Festival with over 35 regional exhibitors at the  Carlyle House Historic Park. “ Discovering the Decades”  explores 250 years of history in Alexandria Archaeology’s newsletter.
1999  The Alexandria Archaeological Commission, with input from the community, created the City’s 250th Anniversary Time Capsule. The Capsule was buried January 2000 in the Beatley Library Courtyard, and marked with an historic canal stone and a commemorative plaque. The Capsule is to be opened in 2099.

Time Capsule marker 

250th Anniversary Time Capsule marker 

1999  Archaeological investigations taking place from 1999 to 2002 in the West End in preparation for the development of the AMC Theaters, uncover the  West Family Cemetery and burial vault (ca. 1750-1806).


West Family burial vault, 1750-1806 

West Family burial vault, 1750-1806 


2000  Alexandria Archaeology’s 1999 Virginia Archaeology Month “Held in Trust” poster is selected for the first-place poster award from the Society for American Archaeology.

Virginia Archaeology Month poster, 2000 
2001  The Woodrow Wilson Bridge construction requires excavations at Jones Point Park. Subsequent excavations resulted in the discovery of the oldest Alexandria artifact found to date, a Kirk spear point (ca. 8,000 to 6,500 B.C.). (An older Clovis point was found in 2007.) Other findings included evidence of a 19th-century ropewalk and a World War I shipbuilding complex. Plans included an interpretive trail to be completed in 2011.


Kirk Point 
 Kirk Point 
2002  The Museum is included in the  National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, sponsored by the National Parks Service, based on extensive research on runaway slaves.
2002  Publication of the  Walk and Bike the Alexandria Heritage Trail, a 72-page guide to a 23-mile loop exploring Alexandria’s rich cultural and archaeological past. This guidebook is available from the museum shop and online from The Alexandria Shop..

Book cover; Walk and Bike the Alexandria Heritage Trail 

2002  Archaeological evidence of burials at the Alexandria’s Freedmen’s Cemetery, forgotten for nearly a century, leads to the decision to preserve the site as a memorial park.


Map of Freedmen's Cemetery site 

 Map of archaeological excavations at the Freedmen’s Cemetery site. 

2003  In the Philadelphia Style: The Pottery of Henry Piercy,” by City archaeologists Barbara Magid and Bernard K. Means, is published in the illustrated yearly journal Ceramics in America. This is the first of several articles on ceramics from the Alexandria Archaeology collection to appear in the journal.


Ceramics in America, 2003 cover  Earthenware pan by Henry Piercy, ca. 1795 

Earthenware pan, ca. 1795, excavated at Henry Piercy’s pottery site. Photo by Gavin Ashworth for Ceramics in America. 

2004  Archaeologists from R. Christopher Goodwin & Assoc. excavate "Colross," a two city block urban estate built by John Potts around 1800. Through the years it was the home of the Jonathan Swift, Thomsen Mason and William Smoot families. Excavations uncovered an extensive brick basement and the base of the family burial vault.

Brick basement of Colross 

The brick basement of the Colross mansion, during excavation. 

2005  At Cameron Mills, archaeologists from R. Christopher Goodwin & Assoc. uncover the stone foundations of a pair of mills, built in the 1790s to process grain. In 1851, one of the mills was converted to a water pumping station to move water from the millrace up to the reservoir of the Virginia Water Company on Shuter's Hill to supply Alexandria with its first piped-in water supply.

Cameron Mills in the 19th century 
 Cameron Mills in the 19th century. 
2005  The City and the Alexandria Archaeological Commission are awarded the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities’ Mary Mason Anderson Award for three decades of ongoing preservation of Alexandria’s history and archaeology.
2006  Oxford University Press publishes Digging for the Past: Alexandria, Virginia, by City Archaeologist Pamela J. Cressey and Margaret J. Anderson. “Digging for the Past” goes around the world with working archaeologists to explore the discovery, excavation, and study of archaeological sites. This book is available at the Museum and online from the The Alexandria Shop.

Digging for the Past:Alexandria, Virginia, cover 

2007  City archaeologists excavate  Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery to identify grave locations to insure their protection in the future design and development of Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial. More than 500 graves, of the 1,800 known burials, were identified in all phases of the multi-year project. Archaeologists discover that the 19th-century cemetery was dug through an important prehistoric site, and Alexandria’s oldest artifact is found – a 13,000-year-old Clovis point, of the Paleoindian period.

The Clovis Point
 The Clovis Point Drawing by Andrew Flora

The Clovis Point, made of local quartzite, was broken during manufacture. 

  Drawing of the Clovis Point, by Andrew Flora. 

2007  Alexandria Archaeological Commission starts the annual Bernard (Ben) Brenman Awards for Archaeology to honor individuals, groups and companies that have demonstrated high quality work, innovation, commitment, or extraordinary efforts in preservation, research, protection, enhancement, creation of historic parks and open spaces, documentation, education, public appreciation, and advocacy in relation to the archaeology of historic Alexandria. Awards are presented by City Council in October, Virginia Archaeology Month.
2008  International competition for design of Contrabands and Freedmen's Cemetery Memorial attracts more than 220 entries from around the world from web-based announcement, guidelines and materials prepared with assistance of City archaeologists.
2009  Alexandria Archaeology staff, volunteers and Commission members conduct research on the history of the Alexandria waterfront and participate in the City’s Waterfront Planning process. Materials presented at a community planning charette include maps showing historic buildings and the earlier shoreline and


Progression of waterfront filling, 1749-1988 

 Progression of waterfront filling, 1749-1988 

2009  Archaeologists excavate the  Bruin Slave Jail at 1707 Duke Street. Joseph Bruin, a slave trader, used the building from 1844-1861, to house slaves before he shipped them to the south.
2009  City Archaeologists returned to Fort Ward Park to work with residents, museum staff, and descendent families in developing a historical resource inventory using GIS overlay maps and ground penetrating radar.


2010  Alexandria Archaeology and Fort Ward Museum sponsor a Civil War Bike Tour to help kick off the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial beginning in 2011.

Civil War Bike Tour 

2010  The Alexandria Archaeological Commission produces the Alexandria Waterfront History Plan: Alexandria, A Living History, and submits it to the City Council for consideration in the development of the Waterfront Small Area Plan.
2011  Alexandria Archaeology continues City Council's Fort Ward initiative to identify unmarked graves and archaeological resources through Stage 1 investigation into “The Fort,” an African American community dating to c. 1860s-mid-20th century. The Fort Ward History Group, with community volunteers, continues research into The Fort’s past. 2011 marks 50 years of archaeology in the City.
2011  The Alexandria Archaeological Commission celebrates 50 years of archaeology in Alexandria with presentations to the Alexandria City Council Work Session, September 27, 2011.

2012  The City of Alexandria and Alexandria Archaeology receives the inaugural Daniel G. Roberts Award for Excellence in Public Historical Archaeology  on January 6, 2012 at the annual Society for Historical Archaeology conference in Baltimore. SHA honored Alexandria Archaeology for its 50 years of public service and excellence.

2015 Remains of an 18th-century ship and the 1755 Town Warehouse, built by John Carlyle, was found in construction at 220 S. Union Street. Learn about these discoveries.
2017 Remains of Robert Townsend Hooe's warehouse were found at the site of Robinson Terminal South, at Duke and S. Union streets.
2018 Three more 18th-century ships were discovered along the waterfront, at Robinson Terminal South.
2018 Partners for Livable Communities' Culture Builds Community Award is presented to EYA, LLC and City of Alexandria Archaeology for their formation of  a unique partnership to preserve and highlight the historic importance of the Old Town Alexandria waterfront.