Archaeology at the Hotel Indigo Site

Archaeologists worked at the Hotel Indigo Site from September 2015 to May 2017. Significant discoveries included the remains of an 18th century ship and the 1755 public warehouse.

Page updated on Dec 16, 2021 at 9:13 AM

Archaeology at the Hotel Indigo Site

220 S. Union Street

220 S Union Ship, Courtesy, Anna FramePrior to construction of the Hotel Indigo, Archaeologists uncovered the remains of a fifty-foot vessel hull, as well as John Carlyle's 1755 public warehouse. Excavation took place in 2015-2017, and remains of this ship and warehouse are now undergoing conservation. The hotel lobby features a detailed archaeological map of the ship remains, and the historic 1749 shoreline is marked on the patio and inside the hotel.

Read the site report:

Historic Context

In 1749, when the Town of Alexandria was founded, the southwestern half of the property at 220 S. Union Street was on top of a bluff overlooking a cove of the Potomac River. The filling of the cove (called "banking out") in the late 18th century created the remaining land that became the northeastern half of the property. 

Banking Out: When Alexandria was established as a town in 1749, the center of town was situated on cliffs above a crescent-shaped bay lying between two projecting headlands. Along the crescent bay, the cliffs rose 15 or 20 feet high. In 1749, the river in front of the cliffs was only four to five feet deep, but farther out in the Potomac River the channel reached 48-feet deep. Waterfront lot owners, who retained ownership of any new land they made in front of their properties, undertook the work of knocking down the bluffs and creating wharves reaching out to the deep channel, in a process known as banking out. Sometimes, old ship’s hulls were secured along the shore, as part of the wharf framework. Documentary and archaeological evidence shows that the bay was completely filled by about 1798.

The 1755 Public Warehouse: By 1755, Duke Street was cut through the bluff and extended down to the water. The Alexandria Trustees called upon John Carlyle to erect a public warehouse on the north side of Duke Street, on what would become 220 S. Union.

Other Foundations and Features: During the late 18th and 19th centuries, numerous industries sprang up on this site, including blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, grocers, iron foundries, and commission merchants. A dwelling stood in the southwest corner with other residences probably present on some of the other commercial/industrial lots. At the time of the Civil War, the Union Army took over this property; quartermaster maps and period photographs depict a hay shed, grain storehouse, and commissary storehouse. In the 1890s, J. C. Herbert Bryant purchased all the lots that now comprise 220 S. Union and constructed the Bryant Fertilizer Company across the entire site. 

Excavation Highlights

Save Our Ship Conservation Fund

The historic ship discovered on the Hotel Indigo Site in 2015 needs your help! Early Alexandrians sunk this vessel on the Potomac mudflats over 200 years ago. Archaeologists unearthed the ship, temporarily saving it from destruction. We need your help to ensure the preservation of the fragile wood timbers for future generations to study and appreciate. 

As part of the conservation of the ship, researchers at Texas A&M University created a 3D printed model of the vessel. This model includes the archaeologically recovered remains and an extrapolated wire frame representing the inferred hull shape. The dimensions of the reconstructed remains are consistent with a vessel with a 58 foot long keel, a roughly 18.5 wide beam for an overall hull length of 70 feet. The heavy framing and relatively flat floors suggest the deep hold of a merchant vessel, perhaps a brig or large sloop. The 1:12 scale model is currently on display in the Archaeology museum as part of the Preserving Alexandria’s Maritime Heritage exhibit. 

Read The Model Reconstruction and Presentation of the Indigo Wreck, Alexandria, Virginia,  Glenn Grieco, Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation Ship Model Lab Texas A&M University

See the latest on the The Alexandria Ship Project from the Conservation Research Laboratory at Texas A&M. 

Please make a generous donation to:

The ship conservation is also generously supported by:

  • City of Alexandria

  • Friends of Alexandria Archaeology

  • National Park Service Maritime Heritage Grant, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, $97,117

  • Virginia Association of Museums Top Ten Endangered Artifacts $4,000

Field Excavation Updates 

  • September 2015: Rail Lines and Walls The Bryant Fertilizer Factory caught on fire and burned down in 1897. We see evidence of this catastrophic fire across the entire site in the form of this upper dark black burn layer in the wall of an archaeologically excavated trench.  This stratigraphic layer acts as a boundary that we know dates to 1897; therefore, everything below this layer must date to before the fire and everything above the layer must date to after it. In addition to the 1897 fire, two other fires burned down buildings on this lot, one in 1810 and the other in 1854. The lower dark black burn layer may represent one of these other two fires. As archaeologists, each of the layers here tells us something about a specific time period on this lot.  Some, like the upper layer of broken brick and mortar, are related to the destruction of structures in the mid-20th century.  Others, like the brown layer separating the two dark black burn layers may represent layers of accumulation and fill as activities take place through time.
  • October 2015: The Early Shoreline and More Recent Finds Throughout October, consultants from Thunderbird Archaeology (a division of Wetland Studies, Inc.) continued their code-required excavations at 220 S. Union Street prior to the construction of the Indigo Hotel. They peeled back the layers of time and found themselves mired in the sands of the mid-18th century, about 4 to 6 feet below the current ground surface (in the area being excavated for the hotel garage). The entries and photos below will take you back through time to reveal their discoveries of evidence of Alexandria's earliest history, including the shoreline of the town's original cove.
  • November 2015: The 1755 Warehouse During the final days of September, 2015, hints of a possibly exciting discovery began to emerge during the excavations for the garage of the hotel. Large timbers were unearthed as archaeologists from Thunderbird Archaeology monitored the excavation of a trench at the edge of Duke Street prior to the placement of pilings around the periphery of the site.  Construction work ceased in this area to allow for a substantial archaeological investigation, which was completed in early November. Historical records indicated that this area of the hotel site was the location of a 1755 warehouse, constructed at the behest of the Trustees of Alexandria. 
  • December 2015: The Ship (Part I) On 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.
  • January 2016: The Ship (Part II) January was a busy month for Alexandria Archaeology. Work continued at 220 S. Union Street to record, dismantle, recover, and prepare for conservation of the ship discovered during December. During the first two weeks of January, archaeologists from the City of Alexandria and Thunderbird Archaeology were joined by researchers from the Naval History and Heritage Command to help record and document the ship.

