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Old buried ships unearth this city’s seafaring past

In our NewsHour Shares moment of the day, as the city of Alexandria, Virginia, develops new construction projects, a team of archaeologists is on hand to help preserve a particularly remarkable discovery: three ships from the 1700s hidden in the soil.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to our “NewsHour” Shares, something that caught our eye that might be of interest to you.

    Workers at a construction site just miles from the nation’s capital recently unearthed some long-forgotten treasures dating back to our nation’s founding.

    Our Julia Griffin explains.

  • Julia Griffin:

    In Old Town, Alexandria, these days, the pulse of progress means helmets, backhoes, and 18th century ships?

  • Eleanor Breen:

    Behind us is construction in progress, but also archaeology in progress.

  • Julia Griffin:

    Eleanor Breen is acting city archaeologist for historic Alexandria. When developers want to dig on culturally significant land in the city, her team ensures archaeologists are on hand to identify and help preserve any discovered historical artifacts.

  • Eleanor Breen:

    With a lot of scrapes of the trowel and scoops of the shovel, there’s history on unearthed. But what’s being found here is really particularly remarkable.

  • Julia Griffin:

    Remarkable because, in addition to old building foundations and paved alleyways, the archaeologists at this site discovered not one, but three ships from the 1700s hidden in the dirt. But the 12-to-25-foot wide hulls are not long-forgotten shipwrecks.

  • Eleanor Breen:

    It was actually a fairly common practice going back centuries to take derelict ships and chop them up and actually use large fragments of the hull as part of a framework to fill in ground and make new land that didn’t exist before.

  • Julia Griffin:

    This map, drawn by a young George Washington, shows Alexandria’s natural shoreline with its shallow mudflats in 1748. By the early 1800s, Alexandrians added 10 new city blocks to the waterfront that continue to exist today.

  • Eleanor Breen:

    To be a premier port city, they need to get more land closer to that deeper channel of the Potomac River. It was much easier to get the cargo off of the ships if you can bring the land to the ship, as opposed to smaller ships to the land.

  • Julia Griffin:

    Today, the trio of unearthed ships, likely cargo vessels, sit just south of what had been Point Lumley.

    Now exposed, their once-waterlogged timbers must be kept moist at all times to prevent warping and degradation. Archaeologists are now removing the hulls piece-by-piece and storing them in tanks of water, just as they did with another Revolutionary War era ship found a block away in 2015.

    That ship is now at Texas A&M undergoing a years-long conservation process to prepare the fragile beams for study and display. Where the new ships end up has yet to be determined.

    But, for Breen, the painstaking measures to preserve them are well worth the effort.

  • Eleanor Breen:

    I think there’s something in our culture about this seafaring days of discovery that captures people’s attention when they see such large fragments of vessels in the ground.

  • Julia Griffin:

    City officials hope all the ships could one day be put on exhibit for modern-day Alexandrians to enjoy.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Julia Griffin in Alexandria, Virginia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    History everywhere we look.

    And on the “NewsHour” online right now, a “NewsHour” reporter spends a week only consuming media from Radio Sputnik. That’s a Russian government-funded outlet widely seen by experts as a vehicle to disseminate disinformation for the Kremlin.

    That and more is on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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