History-obsessed Alexandria, Virginia (“George Washington’s Home Town!”) has loads of architectural regulations in place to protect its historical heritage. So last December, when local real estate company, Carr Hospitality, started digging in a sliver of land in downtown Alexandria (over which they planned to build a Hotel Indigo) and came upon some old timber, digging stopped immediately. It turned out that they’d found an 18th century ship.
The find wasn’t completely unexpected. In the 18th century, Alexandria had done some landfill, to extend their accessible shoreline beyond the bluffs on south side of the city. The Hotel Indigo was being build on that extension, so Carr had been given a heads up that finding old landfill trash on the site was a possibility. But apparently large timbers from a ship was not expected.
The ship-find hit the news cycle in the DC area and turned into something of a publicity windfall for the city of Alexandria’s archaeology office. Everyone wanted to see the ship. So to satisfy the curiosity of the public and to raise funds to preserve its remnants, Alexandria allowed tours of the warehouse storing the ship.
Water is, apparently, a great preserver of wood. So in the warehouse, the timbers lay in large vats of water. For three days in April, they were taken out of the water, so that the researchers could study, measure and photograph them. It was during those three days that the public was invited to visit. About 1000 people paid $10 to have a look and I was one of them.
First there was a slide show about the discovery. “It’s not a pirate ship,” said the docent staffing the slide show, forestalling any questions there might have been along those lines. “Children always ask. We were hoping that it was a naval vessel, because then the Navy would pay for the restoration. But it turned out to be a common cargo ship.” So no help from the Navy.
After the slide show, we were taken, as a timed group, to the area where the timbers were laid out in a neat row and given a short lecture about ship. The presenter was a British Naval historian with a delightfully British name. I only wish I could remember it. Something like “Peter Pembleberry.”
“Do you know what futtocks are?” asked Peter. We, all being 10, giggled. “They are curved timbers that make up the part of the lower side of a ship.” He turned to two young boys — the only ones in our group who actually were about 10 — and said: “Now go back to school on Monday and tell your teacher that you learned a new word: futtock.”
Only about one-third of the ship was found — parts of the keel, frame, stern and flooring. There were ax marks, so they think that the rest was chopped up and carted away for fire wood or for other purposes. They have no idea how old the ship is, or where it came from, although they think it might be from the Caribbean, because the insect holes in the timbers look like they were made by a Caribbean insect. They only know that it was scuttled sometime between 1775 and 1798.
There’s a back-up at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory in St. Leonard, Maryland, where the preservation work on the ship will take place, so it’s in holding in the warehouse until the lab makes space. It’ll be shipped to the lab later in the summer, and then it’ll be several years before the preservation work is complete. When it’s available for exhibit, the Indigo Hotel has expressed an interest in displaying the ship somewhere on the hotel grounds.