Ship Preservation Updates

  • May 2016: The Ship, Post-Excavation After excavating and disassembling the ship in January, it was transported to a facility here in the city and placed into two large tanks of water to begin the long conservation process. Alexandria Archaeology is currently putting together a request for proposals for finding a conservation facility to take over and complete the conservation of the ship. Once it is properly conserved and stable, the ship will hopefully return to Alexandria for long-term interpretation and display. Archaeologists and volunteers from Alexandria Archaeology and the Naval History & Heritage Command spent a week in mid-April laying out the ship on the floor of the storage facility and going over every inch of every timber. We examined, measured, drew, photographed, and inventoried the parts of the ship and we now have a detailed record of many of the ship's timbers and a descriptive inventory of the rest. From these, researchers will be able to continue to research the finer points of how the builders constructed the ship, which may allow us to eventually identify the ship and its makers.  We know from historic maps that show Alexandria's changing shoreline that the ship had to have been sunk and buried sometime between 1788 and 1798. In 1788 the location of the buried ship would have been underwater. Ten years later, by 1798, the property owner had filled in the shoreline with tons of earth so as to create more land. In this building out process, savvy waterfront landowners acquired older ships no longer seaworthy or worth the cost of repair and would purposely sink or scuttle them so as to expedite the filling process. This means that our ship became part of the archaeological record sometime in that intervening decade.
  • May 2017: Ship conservation and new research The City of Alexandria has awarded Texas A&M University's (TAMU) Conservation Research Laboratory in College Station, Texas the contract to conserve the 18th century ship discovered by archaeologists during construction of the Hotel Indigo on the City's historic waterfront. Through the multi-year process of conservation, the ship's wooden timbers will be preserved for future generations to study and appreciate. TAMU's Lead Conservator, Dr. Peter Fix, said "we are looking forward to partnering in the stewardship of this artifact." In January 2016, archaeologists from Thunderbird Archaeology, a division of Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc., excavated the 50-foot-long fragment of the ship's hull in coordination with Alexandria Archaeology. Thunderbird was hired by Hotel Indigo developers Carr City Centers to conduct the investigations as part of the City's Archaeological Protection Code. Since then, the ship's timbers have been stabilized and stored in tanks of water in a City facility awaiting professional conservation. Operating under TAMU's Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation, the Conservation Research Laboratory is one of the oldest continuously operated conservation laboratories that deals primarily with archaeological material from shipwrecks and other underwater sites. The laboratory has undertaken the monumental task of treating all material recovered from the Belle, a 17th century French ship that wrecked off the Texas coast in 1686. The Belle went on exhibit last year at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas. The laboratory is also currently conserving the remains of an 18th century ship uncovered during excavations at the World Trade Center. A recent study of the tree rings (called dendrochronology) by Oxford Tree-Ring Laboratory ( read the full report here) revealed that the ship's timbers were felled in Massachusetts sometime after 1741. 
  • June 2017: Ship sets sail for Texas A&M University Texas A&M University's Conservation Research Laboratory was awarded the contract for the ship's conservation. Operating under TAMU's Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation, the Conservation Research Laboratory is known for working with archaeological material from shipwrecks and other underwater sites. The Alexandria ship was packed up and transported to Texas in mid-June, following a Bon Voyage event. 
  • November 2017: Ship Conservation Website The Conservation Research Laboratory (CRL) at Texas A&M has unveiled a website to highlight the excavation, transportation, documentation and conservation of the Alexandria Ship.
  • March 2021: Ship conservation update, Iron Fasteners and X-ray Technology Conservators are still working on manually and chemically removing iron fasteners and corrosion and are close to being finished with this task. The team is using X-ray technology to assist in removing the more stubborn iron fasteners and concretions from the timbers. 
  • May 6, 2021: The Ship Model As part of the conservation of the ship, researchers at Texas A&M University created a 3D printed model of the vessel. The 1:12 scale model is currently on display in the Archaeology museum as part of the Preserving Alexandria’s Maritime Heritage exhibit. Read the report.
  • December 2021: Ship Progress The team at the Conservation Research Lab (CRL) are continuing their work on the ship remnant found at the Hotel Indigo Site.