Paving the way for Robinson Landing

Two employees for Thunderbird, the company under contract with EYA to do the archaeological excavation at Robinson Landing, talk during a media walk-through of the construction site in March. This was the second of three 18th-century ships found at the site (Photo Credit: EYA, LLC)

By Duncan Agnew |

After archaeologists found a centuries-old ship during Hotel Indigo’s construction in 2015, many suspected they might find historic artifacts at the future Robinson Landing site. They didn’t know they were stumbling into one of the most richly preserved archaeological sites in the city.

“The fact that the whole block is pretty much preserved was incredible,” Garrett Fesler, archaeologist for the city, said. “…That was like finding a treasure trove. It was like looking at a neighborhood that was once standing there 200 some years ago because the foundations were all there.”

City archaeologists partnered with Thunderbird Archaeology, a contractor for EYA, to excavate the site when Thunderbird discovered the three ships in March during the site’s archaeological excavation. The two have worked together at the site since construction began and have, in addition to the ships, uncovered the remnants of Pioneer Mills, a 19th-century flour mill that once stood on the Robinson Terminal South site.

Two of those ships have been removed and taken to offsite storage facilities until the city decides on a long-term plan for the vessels. For now, pieces of those ships remain stabilized in carefully monitored water tanks. Parts of the third ship will be removed and relocated this fall, but a portion of the ship will remain at the site underneath Robinson Landing construction.

Scientists at a Texas A&M University lab recently started a five-year preservation process on the timbers from the ship found at the Hotel Indigo site. The project involves replacing the water in the timbers with a wax-like substance, Alexandria City Archaeologist Eleanor Breen said.

Construction on Robinson Landing, which will eventually include an underground parking garage, 26 townhouse units and 70 condominiums, has continued alongside archaeological excavation over the last several months, but Breen and Fesler said development and historic conservation can live in harmony in the present day.

“It’s pretty common on urban archaeology sites for archaeology to be happening and construction to be happening at the same time,” Breen said. “…Historic preservation and development in an urban environment are compatible and part of a vibrant historic district and a vibrant historic city, so a lot of the archaeological work that gets done in the city is shared with the public in all sorts of ways you can imagine.”

For instance, Breen said, the lobby of Hotel Indigo now features an archaeological blueprint of the ship that was excavated at the site prior to the hotel’s construction.

Breen and Fesler said developers like EYA and local archaeologists have learned to cooperate over time due to the city’s decades-old archaeological protection code. Today, Alexandria Archaeology—headed by Breen—essentially acts as an oversight committee to ensure the proper preservation of historic artifacts discovered in the city.

“We understand that we’re not in the job of trying to stop or slow down development,” Fesler said. “I think, over the years since the preservation code has been in place, that most folks who develop here in Alexandria understand that that’s another box for them to check when they develop.”

Mac Lab conservators are setting up straps to lift the sternpost and shaft portion of the keel of the third ship discovered at Robinson Landing (Photo Credit: EYA, LLC)

The third ship has, however, presented city archaeologists and Thunderbird with an obstacle. The final ship left is located below Wolfe Street, in the area where EYA plans to build an 80-foot slurry wall to serve as the framework for a two-level underground parking deck.

After this slurry wall is in place, archaeologists will excavate, record and remove the part of the ship within the planned parking garage, Breen said. However, the section of the ship that protrudes below Wolfe Street will remain undisturbed.

“We’ll be parking on it,” Fesler said.

Old Town resident Hal Hardaway, who lives across the street from Robinson Landing, said he’s frustrated by the decision to leave part of the ship unexcavated.

“I do have a little bit of a problem with [the project],” Hardaway said. “I think it could have been done smarter.”

Hardaway also disagrees with the numerous committee meetings that have been held regarding the Robinson Landing ships. He said the ideal solution is obvious.

“You’ve got four ships,” Hardaway said. “Save as much as you can and distribute it along the waterfront.”

Hardaway, however, did praise city archaeologists and their work with EYA to ensure the preservation of artifacts in the face ofcontinued development along the city block. As long as officials properly respect and preserve history, he said, he will support business and residential construction in Old Town.

EYA declined a request to comment regarding the intersection of historic preservation and development. Although the long-term plan for the preservation of these ships is unclear, Breen and Fesler said the history uncovered at Robinson Landing goes far beyond the timbers that are sitting in city warehouses.

“It’s remarkable enough to have a late 18th-, early 19th-century neighborhood preserved so well,” Breen said. “But under that you could actually see the infrastructure that early Alexandrians created in really creative ways.”

Fesler said archaeology is an essential component of discovering, recording and understanding history, particularly in a neighborhood as historic as Old Town.

“This happens to be a spot on the waterfront that is jam-packed with incredible historic findings,” Fesler said. “…If you think about Old Town as being an enormous checkerboard, and each little spot in it as a square, we’re just trying to fill in the pieces of the checkerboard little by little to create a whole tapestry of history.”