Alexandria Riverfront Development Yields Treasure Trove of 150,000 Historic Artifacts

“It’s incredibly unusual to have so many layers of history preserved,” a city archaeologist said

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Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, is full of history, and now treasures from its past are being unearthed at a new riverfront development.   

The Robinson Landing community is now a part of Alexandria’s modern shoreline, but its construction led to amazing discoveries dating all the way back to Alexandria’s founding in 1749.

“It was incredibly exciting to watch Robinson Landing and the archeologists slowly peel back the layers of time,” Eleanor Breen, a city archeologist, said.  

With the digging of the first test trenches in 2017, it became clear this would be no ordinary construction project, but an archaeological dig. 

“We found foundation after foundation after foundation and features including wells and privies and wharfs and bulkheads and even ships,” Greg Griffin, the vice president of EYA Multifamily Construction, said. “Every day was a little amazing because you didn’t know what you were going to find next.” 

Warehouses built on concrete slabs in the 1940s had encapsulated and preserved the history buried below. As this is one of the oldest parts of Alexandria, everyone expected to find hidden artifacts, but not like this.

“It’s incredibly unusual to have so many layers of history preserved,” Breen said. 

The unearthing of three ship hulls was among the biggest discoveries. The wooden hulls had been used, along with rubble and earth, to create new land that stretched farther out into the Potomac River.

As developers cleared the site, they also liberated a brick warehouse. Part of it was inside a 20th century warehouse that had been built around it. The structure will become a restaurant and market.

The nearly 150,000 artifacts, the kind of stuff that provides a glimpse into everyday life in the 18th and 19th centuries, have been gifted to the city.

It was incredibly exciting to watch Robinson Landing and the archaeologists slowly peel back the layers of time.

Eleanor Breen, city archaeologist  

Breen said they include bits of broken teapots and plates, broken wine bottles and food remains.

Walk around Robinson Landing now, and you can see old foundation stones made into raised planter walls. Cobble stones and granite lines document the history of the ever-moving shoreline. 

When the archaeologists are done with their work, some of these artifacts will go on display, so everyone can see them and engage with the history of Alexandria.

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