Hotel Indigo Excavation Update: The Ship (Part 1)

A ship’s hull dating from the 18th century was discovered in December 2015, during development of 220 South Union Street.

Page archived as of March 11, 2019

Note: The information on this page reflects the state of knowledge when this update was written. Information may have changed. 

The Ship (Part 1)

December 2015

220 S Union Ship, December 2015On December 9, 2015, City archaeologists met with the conservator from the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, archaeologists from the Underwater Archeology Branch of the Navy Department, and a local maritime historian to discuss the significance of a ship’s hull discovered during the ongoing development of 220 South Union Street.  

Historical Information

  • The discovery is the port side of a vessel about 50 feet long, which may represent about 1/3 of the hull. The type of vessel has yet to be determined. 
  • Overlays of the changing shoreline on historical maps indicate that it was buried sometime between 1775 and 1798. The presence of trunnels (treenails/wooden pegs) and very few metal fastenings is consistent with its use in the 18th century. 
  • The ship appears to have been very sturdily built. The sections of the frame are very close together, suggesting that it carried something heavy. It was probably a coastal vessel, and its use for military purposes cannot be ruled out. 
  • There is evidence of the keel, the frame, a possible part of the bow stem, a section of the stern, exterior boards, and a section of the interior floor boards, or ceiling
  • Portions of the frame were deliberately chopped off, and the starboard side is missing.  This chopping (perhaps with a broad axe) and removal of at least half of the hull could have been done while “banking out” or filling in the cove.  

Significance

  • The significance of the ship cannot be fully evaluated or understood until more research and excavation take place. 
  • Additional research will help determine its history and association with Alexandria.

Recommendations

  • The City is working with Thunderbird Archaeology (the consultant for the developer) to record the vessel in place. The documentation will include 3-D laser scanning, photography, and measurements/drawings on site. The scanning will be accomplished in concert with the archaeology.  A separate scan of each layer will be done after the archaeological removal of the overlying wood; it is projected that at least three layers will need to be scanned and photographed.
  • The consultant will hire a specialist to identify the wood and conduct dendrochronology, which will provide information about the date of construction of the ship and could provide insight into the place where it was built.
  • City archaeologists will help Thunderbird excavate, record, dismantle, and remove the pieces of the ship, marking them for future study and possible conservation and reconstruction. 
  • To maintain an option for conservation, the excavated wood will need to be submerged in a wet environment, allowing time for additional research, for comparison with other potential waterfront discoveries, and for identification of a funding source for possible conservation. A City team is working to identify a suitable location for submersion.           

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