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Underwater Archaeology at Mount Vernon

Beginning on April 24th, Mount Vernon’s Archaeology Dept. will begin an underwater archaeology project in the Potomac River next to Mount Vernon. We asked our Archaeology Director, Esther White, to give us the scoop for our GWW readers.

GWW: What are the boats doing?

EW: Mount Vernon is partnering with the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP), the Institute of Maritime History (IMH), the Maryland Historical Trust (Trust) and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) to conduct an archaeological survey of the Potomac River. The boats are using side scan sonar and a magnetometer to map the bottom of the river along Mount Vernon from Little Hunting Creek to the north, to Dogue Creek to the south.

GWW: What is side scan sonar? How about a magnetometer?

EW: The first is a sonar system used to map river or sea floors. The sonar detects objects protruding above the bottom. When stitched together these images provide a map of the river bed. By analyzing these maps nautical archaeologists can detect ship wrecks, wharves and other features under the water. A magnetometer measures magnetic fields to detect iron below the water.

GWW: What do they hope to find?

EW: The underwater survey is being done to see what’s there. IMH works to document and map stretches of the river and has chosen to partner with Mount Vernon to learn more about the waters around George Washington’s plantation. Shipwrecks are one thing the survey expects to document.

GWW: Any particular ship?

EW: The Federalist is one ship the crew would love to find. This boat was a gift from the merchants of Baltimore, MD in appreciation of Washington’s work with the Constitutional Convention. It was a fully rigged miniature ship, 15′ long, and was sailed to Mount Vernon by Joshua Barney, a Revolutionary War naval hero, in June 1788. George Washington recorded a hurricane in his diary on July 24, 1788. This severe storm succeeded in “driving the Miniature Ship Federalist from her Moorings, and sinking her.”

GWW: Will the underwater archaeologists scuba dive?

EW: If the archaeologists find anything of interest they might scuba dive to get a better look. This wouldn’t happen until later in the week.

GWW: What will happen to wrecks they find?

EW: Nothing immediately. The archaeologists will record the locations of the wrecks and other things they find. These archaeological sites will be registered with the Trust (Maryland controls the Potomac River) and the DHR (Virginia controls the mouths of the two creeks). In this way the archaeological sites will be preserved for the future.

Image by L. Toshio Kishiyama

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3 Responses to “Underwater Archaeology at Mount Vernon”

  1. Chuck Says:

    So glad to hear that the survey has gotten off to a successful start! Its very exciting to be a part of the first underwater archaeology search in the home waters of our nation’s Founding Father! We have a great team in place and I’m looking forward to hearing about the latest discoveries.

    Chuck Meide,
    Director, Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program

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Kids holding George Washington Portrait

Mount Vernon recently invited K-12 schools nationwide to request framed portraits of George Washington to display in a respectful, prominent place.

The response was overwhelming: thousands of schools submitted letters! Along with the portrait, schools received curriculum materials to help explore our first president’s contributions.

Where has George Washington gone back to school? Click here to see!

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