Above Water, Below Ground: Urban afterlives of ships and changing maritime landscapes in Northern Virginia

Principal Investigator: Chelsea Cohen

Over the past three decades, multiple ships integrated into foundations for 18th and 19th-century wharves were uncovered during Cultural Resource Management (CRM) projects in Alexandria, VA. Far from accidental or anomalous, these vessels were intentionally cut down and used as construction materials to build port infrastructure for the growing city. Expanding maritime activity and developing urban waterfronts required labor and timber sourced from increasingly far afield as Alexandria grew. What resulted were interactions of landscapes and seascapes that connected the colonization of Virginia’s interior with the development of urban ports. This project uses legacy data, paleoethnobotanical research, and archival research to explore this context and ask: What do the ships’ reuses reveal about Virginia’s ecological history? What labor orders were drawn upon to construct and deconstruct dynamic coastlines? Uniting CRM data with palynological research into land-use shifts and archival analyses of labor practices, it will diachronically examine the environmental and social conditions that led to the vessels’ reuse and the relationships between people, ports, interiors, and the vessels that connected them.