Md. center studies ship's remains found at World Trade Center site

It's not clear how this ship got buried beneath the twin towers, but Maryland archaeologists and curators are intrigued.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Once, this was a stout ship, with oak futtocks and floor timbers, fastened with iron nails, built with saw and adz and the calloused hands of shipwrights now long dead.

Two centuries ago, it was a simple coaster, hauling goods around the eastern capes, armed against pirates, and ending its days at a wharf in New York City. As the years went by, it sank into the harbor mud, entombed beneath what would one day become the World Trade Center site.

Shortly after noon Monday, two trucks bearing the ship's unearthed skeleton pulled into a Maryland science complex on the shore of the Patuxent River in St. Leonard, where scores of eager archaeologists and curators waited as if for the bones of a dinosaur.

There, over the next few hours, workers in lab coats and T-shirts unloaded the pieces one at a time, arrayed most of them on tarps and, with hose and sponge, toothbrush and bare hands, scrubbed away the muck of 200 years.

And there, over the next few weeks, scientists hope to discover when the ship was built, where it traveled, exactly how big it was and more about the bygone world in which it sailed.

The ship was discovered in New York on July 12 when its ribs were spotted poking out of the muck as workers were excavating the World Trade Center site. Last week, the pieces were catalogued and removed by a team that included staff from Maryland's state archaeological conservation laboratory, which specializes in such work.

(See photos of the ship's discovery)

It's not clear how the ship got buried beneath the twin towers, which were destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It could have been used as fill when the Manhattan shoreline was expanded into the Hudson River about 1800, curators say. Sections of San Francisco are built on fill partly made of old ships, said Betty Seifert, a curator at the laboratory.

Or the vessel might have sunk at its wharf and been forgotten. Ships "get old, they get tired, they get tied in and left and abandoned," Seifert said.

And it's not clear what kind of ship it is. "Never seen anything exactly like this," said Warren Riess, professor of maritime history and archaeology at the University of Maine and lead investigator on the discovery.

"I'm thinking still that it's about the right size and construction to be what would have been called a coaster," he said Monday as he watched the timbers being unloaded. "A ship that went down the coast from New York to maybe Maryland, Virginia, Barbados, Boston . . . carrying everyday cargo."

The vessel was probably 60 or 70 feet long and about 18 feet wide, he said. It probably had one or two masts, was a sloop or a brig, and sailed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, he said. The square iron nails in the wood, rather than wooden pegs or "trunnels," indicate a later vintage, Riess said. "Almost the whole thing is tied together with big iron nails."

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