By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; B01
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.
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."
He said it's not known where the ship was built, although tree scientists are being called in to see whether they can figure out where its wood came from and how old it is.
Other scientists might be able to trace where the vessel had been by studying the tiny shells left behind by geographically specific ship worms that ate into the wood, he said.
"It's a mystery," Riess said. "It's like a detective story."
He said that in the bowels of the vessel, workers found, among other things, the well-used bowl of a clay smoking pipe that was probably lost by one of the ship builders.
Also found was some buckshot, musket balls and a small cannonball, perhaps from a swivel gun, indicating that the ship was most likely armed against pirates, some of whom lurked in the New Jersey marshlands, he said.
Many of the surviving pieces of the ship were "futtocks" -- curved parts of the frame that were cut from specially selected curved tree limbs, Riess said. Almost all the wood was oak. Also recovered was inner and outer planking, part of the keel and a single, 530-pound piece that was part of either the ship's bow or stern. That had to be lifted from a truck bed with a power hoist.
"Good, solid wood," Riess said. "Remember, these ships [had] no radio, they can't call for help, they don't know where they are. If they see a storm coming, they can't run from it. Even a hurricane. . . . They've got to make it through on their own. . . . Lives [of the crew] really depended on the ships.
"They had to be built good, and you had your best people, your best technological people . . . making ships," he added.
The work was done by highly skilled craftsmen working with hammers and handsaws, adzes and handmade nails. "It's mind-boggling," he said.
As the curators unloaded and scrubbed the pieces, they were careful to hose them down to keep them from drying out. "As strong as they look, they will shrivel right up and fall apart" if not kept wet, Riess said.
Much of the work was supervised by a mud-splattered Nichole Doub, the laboratory's head conservator. She said some of the pieces would be placed temporarily in water tanks for preservation, and perhaps later chemically preserved and dried in the lab's special freezer.
"This is very exciting for us," she said. "It's always interesting to be working on a ship of this level of preservation."
From an archaeologist's point of view, "it is incredibly robust," she said, even after 200 years.