Unearthing buried treasure on the waterfront

Unearthing buried treasure on the waterfront
A Thunderbird employee sprays down remnants of one of the 18th-century ships to prevent deterioration and shrinkage (Photo courtesy EYA)

By Alexa Epitropoulos | aepitropoulos@alextimes.com

It’s rare to discover even one ship buried in the ground, but Dan Baicy and his team have now found four.

Baicy, field director for Thunderbird, the archaeological firm under contract with Robinson Landing developer EYA, was the person who uncovered the 18th-century ship buried underneath the site that’s now Hotel Indigo in 2015. At the time, he thought it would be the only time he’d unearth a nautical vessel of that scope.

When Thunderbird received the contract to perform the archaeological excavation at the Robinson Landing site, he knew finding more ships was a good possibility.

“When we got this project, we knew with the presence of the shipyard [at the former Pioneer Mills building], the likelihood was high,” Baicy said.

The Robinson Landing construction site has revealed many treasures so far. Last year, Thunderbird found the remnants of Pioneer Mills, a flour mill that dates back to 1854. At that point, city archaeologists and Thunderbird speculated that the site would reveal more and thought the presence of ships from the era was a distinct possibility.

The discovery of the ships themselves came over the course of March. Baicy recognized the ships’ remnants from their futtocks, pieces of timber that collectively form a ship frame. After the discovery of the first ship, the crew uncovered ships two and three in short order.

“We thought there would be one or two – but certainly not three,” Baicy said.

Baicy said the three ships were in remarkably good condition, which was partially
due to their being buried underneath the Pioneer Mills building.

“The preservation was nothing short of amazing,” Baicy said.

Eleanor Breen, acting city archaeologist, said archaeologists have found the remnants
of a wharf structure. The ships were used, she said, as part of Alexandria’s 19th-century efforts to create land on the waterfront.

Breen said there’s the possibility that all three ships were merchant vessels.

“These were derelict ships, but they were used in a vernacular way,” Breen said. “They were used to hold earth in the ground.”

Baicy said the first uncovered ship, located at the northern end of the construction site, spans about 20 feet. Ship two measures 46 feet long, he said, while the third ship, found at the southern end of the construction site, measures 50 feet long.

Although the exact age of the ships hasn’t been estimated, Baicy said age can be determined through the examination of the artifacts found above and around the ships like glass or ceramics, through building materials like 18th-century wrought iron and wood nails, or trunnels, as well as from the remains of critters like shipworm shells.

“Sometimes you can speculate on what the actual ship is from shipworms. You can sometimes tell where the boat has been,” Baicy said.

The city has not yet determined the end destinations for the ships. Breen said the top priority, at the moment, is preserving the ships – something Thunderbird archaeologists are doing by spraying down the ships’ exposed pieces, which prevents deterioration.

The Hotel Indigo ship was transported to Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Lab last summer, where it’s going through a conservation process for the next five to six years. That ship was sent to the university due to a grant, but it’s unclear if the three sister ships will receive special funding to follow in its path.

For now, the site will be documented in detail, including through aerial photography.
Then, the ship will be slowly dismantled, stabilized and put into water. The removal of the ship remnants, Breen said, is “backbreaking” work and the process of removing just one ship takes about a week.

Members of the public were able to view the remnants of the third ship on Saturday, while the site was opened to members of the media on April 12.