Robinson Terminal South Excavation Update: Foundations, Shafts and Privies

Archaeologists provide an update of April 2017 excavations at Robinson Terminal South, future site of EYA's Robinson Landing development on the 300 block of South Union Street. Archaeologists from Thunderbird Archaeology, a division of Wetland Studies and Solutions, are finding, identifying, and documenting archaeological remains.

Page archived as of March 9, 2019

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

Foundations, Shafts and Privies

April 2017

(Archaeological photos courtesy of Thunderbird.)

Archaeological excavation is “well” underway at Robinson Terminal South, future site of EYA’s Robinson Landing development on the 300 block of South Union Street. Archaeologists from Thunderbird Archaeology, a division of Wetland Studies and Solutions, have been on-site for several weeks and are hard at work finding, identifying, and documenting the archaeological remains present.

They began by digging a series of diagonal trenches across the northwest corner of the site in an attempt to uncover any building foundations or other features that may still exist. These long, deep trenches are also useful for looking at the changes in soil layers across the site as well as documenting the location of the original Point Lumley.

Trenching on just this corner of the site has already uncovered several historic features. So far, the site represents a remarkably intact, well-preserved glimpse into early urban Alexandria. 

Now that the features described below have been identified, archaeologists from Thunderbird are working closely with archaeologists from the City of Alexandria to make sure they are properly documented and excavated and that the artifacts will be excavated and analyzed so that we can learn more about early urban Alexandria. Stay tuned for more information regarding these archaeological features as well as any new discoveries from this site or elsewhere on Alexandria’s waterfront.

Stone Foundations

These two adjacent stone foundations are the remains of two dwellings along South Union Street. Fortunately for us, the two buildings that used to stand on these foundations can be seen in this Civil War era photograph. Taken from the center of the block looking to the west, this view captures the rear of these two dwellings and allows us to better imagine what used to stand here. 

Robinson Terminal South: Stone Foundations

Robinson Terminal South: Stone Foundations (Historic)

Robinson Terminal South: Stone Foundations (south)

Robinson Terminal South: Stone Foundations (north)

Brick Shafts

Located against the rear of one of these dwellings is this brick-lined well or privy. At this point, it is not clear if this brick shaft was used for water or as a toilet, but further investigation of this feature will help us determine its use. In either case, the wet, oxygen-free, water-logged conditions at the bottom are excellent for preserving organic material that would otherwise decay and be lost. Currently on display at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory is an exhibit of 18th-century leather shoes, which were recovered from a privy located just across the street.

Robinson Terminal South: Shaft (1)

Archaeologists discovered another brick-lined shaft in the middle of the northwest corner of the site. To assess the feature’s depth, archaeologists removed a vertical section of soil from the bricks and exposed what appears to be a wooden ring at the base under the last course of bricks. The ring, also called a curb, aided in constructing the well and also provided a level surface. The feature is six feet in diameter and 5 feet deep. 

Robinson Terminal South: Shaft (2)

Robinson Terminal South: Shaft (3)

Wooden Box Privy

Just peeking out of the sidewall of this trench is the corner of a wooden box privy. Like the brick shaft behind the stone foundation, this feature has the potential to hold a wide array of material culture that otherwise would not ordinarily survive. Interestingly, after heavy rain, the outline of this feature can be seen on the surface.

Robinson Terminal South: Box Privy

Brick Foundations

This brick foundation at the corner of South Union Street and Duke Street is exciting because it appears to date to the late 18th-early 19th century. Much of the interior of this structure is filled with brick rubble, but to the right you can see a chimney base and hearth. Preliminary testing shows that underneath this layer are intact deposits full of broken ceramics and glass that will help us date this building as well as MANY animal bones which we can use to understand what the people living here ate during the 18th and 19th centuries.

 Robinson Terminal South: Brick Foundations (1)

Industrial Use

In addition to residential structures, Thunderbird Archaeologists are uncovering evidence of this block’s industrial use. Here is an interesting brick structure that doesn’t seem to show up on any of the historic maps we’ve consulted. The interior brick seems to be built as a series of piers jutting out into the center of the structure, connected by a brick floor. Soot and dry, crumbling brick—evidence of controlled fire and burning—suggests that this was an industrial space and that this portion of the building was critical for whatever was produced here. Perhaps these are the remains of a bakery’s ovens or some other industrial building that required fire and heat.

Robinson Terminal South: Brick Foundations (2)