Archaeology on the Waterfront: Hotel Indigo Site

Archaeologists made several very significant discoveries prior to construction of the Hotel Indigo site at 220 S. Union Street.

Page updated on Oct 15, 2018 at 11:48 AM

Archaeology at the Hotel Indigo Site

220 S. Union Street

Archaeologists uncovered the remains of the hull of a fifty-foot vessel, as well as John Carlyle's 1755 public warehouse, on the Indigo Hotel construction site at 220 S. Union Street. Excavation took place in 2015-2016, and remains of the ship and warehouse are now undergoing conservation. The hotel lobby features a detailed archaeological map of the ship remains, and the historic shoreline is marked on the patio.

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.  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. 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. 

Archaeological Potential 

The archaeological investigation focused particular attention on the attempt to recover information about the Carlyle warehouse, a very early public structure. Prior to excavation, it was expected that remnants of the households and businesses that occupied this lot may be discovered, along with some evidence of the Union warehouses and occupation.  In addition, potential existed for the discovery of derelict vessels, which could have been used as frames and fill in the "banking out" process, as well as pilings, cribbing and stones that may provide information about the early filling of the cove and early wharves and piers. These expectations were met during excavation, and are recorded in the excavation updates below.

Excavation Highlights

Update, November 2017: Ship Conservation Website

Website Landing PageThe Conservation Research Laboratory (CRL) at Texas A&M has unveiled a website to highlight the excavation, transportation, documentation and conservation of the Alexandria Ship.

Update, 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. 

Update, May 2017: Conservation and New Research

2017 Ship DigThe 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. 

Update, May 2016: Post-Excavation

220 S Union May Update: Measuring (1)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 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 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.

Update, January 2016: Nautical Discoveries

220 S Union Ship December 2015

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.

Update, December 2015: Nautical Discoveries

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.  

Update, November 2015: The 1755 Warehouse

220 S Union, 1755 WarehouseDuring 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. 

Update, October 2015: The Early Shoreline and More Recent Finds

220 S Union StratigraphyThroughout 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.

Update, September 2015: Rail Lines and Walls

220 S Union Rails 1The 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.