Ship from 1700s found at ground zero

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Ver­ena Dobnik

NEW YORK — The ship was buried as junk two cen­turies ago — land­fill to ex­pand a bustling lit­tle is­land of com­merce called Man­hat­tan. When it re-emerged this week, sur­rounded by sky­scrapers, it was an in­stant trea­sure from the mud near ground zero.

A 32-foot piece of the ves­sel was found in soil 20 feet un­der street level, amid noisy bull­doz­ers ex­ca­vat­ing a park­ing garage for the fu­ture World Trade Cen­ter. Near the site of so many grim finds — Sept. 11 vic­tims’ re­mains, twisted steel — this dis­cov­ery was as un­ex­pected as it was thrilling.

His­to­ri­ans say the ship, be­lieved to date to the 1700s, was de­funct by the time it was used around 1810 to ex­tend the shores of Lower Man­hat­tan.

“A ship is the sum­mit of what you might find un­der the World Trade Cen­ter — it’s ex­cit­ing!” said Molly McDon­ald, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist who first spot­ted part of the frame of the ship peek­ing out of the muddy soil at dawn Tues­day.

By Thurs­day, she and three col­leagues had dug up the hull from the pit where a sec­tion of the new trade cen­ter is be­ing built.

The ship har­bors many mys­ter­ies still to be solved: “Where was it built? How was it used? Why was it sunk?”

McDon­ald and ar­chae­ol­o­gist A. Michael Pap­palardo made the dis­cov­ery Tues­day about 6:15 a.m., just as they started their shift ob­serv­ing con­struc­tion in the pit at the south­ern edge of ground zero. The two work for AKRF, a New York en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sult­ing firm hired to doc­u­ment ar­ti­facts dis­cov­ered at the trade cen­ter site.

“We no­ticed two curved tim­bers that a back­hoe had dis­lo­cated,” McDon­ald said. Joined by two more ar­chae­ol­o­gists, they started dig­ging with shov­els, “and we quickly found the rib of a ves­sel and con­tin­ued to clear it away and ex­pose the hull over the last two days.”

Ma­rine his­to­rian Nor­man Brower told the ar­chae­ol­o­gists that it was an ocean­go­ing ves­sel that might have sailed the Caribbean, as ev­i­denced by 18th-cen­tury ma­rine or­gan­isms that had bored tiny tun- nels in the tim­ber.

The ship likely got buried as part of the ef­fort to ex­tend Lower Man­hat­tan into the Hud­son River in the 1700s and 1800s. The ship was weighted down and sunk to the bot­tom of the river, as sup­port for new city piers in a part of Man­hat­tan tied to global trade.

There were also other traces of hu­man life nearby — “pieces of shoes all over,” said McDon­ald, who had no idea how they got there.

Mark Lennihan

Arche­ol­o­gists El­iz­a­beth Meade, left, and Molly McDon­ald sur­vey the wood hull of an 8th cen­tury ship un­earthed in New York.

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