Alexandria Archaeological Protection Code 25th Anniversary

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.

Page archived as of March 9, 2020

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 in the first 25 years of the Archaeological Protection Code, 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.